What is an Airport Terminal? Full Guide 2024

An airport terminal is a building where passengers check in for flights and receive their tickets. They also go through security before boarding their planes. The terminals are usually large, with several gates where the planes depart and arrive.

What is an airport terminal:

Wikipedia definition

Wikipedia defines an Airport terminal as “an airport terminal is a building at an airport where passengers transfer between ground transportation and the facilities that allow them to board and disembark from an aircraft.”

In simple terms, an airport terminal is a building where people catch their flights. The word ‘terminal’ can refer to either the whole building or just one section of it.

Historically, airport terminals were where passengers would check in and receive their boarding passes and tickets. Nowadays, with the advent of online check-in, this process often takes place before passengers even arrive at the airport.

Terminals usually have a number of gates, each one leading to a different aircraft. Passengers board their assigned plane by going through the relevant gate.

The size of airport terminals can vary greatly, from small buildings servicing a handful of flights per day to huge complexes with multiple levels and hundreds of gates.

Some of the world’s largest airports have several terminals, each one dedicated to a different airline or group of airlines. Others use a single terminal for all flights.

In recent years, airport terminals have become more than just places to catch a flight. Many now offer a range of shops and restaurants, as well as other services such as currency exchange and luggage storage. Some even have hotels, spas, and gyms!

The design of airport terminals has also evolved over time. Early terminals were often little more than glorified sheds, but the modern ones are typically sleek and stylish buildings.

Below is a typical image of an airport terminal for Syracuse Hancock Airport in Upstate NY.

Map Showing Airport Terminals of Syracuse Hancock Airport
Map Showing Airport Terminals of Syracuse Hancock Airport

Quora definition

Quora defines an airport terminal as “a building at an airport where passengers can check-in, receive their boarding passes and tickets, and go through security before boarding their plane.”

In other words, an airport terminal is a building where people catch their flights. The word ‘terminal’ can refer to either the whole building or just one section of it.

Definitions.net Definition

The website, definition.net defines an airport terminal as;

“An airport terminal is a building at an airport where passengers transfer between ground transportation and the facilities that allow them to board and disembark from aircraft. Within the terminal, passengers purchase tickets, transfer their luggage, and go through security. The buildings that provide access to airplanes are typically called concourses. However, the terms “terminal” and “concourse” are sometimes used interchangeably, depending on the configuration of the airport.”

Airport Terminal Design:

How a terminal is designed can greatly affect the passenger experience. The goal of airport terminal design is to create a smooth and efficient process for passengers as they move through the airport.

Sketch showing Airport Terminal Design:
Sketch showing Airport Terminal Design

The first step in designing an airport terminal is to understand the needs of the passengers. What type of travelers will be using the terminal? How many flights will be departing and arriving each day? What type of amenities do passengers expect to find in the terminal?

Sketch showing the design of terminals in major US airports.
Sketch showing the design of terminals in major US airports.

Once the needs of the passengers are understood, the next step is to design the layout of the terminal. The layout must be designed to allow passengers to easily move from one area to another.

It should also be designed to accommodate the flow of traffic, both arriving and departing passengers.

The image below shows a typical configuration of an airport;

The final step in designing an airport terminal is to choose the materials and finishes that will be used. The goal is to create a clean, modern, and welcoming space for passengers. Materials such as glass, steel, and concrete are often used in airport terminal design.

Airport terminals are constantly evolving to meet the needs of passengers. The goal is to create a smooth and efficient travel experience for all.

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Airport Terminal Configurations:

Standard:

standard airport terminal configuration typically includes a check-in area, a security checkpoint, and one or more gates. The check-in area is where passengers go to check in for their flight and receive their boarding pass. The security checkpoint is where passengers go through security screening before boarding their plane. The gates are where passengers board the plane.

Satellite:

A satellite terminal is a building that is separate from the main terminal but is connected by a tunnel or bridge. Satellite terminals are typically used for smaller airports or for airlines that have a large number of flights.

