12 Ways Airports Are Secretly Manipulating You

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Over the years, airports have evolved from bare-bones transportation hubs for select travelers to bustling retail centers for millions. They’re being designed to both complement and influence human behavior. Everything from the architecture and lighting to the trinkets on sale in the gift shops is strategic. Here are a few tricks airports use to help travelers relax, get to their gates safely and on time, and hopefully spend some money along the way.

1. They make sure you can see the tarmac

One key to a successful airport is easy navigation. Travelers should be able to get from security to their gate without getting lost, with help from subtle design cues nudging them in the right direction. In design lingo, this process is called wayfinding. “I tell my staff that signage is an admission of failure,” says Stanis Smith, executive vice president and leader of the airports sector at consulting firm Stantec. “Obviously one needs signs, but the best thing for designers to do is look for ways you can assist with wayfinding that are subtle.”

For example, in many new airports, passengers can see through to the tarmac immediately after they leave security, or sooner. “More important than anything is a view directly out to airside and you see the tails of all the aircraft,” says Robert Chicas, Director of Aviation and Transportation at HOK, the architectural firm that helped redesign the Indianapolis International Airport. “Does it matter whether it’s your aircraft? Probably not. It gives you an orientation so you know generally that’s the direction you need to head in.”

2. The signs send subliminal messages

airport signage
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“Very, very little in the style of an airport sign is arbitrary,” writes David Zweig, author of Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion. Take the font, for example. In 75% of all airports, you’ll find one of three typefaces: Helvetica, Frutiger, and Clearview. All three are sans serif because it’s easier to read at a distance. The unofficial rule for size, according to the Transportation Research Board’s guide to wayfinding, is that every inch of letter height adds 40 feet of viewing distance (so a “3 inch tall letter would be legible from 120 feet”). Sometimes different terminals will have their own distinct signature sign design—like rounded edges or a specific color. “If you are ever in an airport or campus or hospital or other complex environment and suddenly something feels off, you sense you are going the wrong way, there’s a good chance it’s not just magic or some brilliant internal directional sense,” Zweig writes, “but rather you may be responding to a subconscious cue like the change of shape from one sign system to another.”

3. They lighten the mood

Newer airports incorporate as many windows as possible, even in stores. “There’s a trend that the shops face the tarmac. Passengers tend to walk more into shops that have direct access to the sunlight,” says Julian Lukaszewicz, lecturer in aviation management at Buckinghamshire New University. “If they’re closed off with artificial light passengers feel they are too dark and avoid them.”

4. They herd you with art

airport art
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That big sculpture in your terminal isn’t just there to look pretty. It’s another tool to help travelers navigate. “We like to use things like artwork as kind of placemakers that create points of reference through an airport terminal,” says Smith. “For example, in Vancouver International Airport we have a spectacular 16-foot high sculpture at the center of the pre-security retail area. People say, ‘Meet you at the sculpture.’ It acts as a point of orientation.”

Art also serves to create a sense of place, transforming the airport from a sterile people-mover to a unique atmosphere where people want to spend time (and money!). In one survey, 56% of participants said “a more culturally sensitive and authentic experience tied to the location” is something they’d like to see more in airports by 2025.

5. They use carpeting

In many airports, the long walk from check-in to gate is paved in linoleum (or some other hard surface). But you’ll notice that the gate waiting area is carpeted. This is an attempt to make holding areas more relaxing by giving them a soft, cozy feeling, like you might find in your own living room. Happy, relaxed travelers spend 7% more money on average on retail and 10% more on Duty Free items. And it doesn’t stop with a layer of carpeting. Yoga rooms, spas, and even airport therapy dogs are becoming more common as airports look for new ways to relax travelers and encourage spending.

6. The “golden hour” is key for profit

In airport manager lingo, the time between when a passenger clears security and boards their plane is called “dwell time.” This is when, as the Telegraph puts it, “passengers are at a loose end and most likely to spend.” Especially crucial is the “golden hour,” the first 60 minutes spent beyond security, when passengers are “in a self-indulgent mood.” Display boards listing flight information are there in part to keep you updated on your flight, but also to reassure you that you still have plenty of time to wander and shop. Similarly, some airports are installing “time to gate” signs that display how far you are from your destination. And because 40% of us would prefer to avoid human interaction when we shop, self-service kiosks are becoming more common in airport terminals. According to the Airports Council International, 50% of American airports now have robo-retailers.

