Interview: Lewis Allen, Portland Design

Linda Blackly, News Editor for Air Transport World, and Lewis Allen of Portland Design Director of Environments discuss the future of airport designs in a post COVID era.

This interview is part of Air Transport Month, a detailed examination of the future of the air transport industry as we begin to climb out of the COVID-19 crisis.

Below is a rush transcript of Linda Blackly's conversation with Lewis Allen.

Linda Blachly:             Hi, I'm Linda Blachly, news editor for Air Transport World Aviation Week, and I'm speaking with Lewis Allen, Portland Design director of environments on what the future holds for airport designs in the post-COVID era. Portland Design has worked on airport projects all over the world, including redeveloping the main terminal in Keflavik Airport, Vienna International Airport's public facing areas, and the new terminal one at Newark Liberty International Airport. Lewis, thank you for joining us during Air Transport month as we delve into hot topics across all aviation sectors with aviation leaders to get a sense of where we are and what the future holds for aviation. Lewis, ACI World has recently revealed that in 2020, the airport industry is anticipating global passenger numbers to decrease by 5.6 billion with an unprecedented 1.4-billion-dollar reduction in revenue as a result of the pandemic. As airports examine all aspects of their operations to recover from the impact of COVID-19 as well as boost passenger confidence in airport safety, can you share with us, what are some of the top issues airports and designers are wrestling with in the long-term?

Lewis Allen:                Certainly. And thank you, Linda, for talking to us. So it's grim statistics. Doesn't put a big smile on your face, but yes, it focuses minds, I suppose. I think there's a clear sense for all of us, there's a sense that the past is the past and how much of the future is going to be the same and how much is going to be different? I think there's a significant argument to say that the future needs to be very different, not just because of COVID, but because of the sense that the aviation story, if you like, was in need of refreshment. Many airports would need a refreshment and the passenger journeys have been changing so much through technology anyway. So, in a way through the pessimism, there's a reason to be hopeful and optimistic because of the new things to reinvent the passenger journey that should have been done anyway and are needing to be done now.

Lewis Allen:                I think that we characterize it in a couple of key ways, really. One is the quantity issue. If you like, we need to get to more people flying and that's about confidence. So we need to get people flying. So that's where the revenue from traditional aviation passenger travel and also through the non-aviation side revenue, more people in airports spending. So yeah, quantity is a key issue and that's around the confidence clearly about whatever the new regimes are that come from the science in terms of understanding how it is that people will believe that their journeys are safe and safe as they can be. I think airports need to be not only following that guidance, but also leading the way in terms of making it very evident that those new regimens are in place.

Lewis Allen:                I think all of us have been into environments where we are more confident and more comfortable when we can see that the person in control of that space is really making it obvious what they are doing to keep us safe, wiping things down, cleaning things down. The governance is there. So there are lots of new rituals if you like that airports can implement for sure, purely about if you like making it very visible to all of us that this is being done, these things are being done for the purpose of keeping safety high, and that there are processes that we can trust are being done very, very well. It's not a kind of shrug the shoulders and a quick wipe of a surface that's just been touched by somebody, but it's this clear sense that everybody involved is taking this very, very, very seriously.

Lewis Allen:                So there's a number of things around confidence and getting quantity up, which are very, very key. So, airports can invent their own rituals and ways to welcome somebody and get them through security checkpoints, managed in a different way by reducing pinch points and these places that are touched by many. That's your opportunity to show that you're doing it in your own way. So really focusing on that as well, but because I think there's a clear sense we can go beyond what we're expected to do by basic legislation, if you like, or the new codes and the new statutes that come out. We can go further and demonstrate that customer centric view that we really care about the well-being of our passengers and so on.

Lewis Allen:                I think the customer centricity is actually a funny thing because in domestic markets, as in high streets and malls and retail, if you like, being customer focused has always been a key mantra. I think the airports need to be a bit more customer-focused in that respect and not just from the safety point of view. That leads us into the next issue for us, which is quality. The quality of the experience in terms of the things that can incentivize people and motivate them to have a coffee, have a great meal, buy something, go to the shops, go to the restaurants, and engage and so on. I think the sense of the quality of those things needs to be rethought because now once we, as human beings, spend time in a physical space, we're going to want more from that sense of being in a risky moment.

