Six of the coolest airports: from Orlando’s new terminal to Beijing's star-fish hub

Towering sculptures, indoor waterfalls, swimming pools and year-round Christmas cabins await

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The new terminal at Orlando International Airport in Florida opened on Monday, with interactive art exhibits and automated security checkpoints designed to speed up passenger processing.

It was the seventh busiest airport in the world last year and the new terminal will handle flights from several airlines, including Dubai's Emirates.

As well as allowing more people to fly in and out, the terminal has a host of exciting experiences including the world’s largest in-airport interactive digital art exhibits. Being in Florida, there are also Disney World and Universal Studios stores as well as a robot-operated baggage handling system.

LED screens show underwater springs and blue skies in the new terminal at Orlando International Airport. AP

The new hub could be a game-changer for Florida and ranks up there with some of the world's coolest airports joining the likes of Singapore’s Changi, home to the world's largest indoor waterfall, and Finland's Helsinki Airport, where passengers can find the most impressive relaxation lounge.

Here are six airports travellers should be excited to fly to.

1. Orlando International Airport, Florida

Windows on Orlando is a new installation at the city's new airport terminal. Photo: Gentlehomme

Ranking in the world’s top ten busiest airports for the first time last year, Orlando International's new 14-hectare terminal is its latest arrival.

High-tech features include facial recognition features at immigration and robotic baggage systems. There is also a tree-lined baggage area set under a sprawling skylight drawing sunlight into the airport.

Passengers can enter the Moment Vault, an immersive 360-degree experience that blends visitors' silhouettes with video footage from local points of interest. The Portal display is three storeys high and is comprised of 32 curved screens that show passengers a “visual story” of the evolution of Central Florida, from ranchland to a global tourism hotspot. And, there’s also Windows on Orlando — a 30-metre long digital display where towering screens create a visual illusion of live points of interest outside the terminal.

2. Changi International Airport, Singapore

The Rain Vortex at the Jewel Changi Airport in Singapore. Photo: Changi Airport

Regularly voted among the world’s best airports, Singapore Changi Airport is home to the world's tallest indoor waterfall, a dragonfly garden and a sprawling retail complex.

The Rain Vortex is a 40-metre tall waterfall that pours rainwater from the centre of a glass and steel dome. Passengers can also visit an outdoor garden where 15-metre tall palm trees and a variety of plants have been specially grown to attract dragonflies. There’s a giant trampoline-like bouncing net, perched eight metres above the ground, and a red metal play structure called the Chandelier that is 16 metres high and is filled with slides, nets and climbing frames for both children and adults.

Public sculptures and art installations are dotted around the airport and the Changi Experience Studio is an interactive digital experience where travellers can play games, watch videos and learn more about aviation and what goes on behind the scenes at the airport.

Singapore's airport is set to get even more futuristic when Terminal 5 opens within the next decade. With robot-led check-in, self-driving cars and a nature-laden passenger experience, the new hub has also been designed to be pandemic proof with designs created during Covid-19 lockdowns allowing airport authorities to easily adjust passenger capacity, isolate individuals and employ other safety measures during any future crisis.

3. Seymour Airport, Ecuador

This airport in the Galapagos is the world's first ecological airport. AFP

While it’s certainly not the biggest or most futuristic airport on this list, Seymour Airport, or Galapagos Ecological Airport as its also called, more than warrants its spot on the list.

The world’s first ecological airport is also the world's most sustainable and the first carbon natural airport in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Located on Baltra Island, it runs solely on wind and solar power, with 65 per cent of the airport’s total energy supplied by windmills dotted around the periphery. Another 35 per cent is drawn from photovoltaic panels fitted on walkways.

Staff wear uniforms made from recycled plastic bottles collected from the terminal and there are free water fountains that dispense drinkable filtered seawater where travellers can refill reusable bottles and Thermos containers. The Galapagos Islands are known as being home to a large number of remarkable endemic species, and signage throughout the airport reminds travellers to be conscious of impacting these locals during their travels.

The Galapagos Islands are home to a large number of endemic species and Seymour Airport signage is designed to help protect them. Photo: Twitter

Opened in 2012, the airport was mostly constructed from recycled materials that included wood and metal sculptures from the previous airport being reused and steel pipes taken from oil extraction fields in the Amazon.

Travellers flying in can do so guilt-free as an emissions calculator on the airport's website works out the exact emissions of a flight, and the equivalent dollar cost to offset it, and provides options to purchase offsets where funds go directly back into local Ecuadorean projects.

