"What might a child-friendly airport look like?" asks Christine Murray
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"What might a child-friendly airport look like?"

Now that millennial families are the fastest growing demographic in travel, airport design needs a radical shake-up, says Christine Murray.


If flying economy is hell, flying as a family is worse, from coaxing your frightened toddler through the metal detector, to the anxiety of tethering your two-year-old in an adult seatbelt proven unsafe for kids. You grit your teeth, get through it, and wait for the payoff: seeing their little eyes widen at the wonders of New York or Venice.

But all this has to change, if not for altruistic reasons of inclusivity and safety, then because millennials are now the biggest and fastest growing demographic of travellers – and they're bringing their kids.

Already known for combining business trips with leisure, 58 per cent of millennials are now parents and 44 per cent travel with their children, according to an American study by Resonance Consultancy. And here's the important bit: millennial families will spend more, and travel more, than all other generational segments in 2018, according to a survey by MMGY Global.

Millennials are now the biggest and fastest growing demographic of travellers – and they're bringing their kids

For too long travel infrastructure has been designed to cater solely to the once lucrative single business traveller, from hotels to airport lounges. This makes even a trip to the airplane toilet a logistical nightmare – try squeezing in with a child that needs a wee, or two kids, because you can't just leave a baby in their seat.

Travelling back from a business trip that I'd extended into a weekend break, I got stuck in the hour-long queue of families waiting in the understaffed London Gatwick arrivals hall, because under 12s can't use the fast-track E-Passport gates. That's when I realised we need a paradigm shift. We can't just shaft people with kids anymore, as they might be business travellers too.

Some airports have started to adapt, adding provisions such as fast-track family security lines and free airport pushchairs. San Francisco boasts three aquariums for kids, while Amsterdam's Schiphol has a Kids' Forest adventure playground and Baby Care Area for breastfeeding and nappy changes. Singapore Changi has a three-storey slide and movie theatres. Some airlines started catering to children too, such as Air Transat, which has a Kids Club Membership, which gives families preferential treatment at check-in and boarding, plus priority luggage service.

But if families are the new first-class passengers, the actual design of travel has to change too.

We need to understand that even the best behaved children are still, well, kids. They like to play constantly, and not just in designated areas. They fidget and move through space in their own idiosyncratic way. In airports, they play with those elastic cordons used to delineate snaking queues, double back and duck out of line, pause for a pirouette. They're desperate to vault onto suitcase conveyor belts and ride luggage trolleys.

If families are the new first-class passengers, the actual design of travel has to change too

What might a child-friendly airport look like? Banish the long-winded linear journeys along endless corridors without loos, water-fountains, snacks or seats. Luggage trolleys would have baby seats like supermarkets do. There would be fresh air, outdoor space and retail offerings that move beyond perfume, sunglasses, overpriced LEGO sets and alcohol – replaced by indoor markets, skateboard parks or venues that offer authentic experiences actually connected to the place.

But we are a long way from there – we still exist in a world where travel is not even safe for kids. Take those seatbelts on planes. They are proven to fail young children in even minor incidents. CARES is the only approved seatbelt on the market, but you've got to buy, bring and install your own, and sometimes the airline stewards won't let you.

Nor are those orange seatbelts for lap-babies safe – in fact, we shouldn't have lap babies at all. A 2014 study found 90 per cent of paediatric deaths on commercial flights were in children under two, suggesting lap babies may be more at risk of death. Airlines have a duty of care: a safe child-adapted seatbelt should be built-in or provided, and child safety should be paramount.

What about passport control? In a world where 400,000 children are trafficked across international borders every year, children should be able to talk to passport officers without being hoisted up or peered at through mirrors, but most of the booths are designed for children to be neither seen, nor heard.

We still exist in a world where travel is not even safe for kids

And bathroom stalls – they need to get bigger. Most cubicles are designed for single use, but mothers and fathers are always in there helping kids under the age of 4. Not to mention that in an airport, most people squeeze in with carry-ons too. If all cubicles grew bigger, we wouldn't have queues for the disabled toilets full of people who shouldn't be using them. As for airplane toilets, they are just too small for any adult to use comfortably, let alone people with mobility issues, pregnant women, and anyone with young kids.

With the travel industry failing families, it's possible the success of disruptors such as Uber and Airbnb are partially due to the slowness of the hotel and transport industry to adapt. It's much easier to fold your pushchair into an Uber than carry it downstairs and onto a train with a suitcase and toddler in tow. And shoving a bottle of milk for the baby into a tiny hotel bar fridge is less convenient than all the services that come with an apartment – not least if they have a washer and dryer, which cuts your packing in half.

The message is clear: designers need to wake up and smell the nappies. Millennials with kids are now your biggest and most lucrative customer – and with cities as one of their favourite travel destinations, the need for a rethink doesn't stop at the airport door.

Photo is courtesy of Shutterstock.