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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 seen 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

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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

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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 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.

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Pop Culture
How Jimmy Buffett Turned 'Margaritaville' Into a Way of Life
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Few songs have proven as lucrative as “Margaritaville,” a modest 1977 hit by singer and songwriter Jimmy Buffett that became an anthem for an entire life philosophy. The track was the springboard for Buffett’s business empire—restaurants, apparel, kitchen appliances, and more—marketing the taking-it-easy message of its tropical print lyrics.

After just a few years of expanding that notion into other ventures, the “Parrot Heads” of Buffett’s fandom began to account for $40 million in annual revenue—and that was before the vacation resorts began popping up.

Jimmy Buffett performs for a crowd
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“Margaritaville,” which turned 40 this year, was never intended to inspire this kind of devotion. It was written after Buffett, as an aspiring musician toiling in Nashville, found himself in Key West, Florida, following a cancelled booking in Miami and marveling at the sea of tourists clogging the beaches.

Like the other songs on his album, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, it didn’t receive a lot of radio play. Instead, Buffett began to develop his following by opening up for The Eagles. Even at 30, Buffett was something less than hip—a flip-flopped performer with a genial stage presence that seemed to invite an easygoing vibe among crowds. “Margaritaville,” an anthem to that kind of breezy attitude, peaked at number eight on the Billboard charts in 1977. While that’s impressive for any single, its legacy would quickly evolve beyond the music industry's method for gauging success.

What Buffett realized as he continued to perform and tour throughout the early 1980s is that “Margaritaville” had the ability to sedate audiences. Like a hypnotist, the singer could immediately conjure a specific time and place that listeners wanted to revisit. The lyrics painted a scene of serenity that became a kind of existential vacation for Buffett's fans:

Nibblin' on sponge cake,
Watchin' the sun bake;
All of those tourists covered with oil.
Strummin' my six string on my front porch swing.
Smell those shrimp —
They're beginnin' to boil.

By 1985, Buffett was ready to capitalize on that goodwill. In Key West, he opened a Margaritaville store, which sold hats, shirts, and other ephemera to residents and tourists looking to broadcast their allegiance to his sand-in-toes fantasy. (A portion of the proceeds went to Save the Manatees, a nonprofit organization devoted to animal conservation.) The store also sold the Coconut Telegraph, a kind of propaganda newsletter about all things Buffett and his chill perspective.

When Buffett realized patrons were coming in expecting a bar or food—the song was named after a mixed drink, after all—he opened a cafe adjacent to the store in late 1987. The configuration was ideal, and through the 1990s, Buffett and business partner John Cohlan began erecting Margaritaville locations in Florida, New Orleans, and eventually Las Vegas and New York. All told, more than 21 million people visit a Buffett-inspired hospitality destination every year.

A parrot at Margaritaville welcomes guests
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Margaritaville-branded tequila followed. So, too, did a line of retail foods like hummus, a book of short stories, massive resorts, a Sirius radio channel, and drink blenders. Buffett even wrote a 242-page script for a Margaritaville movie that he had hoped to film in the 1980s. It’s one of the very few Margaritaville projects that has yet to have come to fruition, but it might be hard for Buffett to complain much. In 2015, his entire empire took in $1.5 billion in sales.

As of late, Buffett has signed off on an Orlando resort due to open in 2018, offering “casual luxury” near the boundaries of Walt Disney World. (One in Hollywood, Florida, is already a hit, boasting a 93 percent occupancy rate.) Even for guests that aren’t particularly familiar with his music, “Jimmy Buffett” has become synonymous with comfort and relaxation just as surely as Walt Disney has with family entertainment. The association bodes well for a business that will eventually have to move beyond Buffett’s concert-going loyalists.

Not that he's looking to leave them behind. The 70-year-old Buffett is planning on a series of Margaritaville-themed retirement communities, with the first due to open in Daytona Beach in 2018. More than 10,000 Parrot Heads have already registered, eager to watch the sun set while idling in a frame of mind that Buffett has slowly but surely turned into a reality.