4. Hamad International Airport, Qatar

Take a walking tour of the art installations at Hamad International Airport. Photo: Qatar Airways

Framed in glass and with desert vistas and views of a man-made lagoon adjacent to its departure gates, Hamad International Airport in Qatar is another impressive hub. And, ahead of the country hosting the Middle East’s first World Cup in November, there's a lot of development being carried out.

A new 10,000-square-metre indoor tropical garden called Orchard and a 268-square-metre water feature are the focal points of the new expansion project. The flora for the indoor tropical garden have been brought in from sustainable forests from around the world and a column-free 85-metre grid shell roof is made with special glass that filters the light required for the trees to acclimatise and grow.

Public art installations at the hub include Lampbear, a seven-metre Urs Fischer sculpture of a yellow teddy bear, and Small Liem, a towering figure by Kaws. The newly launched Discover the Art of the Airport walking tour is an immersive experience where guests can take in all the pieces on display.

Those travelling with children can visit the play parks dotted around the airport. Designed by American artist Tom Otterness, these bronze sculpture-like zones are entirely clamber-friendly. The Bumble Tree interactive centre sells toys and games and has a roaring dinosaur installation, there's also a Harrods tea room, where a green-suited teddy bear stands outside to greet diners.

A 25-metre indoor swimming pool has views of planes arriving and departing and there's an adjacent hydrotherapy tub. Housed in the airport’s Vitality Wellbeing and Fitness Centre, this is also where travellers can squeeze in a workout or a game of squash. Sleep pods are available for travellers looking to get some rest between flights, and there are two airport hotels, one that's just opened, for those with overnight connections.

5. Beijing Daxing International Airport, China

Beijing Daxing International Airport in China. Photo: Zaha Hadid Architects

Beijing Daxing International Airport is undoubtedly one of the best-looking airports in the world. The Chinese airport is the biggest in the world by area and, when fully operational, will handle 100 million passengers annually.

Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, who died in 2016, designed the airport in the shape of a starfish, with five connected concourses. The 70-hectare terminal includes an eight-hectare ground transportation centre offering direct connections to Beijing, the national high-speed rail network and local train services, while the airport itself has four runways.

Inside, there’s a plethora of facilities including a yoga room, a futuristic children’s playground and a spa.

Five traditional Chinese gardens offer travellers a place to relax outdoors. Designed in consultation with Xu Bing, one of China’s most prominent contemporary artists, the spaces feature wooden benches, pavilions, and winding pathways lined with greenery.

The airport also has a huge collection of artwork — most of which was designed by Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts — and corridors have interactive LED art screens that spring into action as travellers walk by.

6. Helsinki Airport, Finland

With a modern Nordic design, Helsinki Airport has a 24-hour art gallery, a nearby aviation museum and a year-round Christmas cabin for travellers to visit.

Paintings hang on terminal walls and the airport also houses temporary exhibits. The dragonfly-shaped Concorde sculpture and the wind-powered Skydreamer sculpture are permanent fixtures for travellers to visit.

Aukio is a soothing oasis inspired by Finland’s nature that consists of a curved 360-degree LED screen filled with soundscapes and visual projections of the seasons. The landscapes change every 10 minutes and include a dark night scene on a lake shore as well as a northern winter wonderland lit up by the northern lights. The speakers play sounds such as birdsong, the rippling of a stream and the whispering of the wind, and interactive screens allow visitors to create their own digital art.

Maja Living Room is a space for travellers to relax and stretch before their flight. It has a yoga room, stall bars, a balance beam and comfy armchairs and is designed for all ages. There’s also a wellness area where travellers can get a haircut, a massage or enjoy a Finnish sauna session and a summer cottage play area where children can jump into a mock lake, climb on fake rocks or spin on giant grass reeds.

The year-round Christmas Cabin at Helsinki Airport. Photo: Finavia

In the Christmas Cabin, passengers can immerse themselves in the holiday spirit at any time of the year. Santa's Book of Names and helpful elves can be found in the Scandi-style cabin. And, if that wasn't enough, the nearby aviation museum has a collection of more than 80 aircraft and is a 20-minute walk from the terminal.

The airport continues to upgrade — its new entrance opened in December last year and the remaining works will be completed by 2023. They include state-of-the-art technology allowing passengers going through security to leave all electronics and liquids inside hand baggage — something that would be fantastic if rolled out at more airports around the world.

Updated: September 23, 2022, 10:02 AM
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