7. They’re increasing dwell time

woman putting an ipad into a bin at airport security
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The “golden hour” is great, but two golden hours are even better. “One hour more at an airport is around $7 more spent per passenger,” says Lukaszewicz. Anything that’s automated, from check-in to bag drop, is meant to speed things up. And it works. Research suggests automated check-in kiosks are 25% faster than humans. “A lot of airports, especially in Japan and New Zealand, are now doing this, where you don’t actually get any assistance from any staff member from check-in,” says Lukaszewicz. “You print your own baggage tag. You put it on the bag on the belt. You go through auto-security and immigration where there is no one. At the boarding gate you just touch your barcode and they open a gate and you walk onto the plane without any interaction.” One study found that for every 10 minutes a passenger spends in the security line, they spend 30% less money on retail items. Last year, the TSA announced it would give $15,000 to the person who comes up with the best idea for speeding up security.

8. Shops are strategically placed

Most airport spending is done on impulse (no one really needs a giant pack of Toblerone), so the key is getting the goods out where they can be seen by as many people as possible. Shops are located where airport footfall is highest. Some airports force passengers to wander through Duty Free to get to the gates. And the more twists and turns, the better. According to one report from consulting company Intervistas, Duty-Free shops with “serpentine walk-through” designs have 60% more sales “because 100% of customers are exposed.”

Shops and restaurants are often clustered to evoke a Main Street feel, because people tend to shop in bustling environments. “It’s no different than if you’re in a town in Europe or in Manhattan,” Smith says. “Retail succeeds when it has a critical mass.”

9. They go local

Airport shops are packed with souvenirs and trinkets that reflect the local culture because that’s what travelers want to buy. For example, more than 20 years after its release, “Sleepless in Seattle” shirts are still a top-selling item at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. In the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, shoppers go wild for potted cactus plants. “Local brands, local services, reinforce this idea of place, and that you are in a special place on your way to the rest of the world,” says Ripley Rasmus, senior design principal at HOK.

10. Walkways curve to the left

The majority of humans are right-handed, and according to Intervistas, this influences airport design. “More sales are generated if a walkway curves from right to left with more merchandise and space on the right side because passengers are looking right while (perhaps unconsciously) walking left,” says one report.

11. A single queue puts us at ease

people standing in a single-file line at airport security
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While the line for check-in and security may seem absurdly long, a single queue actually lowers stress levels by increasing the perceived sense of fairness, according to Lukaszewicz. No one worries the other line is going faster than theirs, because there is no other line. “If you implement a one-queue system for check-in, or for security, so one long line and then you go just to the next available counter, passengers perceive it as more fair because each person is standing in the same line,” he says. “It’s strange but true because you always think the queue next to you moves quicker.”

12. The security officers get conversational

Since 2007, the TSA has been pouring $200 million a year into agents trained to spot suspicious behavior in passengers. The program, called Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT), was developed by a psychology professor at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco named Paul Ekman. It involves a list of 94 signs of anxiety and fear, like lack of eye contact or sweating. But one report found that SPOT is ineffective because "the human ability to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance."

Another method of screening passengers is simply to talk to them. A 2014 study found that asking open-ended questions—known as the Controlled Cognitive Engagement method (CCE)—is 20 times more effective than trying to monitor based on behavior. For example, an agent might ask a passenger where they’re traveling before prodding them with a random question like where they went to college and what they majored in, then watch for signs of panic. “If you’re a regular passenger, you’re just chatting about the thing you know the best—yourself,” says researcher Thomas Ormerod, PhD, head of the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex in England. “It shouldn’t feel like an interrogation.” In the study, officers using conversation-based screening caught 66% of deceptive passengers, compared to just 3% who used behavior-based screening.

Journey to the Monarch Mosh Pit

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iStock/Spondylolithesis

Each fall, millions of migrating monarchs return to Mexico to wait out winter. The gathering makes Woodstock look like a business conference. Here’s how they get there.

Mosh Pit

In the mountains of central Mexico, the butterflies crowd on the branches of oyamel fir trees. The trees provide a perfect microclimate that prevents the butterflies from getting too hot or cold.