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geography
10 Pirate Landmarks You Can Visit
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Hungering for a scurvy-ridden romp across the seven seas? We’ve mapped out an international journey that will take you through 10 historic places with maritime yarns to unravel. From a rediscovered wreck to the site of real buried treasure, these locales will set your timbers a-shivering.

1. THE QUEDAGH MERCHANT, CATALINA ISLAND, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

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In 1695, Scottish privateer William Kidd was hired by an English governor to fight pirates in the Indian Ocean. But he made one critical mistake. On January 30, 1698, he captured the Quedagh Merchant, a treasure-laden ship flying a French flag. Since England was at war with France, Kidd believed he had a legal right to seize this ship. However, a nobleman who stood to lose his riches on board complained to the British East India Company, which put out a call for Kidd’s arrest. Unable to prove his innocence, Kidd was convicted and hung by an English court in 1701.

As for the Quedagh Merchant, Kidd had abandoned the vessel and its final resting place remained unknown for centuries. Marine archaeologists discovered the wreck off the coast of Catalina Island in 2007. The site is now a protected marine area where divers can read about its history on underwater plaques.

2. FOX POINT, ST. GEORGE ISLAND, FLORIDA

Kristenlea71 via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Born in Maryland, William Augustus Bowles was a British loyalist during the Revolutionary War. While stationed in Pensacola, Florida, he married into the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and, later, fought on behalf of both nations against Spain in the Gulf of Mexico. Bowles would later establish himself as a pirate and self-appointed representative of the Muscogee Nation, and secured Great Britain's support for establishing an independent Muscogee Republic. In those roles, he attacked numerous Spanish ships and was arrested by the Spanish authorities. He escaped from prison and was on his way back to Florida in the British schooner HMS Fox when it went aground on St. George Island at a site now called Fox Point. A historical marker commemorates the Fox’s wreck.

3. A REAL BURIED TREASURE SITE, GARDINER’S ISLAND, NEW YORK

Howard Pyle, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Contrary to popular belief, most pirates did not bury treasure. (People who steal loot generally want to spend it right away.) In fact, the only pirate known to have stored booty underground was William Kidd. Prior his arrest by the British authorities in 1699, Kidd paid a visit to Gardiner’s Island, a spot between the forks of Long Island. Its owner, John Gardiner, agreed to let Kidd bury some valuables there. Accounts differ about what happened next. Some sources say that Gardiner decided to come clean and tell the colonial governor, Lord Bellomont, about the treasure. Others say that Bellomont learned of its whereabouts directly from Kidd. Either way, the loot was exhumed and taken to Boston. The gold, silver, and other valuable items were worth more than $1 million in today's U.S. dollars. Today, a stone plaque marks the spot.

4. DUNGEON ROCK, LYNN, MASSACHUSETTS

Ejkastning, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1658, a group of buccaneers landed in Lynn, Massachusetts. Most were arrested, but a pirate named Thomas Veal escaped into the forest. Legend has it that a huge geologic formation now called Dungeon Rock became his hideout. Once a spacious cave, it was reduced to a pile of boulders by an earthquake, entombing Veal and his treasure within.

Almost a century later, a spiritualist named Hiram Marble, who believed Veal's ghost had contacted him from the afterlife, bought Dungeon Rock. He and his son, Edwin, spent their lives digging for the treasure but found nothing. Since then, the site has been incorporated into the Lynn Woods Reservation. A door bars the entryway to the rock's interior, which is open to visitors during certain times of the year. Nearby, you can pay your respects to Edwin Marble at his modestly marked grave.

5. LAFITTE’S BLACKSMITH SHOP, NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA

Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Lafitte’s origins are shrouded in mystery, but he arrived in New Orleans around 1806 with his (alleged) brother, Pierre. They organized a fleet of smuggling vessels and conspired with potential business partners at a colleague's blacksmith shop on Bourbon Street. Now a popular bar, the building was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1970.

During the War of 1812, Lafitte offered his ample supplies, experienced sailors, and local knowledge to the American forces under General Andrew Jackson, in exchange for the release of some of Lafitte's men then in prison. At the Battle of New Orleans in 1814-15, Jackson's and Lafitte's forces helped repel the British attack, and the two Lafitte brothers both received federal pardons.