Pier:

A pier terminal is a long, narrow building that is perpendicular to the runway. Pier terminals are typically used for large airports.

Staggered:

A staggered terminal is a terminal that has two or more levels. The upper level is typically used for departing flights and the lower level is used for arriving flights.

Types of Airport Terminals

Airport terminals vary in design and functionality to accommodate different passenger needs and operational requirements.

In a 1990 Study by David Shen, he identified the different terminal designs prevalent following the air travel boom following the 1978 deregulation of the airline industry. 

Chart showing different types of terminals

Here are the primary types of airport terminals, each with its own unique characteristics and purposes:

Single Terminal

A single, unified terminal building serving all airport functions.

Features

  • Centralized Amenities: All services, including comfortable seating, lounges, and rest areas, are located within one building, making it easier to find a quiet spot.
  • Accessibility: Easier to navigate, reducing the stress of finding a suitable sleeping area.
  • Dedicated Sleep Zones: Some single terminals have designated quiet areas or sleep pods for passengers needing rest.
  • High Passenger Volume: Single terminals typically handle a large number of passengers, increasing the demand for rest areas including nap pods. 

Examples

  • Singapore Changi Airport (SIN): Renowned for its comfortable sleep areas and amenities.
  • Hong Kong International Airport (HKG): Offers lounges and rest zones designed for passenger comfort.

Multiple Terminal

An airport layout featuring two or more terminal buildings, each serving different airlines or purposes.

Features

  • Diverse Options: With several terminals, there are often a variety of lounges and quiet areas spread out, giving passengers multiple options to find a less crowded spot.
  • Specialized Areas: Some terminals might be quieter, such as those handling less busy domestic flights or those with late-night operations.
  • Separation by Airline or Route: Terminals may be designated for domestic vs. international flights or for different airline alliances.
  • Scalable Implementation: Pods can be installed in selected terminals based on demand, allowing for targeted deployment.

Examples

  • London Heathrow Airport (LHR): Multiple terminals with quiet areas and lounges.
  • Dubai International Airport (DXB): Offers several terminals with luxurious lounges and rest areas.

Satellite Terminal

A secondary terminal building detached from the main terminal, connected by underground walkways, trains, or buses.

Features

  • Secluded Areas: Often quieter as they are detached from the main terminal, reducing foot traffic.
  • Comfortable Seating: Designed for longer wait times, these terminals often have more comfortable seating options.
  • Remote Access: Passengers must use automated people movers (APMs) or shuttles to transfer between the main and satellite terminals.
  • Expansion Capacity: Satellite terminals allow for airport expansion without major changes to the main terminal.

Suitability

  • Secluded Areas: Typically quieter than the main terminal, providing a more peaceful environment for sleeping pods.
  • Extended Layovers: Passengers often spend longer periods in satellite terminals, increasing the need for comfortable rest options.

Examples

  • Shanghai Pudong Airport – the world’s largest satelite terminal with gross floor area of around 622,000 square meters provides plenty of spaces for sleep for those who would rather not pay for hourly lounges. 
  • Denver Airport: Has 3 satelite terminals connected to the main terminal through an underground rail and has plenty of space for passengers to find spots to sleep in. 
  • Orlando International Airport – Has 4 satelite terminals. 
  • Zurich Airport
  • Madrid Barajas Airport.

Pier Terminal

A terminal design where linear concourses (piers) extend from the main terminal building, typically in a perpendicular fashion.

Characteristics

  • Efficient Design: The linear layout often results in less crowded areas at the far ends of the piers, providing quieter spots for rest.
  • Clear Signage: Easy navigation to find less busy areas suitable for resting.
  • Efficient Gate Access: Linear layout facilitates quick and easy access to boarding gates.
  • Clear Passenger Flow: Reduced congestion with designated paths for different passenger processes.