Lewis Allen:                We're putting a lot at risk and not only does it need to feel well-managed and safe, but it needs to feel rewarding for the time that we're investing in and the perceived risk that we're offering. So I think that quality issue is going to be very, very important, moving away from cookie-cutter airport experiences, where there's the same brands, the same concepts, the same stores everywhere, the same restaurants, the same coffee shops, doing the same thing from place to place to place. I think that we've talked about this in the past, the need to make it better than that so that I can walk away from that shop or I can walk away from that restaurant on think, "Wow, that was really cool. I did something really interesting there," whether it's the staff and the service, whether it's the products, whether it's the environment, it's a combination of all those things.

Lewis Allen:                There's got to be much more going on too, because we've got to do more with potentially less in the future. If we've got potentially less people traveling as your figures suggest we've got to work harder at incentivizing those folks to be interested in what we have to offer. So I think that's back to the customer focus, be really clear about if we've got to do more with less, what is that? What is that more? It's not more of the same, it's more of something new, more of something interesting. I think that's very, very, very key and that leads us onto a big, big area of opportunity. Again, COVID made opportunity. It's around the revenue from the proposition itself. If we've got fewer folks traveling, we need to do more. So what are the right brands to work with? What are the right partnerships and collaborations? We've got a decline in revenue from transaction we know.

Lewis Allen:                Huge competition from online, huge competition from domestic markets and domestic retailers and so on. So the customer has got great choices. We've got great choices. In a sense, it's a threat to airports, as we all know, and revenues have been declining from transactions. The North American market has been particularly different in the respect of retail. There's the bigger market and a big opportunity for food and beverage. So, I think that diversifying airports’ need to diversify out of retail and to a certain extent out of just F&B, it's not good enough just to say, "Let's replace retail with F&B." You can replace retail with hybrid retail and F&B and more F&B and more services and more amenities, e-sports for example, or well-being concepts, and so on. So diversifying when you're airside out of a declining retail model, if you like, the transaction model, which is in decline. I think diversification of the proposition is very, very, very key. That's for airside, but also very key for landside.

Lewis Allen:                Now, if you think about some airports have a great landside opportunity. They'll have real estate landside, which can be developed, and not all airports have this. We acknowledge that for sure. But we increasingly see the idea of the concept of airport cities, not as grandiose and that's kind of big, but the idea that the landside proposition is not just for the traveler, it's also for the people in the community living nearby and so on. Also for people working in the airport, the airport community itself. So I think there's an opportunity to diversify where you have the opportunity into the landside offer as well. So there's lots of opportunities around proposition. Key to that also is working with the right brands who, we see a future for retail particularly where brands who have a very, very good customer journey, which goes from the online world to the offline world.

Lewis Allen:                That is from online websites and mobile apps and so on into physical stores who have a relationship with their customers, which is assumed where those customers move between these different platforms. It's going to be very interesting as an area of opportunity as well, because that's how our travelers are going to be looking at their favorite brands, not just what they see in front of them in the store, but also checking out that relationship online and so on. So we need to be working with that space as well. So lots of that. So there's a real sense that that diversification needs to happen, again, not just because of the COVID, but because that's what people want anyway. That's how we live our lives and that's what's happening in our real world, not just because it's a reaction or a response to COVID as well.

Linda Blachly:             Wow. So this is a real rethinking of the whole airport concept revenue streams and everything, which you had indicated actually started pre-COVID that really needs to be put into overdrive now in the post-COVID era. Okay. Thank you so much, Lewis. I really appreciate your time and your insights into the future of airports.

Lewis Allen:                It's been a pleasure. Thank you, Linda.

Linda Blachly:             Okay. Thank you.

Lewis Allen:                Thank you. Thank you very much.

Linda Blachly

Linda Blachly is Senior Associate Editor for Air Transport World and Aviation Week. She joined the company in July 2010 and is responsible for producing features for Air Transport World’s monthly magazine and engaging content for the She is based in the Washington DC office.