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Flying during the “golden age of travel” may have been glamorous, but it was also expensive. When the airline industry was deregulated in 1978, ticket prices plummeted and flying became commonplace. Airports built for the few suddenly got crowded, and many cities built big, often unattractive terminals to serve the masses. It took a few decades for airport design to catch up, but today, many of those hastily built behemoths have been replaced by better designed, even beautiful terminals — ones that offer travelers soaring spaces, thoughtful modern efficiencies, and sometimes a glimpse back into the golden age of travel. From garden-filled glass palaces to open-air pavilions, these international airports can transport you to a better place before you even board your flight.
Singapore Changi International Airport (Singapore)
Changi International is like a traveler’s fever dream of what a transit hub can be. In 2010, when the airport was already considered one of the best in the world, officials decided to convert one of its parking decks into Jewel Changi Airport — a glass-roofed complex without gates, ticketing, or security lines, but instead full of amenities and attractions that would make a long layover an entertaining one. “Part theme park, part futuristic pleasure dome,” as The New York Times put it, Jewel has not only great restaurants and shops, but also monorails whizzing above lush gardens (including the world’s tallest indoor waterfall), multi-story slides and walkways made of bouncing nets suspended high above a rainforest, and even movie theaters playing free movies. In short, there’s little chance of Changi falling off “best of” lists any time soon.
Lyon Saint Exupery Airport (Lyon, France)
Lyon’s Saint Exupery Airport has been open since 1975, but a 1994 addition — the TGV high-speed train terminal attached to the older building — features a striking design by architect Santiago Calatrava. Sweeping sculptural ribs connected by a glass canopy create a building that strongly resembles a bird in flight. The bright and angular terminal offers a dramatic gateway to Lyon and the surrounding region — which was the prompt for the design competition Calatrava’s firm entered and won.
Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport (New York, New York)
LaGuardia’s Terminal A is a standalone Art Deco outpost separate from the rest of the airfield — it even has its own highway exit. The terminal, built in 1940 to accommodate PanAm’s transatlantic service, single handedly elevated LaGuardia’s aesthetic standards even during the airport’s notoriously ugly years. (The main terminal emerged from an urgently needed facelift in 2021.) It features a sky-lit circular lobby wrapped by a colorful mural by James Brooks that depicts the history of flight, from Icarus to the Pan Am Clipper. Around the exterior of the building, a decorative terracotta frieze shows flying fish to symbolize the seaplanes that used to land and take off from the East River beside the terminal. The entire building, which has two modest wings for modern aircraft gates, was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.
Chek Lap Kok International Airport (Hong Kong)
The introduction of natural light into an airport can drastically change the experience of travel — suddenly, waiting to board a flight feels markedly different than standing in line at the DMV. Add an expansive view of nearby mountains and sea, and air travel is less of a chore and more of an adventure. In 1998, Foster + Partners achieved this thrilling effect at Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok Airport. The designers employed a high canopy roof arched over multiple levels of activity — departing passengers on the ground floor and arriving passengers moving along transparent bridges above — surrounded by large window walls on all sides.
Washington Dulles International Airport (Dulles, Virginia)
Famed Finnish architect Eero Saarinen completed his design for Washington, D.C.’s Dulles International in 1958. The terminal is based on a classical colonnade, but with some ultramodern updates, including glass walls and an upward swooping roof. The result is a graceful and exciting profile that instantly recalls the golden age of travel. But like the wing it resembles, the design of the roof’s edge was susceptible to lifting in wind until the project engineers were able to find a solution in counterbalancing to keep it grounded.
Jeddah Hajj Terminal (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) Architects, this stunning airport terminal is based on the design of Bedouin tents: The two main terminal structures are covered by clusters of 105 conical roofs created from stretched fiberglass fabric and upright pylons. By day, the undulating white roof reflects back the sunlight, providing natural cooling and indirect light. By night, upward-facing artificial lights bounce back to illuminate the space. While both terminal structures include enclosed, air-conditioned sections, much of the space is open-sided to the elements. The most unusual part of the terminal is that it is only in use during the annual Hajj, when it becomes a welcoming hub for the millions of Muslim pilgrims who arrive to visit Mecca.
Beijing Daxing International Airport (Beijing, China)
The visuals of the world’s largest airline terminal, opened in 2019, are simultaneously organic and futuristic: swooping curves, geometric patterns, and sterile white surfaces. Following a design by Zaha Hadid Associates, the 7.5-million-square-foot terminal comprises a central hub with six rounded legs extending outward, which gives it the look of a giant starfish when seen from above. The interior, under a high roof supported by giant pillars that rise to round skylights, is broken up by several outdoor courtyards where passengers can meander paths that wind through traditional Chinese gardens.
Los Angeles International (Los Angeles, California)
While Los Angeles International is certainly a mishmash of architectural styles, there are elements that stand out, including the swooping roofs of the redesigned Tom Bradley International Terminal and the Theme Building — the iconic futuristic building criss-crossed by parabolic arches that has long stood at the center of the airport. When it opened in 1961 (in a dedication ceremony led by then-Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson), the Theme Building’s space-age design announced to the world that Los Angeles was a city of the future. Though originally intended to be the hub of the airport, the Theme Building was later scaled back to be an observation deck and restaurant. The landmark building has offices on its ground level, but the observation level is currently open to the public only on weekends.
Suvarnabhumi Airport (Bangkok, Thailand)
The original structure of this stunning airport is a single pavilion spanning 1.2 million square feet, which was built from the winning design of a 1994 international competition. The curved and pointed design of the portals along the edge of the structure are meant to resemble waves, an homage to the wetlands that existed here before the airport. During construction, builders discovered that the site had also been a cemetery, so for nine weeks before the airport opened, 99 Buddhist monks prayed to appease the spirits of those buried here.