Suitability

  • Efficient Passenger Flow: Linear design allows for strategic placement of sleeping pods at less busy ends of the piers.
  • Extended Waiting Areas: Piers often have areas where passengers wait before boarding, ideal for sleeping pods.

Examples

  • Kansai Airport
  • Frankfurt Airport (FRA)
  • Dublin Airport
  • London’s Heathrow Airport

Linear Terminal

A terminal where all functions are arranged along a straight line, with gates on either side.

Characteristics

  • Simplified Layout: Straightforward design, making naviJohn Wayne Linear Airport Terminal.jpggation intuitive for passengers.
  • Ease of Expansion: Can be extended lengthwise to add more gates and amenities.

Examples

  •  San José Mineta (SJC)
  • John Wayne (SNA)
  • London City Airport (LCY)

Open Apron Terminal

A terminal where passengers walk across the apron to board the aircraft directly from the terminal.

Apron-and-terminals-at-Hamburg-Airport.jpg

Characteristics

  • Proximity to Aircraft: Direct boarding, often used in smaller or regional airports.
  • Cost-Efficiency: Lower infrastructure costs due to the absence of jet bridges.

Examples

Transporter Terminal

A terminal where passengers are transported to aircraft via buses or other ground vehicles from the terminal.

Characteristics

  • Flexibility: Although focused on efficiency, some transporter terminals provide basic but adequate rest areas and lounges.
  • Adaptability: Often used by budget airlines, these terminals may have quieter times and less foot traffic during off-peak hours.

Pods’ Suitability:

  • Flexible Design: The adaptable nature of transporter terminals allows for the integration of sleeping pods in waiting areas or near transport hubs.
  • Budget Travelers: Often used by low-cost carriers, providing an affordable rest option can enhance passenger experience.

Examples

Comparative Analysis

Feature Single Terminal Multiple Terminal Satellite Terminal Pier Terminal Linear Terminal Open Apron Terminal Transporter Terminal
Complexity Simple, unified structure Divided by function/airline Secondary building connected remotely Linear concourses extending from main Straight-line design Simple, direct access Flexible ground vehicle operations
Passenger Flow Centralized, easy navigation Separated by terminal Requires transport between terminals Efficient gate access via piers Simplified navigation Direct apron access Transport via buses/vehicles
Capacity for Expansion Moderate, dependent on single building High, new terminals can be added High, satellites added as needed High, piers can be extended High, linear extension possible Limited, apron space dependent High, flexible with ground vehicles
Security Screening Centralized Decentralized per terminal Centralized with additional checks at satellite Centralized with screening per pier Centralized Centralized Centralized with checks before transport
Examples HKG, KLIA LAX, LHR ATL, CDG ORD, FRA DEN, ICN LCY, CGH BER, LIS

Key takeaway:

Each terminal type has unique features that can enhance the sleeping experience for travelers. Single and multiple terminals provide the most amenities and designated quiet areas, while satellite and pier terminals offer seclusion and comfort. Linear terminals and open apron terminals benefit from straightforward layouts and smaller scales, respectively, making it easier to find quiet spots. Transporter terminals, while less luxurious, offer flexibility and can be less crowded during off-peak times.

According to this research, automated people movers within airports were introduced in 1971. The design of the terminals and concourses were designed in to maximize efficiency and security. This has led to an increase in the use of technology to process passengers through the airport quickly and safely.

The following are some of the most common features of airport terminals:

-check-in counters

-baggage claim areas

-security checkpoints

-boarding gates

-restaurants and shops

-check-in counters

-baggage claim areas

-security checkpoints

-boarding gates

-restaurants and shops

Airport terminals vs Concourse: What’s the difference?

The primary difference between an airport terminal and a concourse lies in their functions and layout within the airport. A terminal is a comprehensive building where passengers undergo various processes such as check-in, security screening, baggage claim, customs, and immigration. It houses numerous amenities, including shops, restaurants, lounges, and information desks, catering to a wide range of passenger needs.