Texas Toast

After winter, the butterflies fly north to Texas in search of milkweed, where they lay their eggs. Many adults will die here; northbound monarchs generally live only three to seven weeks.

Juice Cleanse

One of the reasons monarchs love milkweed? Protection. As caterpillars, they absorb the toxins in the plant, which makes them less tasty to birds.

Connecting Flight

Eventually, a new generation of butterflies will make its way north to Canada. It takes multiple generations of butterflies to reach their final, most northerly destination.

Dine and Dash

On the way, butterflies will eat practically anything. Sure, there’s nectar—but they’ll also slurp the salts in mud.

Catching Air

When fall returns, a new generation of monarchs rides the air currents more than 3000 miles back to Mexico. They navigate by calibrating their body clocks with the position of the sun. (An internal magnetic compass helps them navigate on cloudy days.)

Latitude Adjustment

Monarchs “are one of the few creatures on Earth that can orient themselves both in latitude and longitude,” The New York Times reports—a feat sailors wouldn’t accomplish until the 1700s.

Southern Charm

Miraculously, each generation of southbound monarchs lives up to eight months—six times longer than their northbound descendants. Their longevity might have something to do with a process known as reproductive diapause (which is a fancy way of saying that the insects won’t breed until winter ends).

9 Abandoned Islands Reclaimed by Nature

Hashima Island in Japan
Hashima Island in Japan
FROSTEYe, iStock via Getty Images

There’s something especially atmospheric about an island left abandoned. The ruined buildings, overrun by animals and climbing plants, hint at dark stories and forgotten chapters in the island’s past. Below are nine (mostly) abandoned islands that have been reclaimed by nature, and the stories behind them.

1. Ilha da Queimada Grande // Brazil

A golden lancehead viper
A golden lancehead viper
Nayeryouakim, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 4.0

Ilha da Queimada Grande is a beautiful, wild island 90 miles off the coast of São Paolo, Brazil. But this island is no paradise—it's home to between 2000 and 4000 golden lancehead vipers, one of the world's deadliest snakes. The island was cut off from the mainland 11,000 years ago when sea levels rose, and with no known predators on the ground, the snakes evolved into their own species of pit viper. The golden lancehead vipers have also taken over the entire island: Rumor has it that the only family who ever lived there (they moved to the island to run the lighthouse) all died after being bitten by the snakes. Today, travel to the island is tightly controlled, but whether this is to protect people from the deadly snakes, or to protect the critically endangered snakes from people, isn't entirely clear. Whatever the reason, this island is one that looks set to stay abandoned.

2. Hashima Island // Japan

Ruins in Hashima Island, Japan
Ruins in Hashima Island, Japan
FROSTEYe, iStock via Getty Images

In the 1950s, the 16-acre Hashima Island—also known as Battleship Island—was almost completely covered in high-rise apartments by the Mitsubishi Corporation, built in order to house the thousands of people who worked in the undersea mine beneath the island. But once the mines closed in 1974 the island was left to ruin, and the place now makes for an eerie modern ghost town. Its haunting atmosphere was put to good use in 2012 when it was used in the Bond film Skyfall as the villain’s lair. In 2015, in light of its importance to industrial history, the island was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list—a decision that involved some controversy, given that some of those who worked on the island were forced laborers from Korea.

3. Pollepel Island // New York

Bannerman Island Castle, Pollepel Island, New York
Bannerman Island Castle, Pollepel Island, New York
karenfoleyphotography, iStock via Getty Images

Pollepel Island (also often called Bannerman Island) is a 6.5-acre island in New York's Hudson River. The island was purchased in 1900 by entrepreneur Francis Bannerman as a place to store his excess stock of military surplus items. Bannerman designed an eccentric Scottish-style castle to house his wares, but construction on the building ceased in 1918 after his death. In 1920, 200 pounds of shells and gunpowder exploded in an accident, destroying part of the castle. After the ferry serving the island sank in 1950, the island and its ruined castle became effectively abandoned. New York State purchased Pollepel Island in 1967, but another fire two years later left the castle dangerously unstable, and since 1968 it has been off-limits to the public unless you're on a guided tour.

