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.

A Handy Map of All the Royal Residences in the UK

Frogmore House, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's primary estate on the grounds of Windsor Castle.
Frogmore House, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's primary estate on the grounds of Windsor Castle.

Somewhere along the way, you probably learned that Buckingham Palace is home to the ruler of the United Kingdom and many unflinching, fancily clad guards. And, if you watch The Crown or keep a close eye on royal family news, you might recognize the names of other estates like Windsor Castle and Kensington Palace.

But what about Gatcombe Park, Llwynywermod, or any of the other royal residences? To fill in the gaps of your knowledge, UK-based money-lending site QuickQuid created a map and corresponding illustrations of all 20 properties, and compiled the need-to-know details about each place.

quickquid map of royal family residences
QuickQuid

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip kept eight estates for themselves, and divvied up the rest among their children and grandchildren, some of whom have purchased their own properties, too. Though Buckingham Palace is still considered the official residence of the Queen, she now splits most of her time between Windsor Castle and other holiday homes like Balmoral Castle in Scotland and Sandringham House, which Prince Philip is responsible for maintaining.

quickquid illustration of royal family residences
QuickQuid

Windsor shares its grounds with two other properties: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s home, Frogmore House, and the Royal Lodge, where Prince Andrew (the Queen’s second youngest child) lives.

illustration of frogmore house
QuickQuid

Southwest of Windsor is Highgrove House, Prince Charles’s official family home with wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. They also own Birkhall in Scotland, Clarence House in London, Tamarisk House on the Isles of Scilly, and the aforementioned Llwynywermod in Wales. Much like the Queen herself does, Charles and Camilla basically have a different house for each region they visit.

illustration of highgrove house
QuickQuid

In 2011, the Queen gave Anmer Hall—which is on the grounds of Sandringham House—to Prince William and Kate Middleton as a wedding gift, but they’ve recently relocated to Kensington Palace so Prince George could attend school in London.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s only daughter, Anne, resides in Gatcombe Park with her daughter, Zara Tindall. Anne also owns St. James’s Palace in London, where her niece (Princess Beatrice of York) and her mother’s cousin (Princess Alexandra) sometimes live.

Lastly there's Edward, Elizabeth and Philip's youngest son, who lives with his wife in Bagshot Park, which architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner called “bad, purposeless, [and] ugly.”

illustration of bagshot park
QuickQuid

If you’re feeling particularly cramped in your tiny one-bedroom apartment (or even regular-sized house) after reading about the royal family’s overabundance of real estate, take solace in the knowledge that at least you’ll never have to follow their strict fashion rules.

Stephen King's Maine Home Will Become a Museum and Writer's Retreat

Russ Quinlan, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Russ Quinlan, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Early in his career, author Stephen King (It, The Shining, The Outsider) embraced his public persona of being a spooky writer of the macabre. He purchased a 19th-century Victorian mansion in Bangor, Maine in 1980 for $135,000 and spent some Halloweens outside passing out candy to trick-or-treaters.

Now, King’s residence is set to become something of a Bangor landmark. As Rolling Stone reports, King and his wife Tabitha requested that their private home at 47 West Broadway be rezoned as a nonprofit center, which the Bangor City Council granted this week. The plan is to turn the home into a museum devoted to King’s work as well as a writer’s retreat.

King isn’t evicting himself, exactly. While he remains the owner, he and his family have spent less time at the residence over the years, instead residing in Florida or Oxford County, Maine.

Shortly after King purchased the home, he wrote and read aloud an essay addressing why he chose Bangor and his earliest impressions of 47 West Broadway. “I think it disapproved of us at first,” he wrote. “The parlor seemed cold in a way that had little to do with temperature. The cat would not go into that room; the kids avoided it. My oldest son was convinced there were ghosts in the turret towers …” A few months in, King recalled, his family began to settle in.

The Bangor home has morphed into a tourist attraction of sorts over time, with fans of King’s making a pilgrimage to the spot to take photos or idle around its ornate iron gate. Soon they’ll be able to peek inside, though the museum will be by appointment only. It’s not yet known when the home will open to visitors or how writers can apply to stay there.

[h/t Rolling Stone]

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