In contrast, a concourse is a specific area within or connected to the terminal, primarily designed for boarding and disembarking from aircraft. It includes gates, waiting areas, and minimal amenities compared to the terminal.

While terminals manage the broader passenger flow and services, concourses focus on facilitating the efficient movement of passengers to and from aircraft. This distinction is crucial for airport design and operations, ensuring smooth and organized passenger experiences.

An airport terminal is the whole building, including the check-in area, security, gates, and other facilities. A concourse is just one section of the terminal, typically the area where the gates are located.

So, for example, if an airport has multiple terminals, each one will have its own concourse.

Not all airports use the term ‘concourse’, however. Some prefer to just call it the ‘gate area’ or the ‘boarding area’.

Having multiple concourses is especially useful when traveling through European airports, as it reduces the number of passport checks/control. Non-Schengen passengers using their own concourse saves the time and workforce needed to check passports for those who don’t need them when traveling between Schengen member states. 

Terminal vs Concourse – Comparison Table

Below is a detailed comparison table highlighting various aspects of a terminal and a concourse in an airport:

Feature Terminal Concourse
Definition A building where passengers check-in, go through security, and access various services. A part of a terminal that houses gates and boarding areas.
Primary Function Check-in, baggage claim, security checks, customs, immigration, shops, lounges. Boarding and disembarking from aircraft, waiting areas.
Passenger Flow High traffic due to check-in, security, and other services. Moderate traffic, primarily passengers waiting to board.
Layout More complex, with various service areas (check-in, security, baggage claim, etc.). Simplified layout focused on gate access and seating areas.
Amenities Extensive: shops, restaurants, lounges, baggage services, information desks. Limited: typically includes seating, restrooms, and a few shops or eateries.
Security Comprehensive security checks at entrances and exits. Security is primarily managed at gate areas for boarding.
Services Multiple services including ticketing, information desks, car rentals, and lounges. Primarily boarding-related services, limited food and retail options.
Accessibility Centralized access to various parts of the airport. Usually connected to the terminal via walkways, shuttles, or trains.
Size Larger, encompassing multiple floors and extensive facilities. Smaller, usually one or two levels with direct access to aircraft.
Examples Terminal 1 at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Concourse A at Denver International Airport (DEN).
Construction Cost Higher, due to the extensive facilities and services offered. Lower, focused on gate areas and passenger movement.
Design Considerations Complex design to accommodate various services and large passenger volumes. Simplified design for efficient passenger flow to gates.
Noise Levels Higher due to passenger volume and various services. Lower, primarily ambient noise from waiting passengers and announcements.
Crowd Management More complex, requires sophisticated systems for security, check-in, and baggage handling. Simpler, focused on managing boarding processes and gate areas.

Key Differences:

  • Functionality: Terminals encompass a wide range of passenger services, from check-in to baggage claim, while concourses focus on the boarding and disembarking process.
  • Layout: Terminals have complex, multi-functional designs, whereas concourses are streamlined for efficient gate access.
  • Amenities: Terminals offer extensive services and amenities; concourses provide limited services, mainly related to boarding.
  • Passenger Flow: Terminals handle large volumes of passengers through various processes; concourses manage the flow from terminal to aircraft.
  • Security: Terminals feature comprehensive security checkpoints; concourses maintain controlled access primarily around gates.

Check-in area:

The check-in area is where passengers go to get their boarding passes and check in their luggage.

Airport staff will be on hand to help with any queries and the whole process is usually very quick and straightforward.

Self-service check-in kiosks are becoming increasingly common, especially at busy airports, as they allow passengers to check in without having to queue for a member of staff.

Security area:

After checking in, passengers must go through security screening before they can enter the departure lounge.

This usually involves walking through a metal detector and having your carry-on luggage scanned by an X-ray machine.

You may also be asked to remove your shoes and jacket, and to put laptops and liquids into separate bins.

Departure lounge:

The departure lounge is where passengers wait for their flights to be called for boarding.

