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.

The Reasons Why Iceland Is So Expensive

iStock.com/Leopatrizi
iStock.com/Leopatrizi

More Americans are taking vacations to Iceland, and many are returning home with sticker shock. According to Iceland Magazine, “consumer prices in Iceland are on average 66 percent higher than in Europe,” with costs in the land of fire and ice outpacing famously expensive countries such as Switzerland, Norway, and Denmark.

Just look at the prices for food in Iceland’s capital of Reykjavík: A pre-made sandwich at a grocery store can cost more than $10, while a single teabag (with “free” hot water) can run you $4. A meal for two at a casual restaurant regularly costs in the ballpark of $80 to $100 while a beer at a pub downtown goes for about $12 during regular hours. In other words: Visiting Iceland is sort of like being trapped in an airport ... except this airport has volcanoes.

As for what makes the country so expensive, there’s no single explanation. It’s a combination of politics, economics, and geography.

Let’s start with geography. Since Iceland nearly tickles the Arctic Circle, its climate is not conducive to farming. There are few native crops and the growing season is short. According to a report from the European Consortium for Political Research [PDF], Icelanders produced “64.9 percent of their own food and beverages in 2010.” The rest of that food was imported. The same goes for most other goods.

The cost of importing those products—usually from the UK, Germany, the U.S., and Norway—gets passed on to the consumer. In Iceland, imported sweets and alcohol are slapped with an extra cargo fee and all wheat products are subject to a relatively high tariff. So prepare to shell out for that bread.

The country’s currency also keeps costs high. In 2008, Iceland was plagued by a financial crisis that saw the country’s three banks fail and the value of the national currency, the króna, plummet. But the country has seen a miraculous recovery. Since 2009, the króna has strengthened by a whopping 40 percent against the euro. In 2017, it was deemed the world's best-performing currency. That has caused the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar to decrease.

Taxes also add to the cost. Like most countries, Iceland has a valued-added tax, or VAT. (In the United States, a close equivalent would be the state sales tax.) The VAT for goods in Iceland is 24 percent, while the VAT for foodstuffs is taxed at a discounted rate of 11 percent. For Americans, these tax rates are very high. Most states don’t even charge a sales tax on food at all.

(However, while taxes are a contributor, they are not the cause of high costs in Iceland. Many countries have similarly high VAT rates and are not as expensive. Germany, for example, has a 19 percent VAT—and a 7 percent VAT on foodstuffs—but is home to significantly cheaper groceries than those sold in the United States. It’s also important to know that, as an international visitor, you can get some of your VAT refunded.)

Rather, the biggest contributor to costs in Iceland is the country’s high standard of living. In Iceland, the average pre-tax income is about $60,000, with a median income of about $47,000. (In the U.S., the average income is about $48,150 with a median of around $31,000.)

In Iceland, approximately 92 percent of the country’s working population is part of a labor union. Consequently, people who work jobs that Americans might consider “low-wage”—especially jobs in the service industry—earn much higher wages and enjoy more benefits. In fact, the national monthly minimum wage for most industries is 300,000 ISK, or about $2500 per month. That’s equivalent to $15 an hour. But since employees earn more, customers generally pay more for goods.

And, of course, any tourist complaining about high prices should take a moment to point a finger at the mirror. Since 2010, Iceland has seen tourism multiply fivefold. With a growing number of people competing for a limited supply of goods, prices have continued to rise; the dastardly supply and demand curve strikes again!

How to See a Dozen Presidential Homes in One Road Trip for Less Than $220

George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate
George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate
Drew Angerer, Getty Images

Do you have a passion for travel, American history, and presidential trivia? If so, you may want to start packing your bags now. Wanderu has mapped out three separate road trips that show history buffs how they can visit more than 20 presidential homes and estates across the country, should they choose to combine all three excursions into one mega-trip.

The travel platform has already done the research and legwork, identifying the buses and trains that connect each city on the itinerary, as well as the cost of each. Fortunately, these trips are friendly on the wallet. Transportation would cost about $218 for the East Coast trip, which has the most jam-packed itinerary of the three. The California trip would cost about $93 (unless you choose to drive, which is doable), and a third itinerary that covers the Midwest—it starts in Ohio, dips into Kentucky, and then ends in Iowa—would set you back some $200.

Some of the presidential pads on the list—like George Washington's Mount Vernon home and Ulysses S. Grant's Illinois home—can be toured. Others are private, and thus best admired from a distance. Check out the itineraries below, and visit Wanderu's website for more details.

The East Coast itinerary:
1. Concord, New Hampshire: The Pierce Manse, home of Franklin Pierce
2. Boston: John F. Kennedy's Brookline birth home
3. Hyannis, Massachusetts: The Kennedy Compound, which served as the headquarters of JFK's 1960 presidential campaign
4. Newport, Rhode Island: The Eisenhower House (Bonus: The Hammersmith Farm where JFK and Jackie got married is just down the road)
5. New York City: The Chester A. Arthur House
6. Princeton, New Jersey: The Westland Mansion, where Grover Cleveland lived
7. Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Wheatland, where James Buchanan lived
8. Philadelphia: The Deshler-Morris House, where George Washington camped out when the city was hit with a yellow fever epidemic
9. Washington, D.C.: President Lincoln's Cottage
10. Washington, D.C.: The Woodley Mansion, where both Grover Cleveland and Martin Van Buren lived at different times
11. Alexandria, Virginia: Mt. Vernon, George Washington's estate
12. Charlottesville, Virginia: Monticello, the home Thomas Jefferson designed (and the building on the back of the nickel)

The Midwest itinerary:
1. Canton, Ohio: The William McKinley Library & Museum, where McKinley is entombed in a marble sarcophagus
2. Cincinnati, Ohio: The William Howard Taft Historical Site, which encompasses his former home
3. Louisville, Kentucky: The Zachary Taylor House
4. Indianapolis: The Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, which includes the president's former home
5. Chicago: Barack Obama's Hyde Park Residence
6. Galena, Illinois: The Ulysses S. Grant Home
7. West Branch, Iowa (near Iowa City): The Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, which includes the cottage where Hoover was born and the blacksmith shop where his father worked

The California itinerary:
1. Los Angeles: Nixon's former home on Whittier Boulevard
2. Los Angeles: Reagan's Westwood Residence
3. Santa Barbara: Rancho del Cielo, where Reagan often vacationed
4. San Jose: The Lou Henry and Herbert Hoover House

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