6. LAFITTE’S FORMER STOMPING GROUNDS, GALVESTON, TEXAS

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Soon after the Battle of New Orleans, the city's elites grew tired of tolerating the Lafittes. In 1817, Jean Lafitte decamped to Galveston, Texas, with seven ships and a few dozen followers. They established a town called Campeche with its own boarding house, taverns, and courts, while continuing to prey on Spanish ships in the gulf and operating a large slave market. In 1821, the U.S. government ordered them to clear out. Nothing can be said with certainty about Lafitte's post-Galveston exploits. Just like his origins, Jean Lafitte’s fate remains the stuff of speculation.

A relic from his time in Galveston can be found at 1417 Avenue A, where Maison Rouge, Lafitte’s home and fortress, once stood. The grounds are protected by a chain-link fence, which also surrounds the remnants of a second building that was built on top of Maison Rouge’s foundation in 1870. Learn more at Pirates! Legends of the Gulf Coast, a local attraction which focuses on Lafitte’s life and deeds.

7. PLUM POINT, BATH, NORTH CAROLINA

m kasahara, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Blackbeard—whose real name was either Edward Teach, Edward Thatch, or some variant thereof—settled in Bath, North Carolina, for a brief period of quasi-retirement beginning in 1718. His place of residence was reportedly somewhere on Plum Point, an outcropping which cuts into Bath Creek. Despite his track record of plundering and theft, he was constantly getting dinner invitations from curious families. According to regional lore, he paid multiple visits to the Hammock House, an elegant white building thought to be the oldest surviving house in Beaufort, North Carolina. This city is also home to a gigantic Blackbeard statue on U.S. Highway 70. Beaufort’s branch of the North Carolina Maritime Museum contains numerous Blackbeard artifacts.

8. A PIRATE-FILLED CEMETERY, ILE SAINTE-MARIE, MADAGASCAR

JialiangGao, Wikimedia Commons // GFDL

In the Age of Sail, pirates operated in nearly all of the world's oceans. Île Sainte-Marie, near Madagascar, was a magnet for pirates back in the 17th and 18th centuries. The island had plentiful fresh fruit to prevent scurvy and convenient natural harbors for safe anchorages. So many crews visited the island regularly that trading posts run by and for pirates became a vital part of the local economy. In its heyday, more than 1000 pirates lived on the island. A great many now lay buried in a cemetery near Ambodifotatra, Île Sainte-Marie’s biggest city. The 30 on-site tombstones of pirates can be identified because they were given etched-in skulls, crossbones, or both.

9. BLACK BART’S MEMORIAL STONE, CASNEWYDD-BACH, WALES

Daniel Defoe, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Typically cited as the most successful pirate of all time, Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts was born in the Welsh village of Casnewydd-Bach in 1682. In 1719, the crew of the slave ship he worked on elected Roberts, an experienced navigator and seafarer, as their new captain. Roberts really seemed to like the name Royal Fortune, which he gave to multiple ships. He also authored a pirate’s code of conduct for his crew in 1721.

The dreaded “Black Bart” would seize more than 400 ships before he died in battle on February 10, 1722. His hometown acknowledges its native son with a memorial stone on the village green.

10. BLACKBEARD’S POINT, HAMPTON, VIRGINIA

Charles Ellms, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Our adventure ends with a visit to a place that once displayed Blackbeard’s severed head [PDF]. North Carolina's governor, Charles Eden, granted the pirate a pardon in exchange for a hefty share of his loot, which upset the colony's wealthy planters. The elites asked Virginia's governor, Alexander Spotswood, to get rid of Blackbeard permanently. Spotswood sent a naval force led by Lieutenant Robert Maynard to engage the pirate's crews in combat. Maynard caught Blackbeard by surprise in North Carolina's Ocracoke Inlet, and a great battle ensued, with Maynard coming out on top. Blackbeard was killed in the fight and Maynard mounted the pirate's head on the bowsprit of his ship on their way back to Virginia. Later it was suspended from a pole at Tindall’s Point, at the confluence of the James and Hampton rivers, where it served for several years as a warning to anyone else with piratical designs. Tindall Point is now called Blackbeard’s Point.

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