This area usually has a range of shops and restaurants, as well as plenty of seating. There may also be TV screens showing flight information.

Most airports have different lounges for different classes of passengers (e.g. first class, business class, economy class).

The design of airport terminals has come a long way since the early days of aviation. Today’s terminals are sleek, stylish buildings that offer a range of facilities to make the journey through them as smooth and enjoyable as possible.

How do I know which terminal my flight departs from?

The easiest way to find out which terminal your flight is departing from is to check your ticket or the airline’s website.

If you’re already at the airport, you can also look for signs directing you to the correct terminal. These are usually located near the entrance to the airport.

Your flight itinerary will also list the terminal information. Boarding pass ticket or apps also list the terminal.

If you’re unsure, you can always ask a member of staff. Most airports have staff located at key points throughout the terminal who will be happy to help.

The simplest method to determine your terminal is to verify which one your airline uses. Some airports give airlines specific terminals. You may check this by going to the airport’s website, but keep in mind that some airlines operate from several terminals.

Check the airport monitors/screens for your airline and terminal.

When you arrive at the airport, look for digital monitors or screens that list all arriving and departing flights. The departure information will include the terminal next to the flight’s gate number.

If you can’t find any screens, ask a member of staff. Airport staff are usually happy to help passengers with directions or any other queries.

If you have your boarding pass, it will also list the terminal next to the gate number.

If I need to change terminals, do I have to go through security again?

If you need to change terminals, you will usually have to go through security screening again.

However, some airports have ‘airside’ shuttle buses that run between the different terminals. These buses allow passengers to move between terminals without having to go through security again.

When using an airside shuttle bus, you will still need to show your boarding pass to the staff member at the gate.

Airport with the highest number of terminals

LAX stands out as the airport with the highest number of terminals with 9 terminals followed by Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) with 5 terminals. All the airports below tie with 4 terminals each;

  • O’Hare International Airport (ORD),
  • London Heathrow Airport (LHR),
  • Leonardo da Vinci International Airport (FCO), and
  • Adolfo Suarez Madrid-Barajas Airport (MAD).

This website has more details about terminals

The chart below has more details on the surfaces of the world’s largest airport terminals.

FAQs

Q: What is an airport?

A: An airport terminal is a building at an airport where passengers can check in, drop off their luggage, and board their flights. Most airports have multiple terminals, each serving different airlines or regions. Terminals are usually connected by a system of walkways, shuttle buses, or people movers.

Q: How do I know which terminal my flight departs from?

A: The easiest way to find out which terminal your flight is departing from is to check your ticket or the airline’s website. If you’re already at the airport, you can also look for signs directing you to the correct terminal. These are usually located near the entrance to the airport.

Q: If I need to change terminals, do I have to go through security again?

A: If you need to change terminals, you will usually have to go through security screening again. However, some airports have ‘airside’ shuttle buses that run between the different terminals.

Q: What is an airport terminal?

A: An airport terminal is a building at an airport where passengers can check in, board their flights, and claim their baggage.

Q: How many terminals does an airport usually have?

A: Most airports have multiple terminals, each serving different airlines or regions. The largest airport in the world, LAX, has 9 terminals.

Q: What services are available at an airport terminal?

A: Services available at an airport terminal may include check-in, baggage claim, security screening, duty-free shopping, restaurants, and bars.

Q: What is the difference between an international terminal and a domestic terminal?

A: An international terminal is a terminal where passengers can board flights to destinations outside of their home country. A domestic terminal is a terminal where passengers can board flights to destinations within their home country.

Q: Do all airports have an international terminal?

A: No, not all airports have an international terminal. Smaller airports typically only have domestic terminals.

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Nathan helps travelers find the most comfortable sleep setups during layovers, from cozy airport hotels to futuristic sleep pods. His insights aim to transform layovers into rejuvenating sleepcations, offering travelers an alternative to costly hotels and uncomfortable benches.