4. King Island // Alaska

An abandoned village in King Island, Alaska
An abandoned village in King Island, Alaska
Ansgar Walk, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

King Island sits in the Bering Sea, some 40 miles from Cape Douglas, Alaska. At first glance it seems impossible that anyone could have ever called this steep, rocky outcrop home, and yet for a number of years, an indigenous community of Inupiat lived in wooden huts on stilts built onto the cliff face. The village, known as Ukivok, was home to up to 200 people who spent their days hunting seal and walrus. But after the Bureau of Indian Affairs closed the local school in 1959, the community began to diminish, until by 1970 it was completely abandoned. Amazingly, the wooden huts can still be seen, clinging on to the rocky cliffs, long out-lasting their former inhabitants.

5. Okunoshima Island // Japan

Wild rabbits on Japan's rabbit island, Okunoshima
Wild rabbits on Japan's rabbit island, Okunoshima
grassflowerhead, iStock via Getty Images

This tiny island in Japan was once used to manufacture and test poisonous gases, but it was deserted after World War II. Rabbits introduced to the island (possibly as test subjects for the poison gas) have, well, bred like rabbits, and now the island is home to thousands of the furry creatures. The plethora of cute rabbits have caused the island to become a popular tourist attraction, and people now flock to this once-deadly location to get their fill of fluffy bunnies. For those of a more macabre bent, the island also now features a small museum on poison gas.

6. Poveglia // Italy

Ruins on the island of Poveglia, Italy
Ruins on the island of Poveglia, Italy
Angelo Meneghini, Wikimedia // CC BY 3.0

This island is known as one of the most supposedly haunted abandoned islands in the world, and with good reason. Found in the Venetian Lagoon, Poveglia was once used to quarantine those afflicted with the plague. As a result, thousands of people lived out their last, miserable moments there and the island’s soil is rumored to be filled with human remains. A mental hospital was also built there in 1922. Poveglia has been abandoned since 1968, and the old hospital buildings reclaimed by nature, with a pervading atmosphere of death, madness, and misery still hanging heavy over the island.

7. Clipperton Island // Pacific Ocean

Remote Clipperton Island is about 1300 miles off the southwest coast of Mexico. Over the years, the United States, Mexico, France, and England all attempted to stake a claim on the island to mine the valuable guano there for use as fertilizer—but Clipperton's remote location and inhospitable, rocky coast made it difficult to access. As a result, by the 1910s the island was inhabited by just 26 people. The small settlement was soon forgotten, and supply ships no longer stopped there. With only fish, birds, and coconuts to eat, the islanders began to die, until only a reclusive lighthouse keeper, several women, and their children remained. Then things got even worse: The lighthouse keeper, Victoriano Álvarez, pronounced himself "king." For the next two years, he ruled over the island, terrorizing and enslaving the women and children. His reign was brought to an end in 1917 when one of his victims murdered him. Soon after, an American ship rescued the emaciated women and children, returning them to their families in Mexico, and leaving the island and its terrible history forgotten.

8. Hirta Island // Scotland

St Kilda, Scotland
St Kilda, Scotland
RobertKelly1972, iStock via Getty Images

Hirta is part of the St Kilda chain of islands in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The island is so remote it can take 18 hours by boat to reach its sole accessible bay, but rough seas and harsh weather often leave the island cut off. Archaeological evidence suggests people lived on the island beginning in prehistoric times, eking out an existence by hunting the many seabirds that call the island home. In 1930, the last residents asked to be sent to the mainland, because the inhospitable terrain, relentless bad weather, and lack of food made living there too hard. The island is now owned by the Scottish National Trust; in the summer months it temporarily houses scientists and volunteers, who study the puffins and gannets that now thrive there.

9. Ross Island // India

A Presbyterian Church on Ross Island
A Presbyterian Church on Ross Island
ePhotocorp, iStock via Getty Images

Ross Island (officially renamed Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Island in 2018) is one of the 572 remote Andaman and and Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean. In the 19th century, the white sand idyll was colonized by the British, who built houses, a church, a ballroom, and a penal colony there to house Indian mutineers. During World War II, the Andaman Islands were taken over by the Japanese, and the British fled after releasing all prisoners. After the war, the island was left abandoned and the jungle has slowly reclaimed the grand Victorian buildings. In 1979, it was officially handed over to the Indian Navy.

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