The Next Generation Airport: Adapting to Millennials


They live differently, buy differently, and use technology differently. We’re talking about Millennials, who are currently forming the largest and most powerful consumer generation. They’ve already revolutionized several industries, but there’s more disruption to come and the air travel sector is no exception.

The Millennial Moment: Why Airports Should Get Ready for Take-Off

Millennials are classed as people born between 1981-1996. With 1.8 billion Millennials worldwide, it’s the largest generation since the Baby Boom. Today, the youngest Millennials are 22 years old while the oldest are 37 years. This means that they have come of age and now form a powerful wave of consumers - and travelers.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), passenger demand will almost double from 2016 to 2036. The association expects  7.2 billion air travelers in 2035 compared to “only” 3.8 bn in 2016. That means 3.4 bn more travelers in an industry that has been flying high for the last 50 years. However, the years to come not only bring more growth to the sector, they also bring a new generation.

While Gen X’ers (people born between 1965-1980) dominated the air travel market until 2015, millennial passengers have overtaken them and are predicted to dominate the industry until 2035 - maybe even longer.


As Millennials are now adults and have a disposable income, they can travel as they please. They value being unique and a major part of growing their identity is through culturally rich experiences and exploration of the unknown - something they like to achieve through traveling. This makes them the most important consumer generation for the air travel industry - but how will airports transform to meet the demands of these impatient, curious, and demanding individuals?

Asian Sensation

More than 50% of the air travel industry’s predicted growth will stem from Asia Pacific. Likewise, four out of the five fastest growing markets will be from Asia. Why this is relevant? Millennials.

Today, there are 350 million Millennials in China, compared to 70 million in the US. India, which is predicted to be the youngest country in the world by 2020, has no less than 440 million millennials which is more than one third of the country’s population. Looking at these numbers, it’s not surprising that China will become the single largest air travel market in 2029 or that India will overtake the UK in 2026 as the 3rd single largest market (source: IATA).

Due to significantly lower income levels in previous generations, Millennials in developing countries are the first real consumers in these markets. This makes them eager consumers that love to travel.

Connectivity - a Basic Human Need

The Millennial generation stands out from its predecessors in several ways but the most distinct difference is probably the use of technology. Raised on Wi-Fi and a smartphone in their pocket, they crave connectivity. Some even say that this generation considers digital connectivity as vital as any other basic human need, such as food or shelter.

While traditionally basic needs such as food and drinks are usually sufficiently tended to with a broad culinary offer, airports often fail to provide a free and stable Wi-Fi connection. In a recent study, Speedtest has ranked free airport Wi-Fi and cellular speeds at 30 airports across North America. The study shows that while some airports offer passengers high-speed connection, air travelers in other airports have to settle for speeds that “were slower than any Wi-Fi we [Speedtest] saw in Africa”.

Studies of European, Asian, and African airports show that this is a global problem. In July 2018 the global average mobile speeds were 22.81 download Mbps and 9.13 upload Mbps. However, 66.67% of North American airports failed to reach this download speed while the same goes for 77.78% of the European airports and 80% of both the Asian and African airports.

Admittedly, it seems a bit silly - and not very innovative - to conclude that the next generation airport should offer high-speed Wi-Fi, but nevertheless this is the case if airports want to fulfil the needs of their most important consumer generation.

The Convenience Generation

Despite the sluggish Wi-Fi, a lot of airports actually have their own airport app but do they use it to its full potential? Considering the Wi-Fi speeds, probably not. Millennials expect to be able to use mobile technology in every aspect of their lives - they purchase, research, pay for products, chat with friends, and use social media. The convenience of the cell phone is paramount to the Millennials.

Booking flights, checking in, tracking changes to flight schedules, etc. are all things that can already be done via mobile app. More still, with Indoor Positioning and Navigation, airports offer their next generation customers unprecedented convenience levels, while profiting from it at the same time.

Handling a long layover at an airport can be quite tiresome, especially if passengers don’t know their way around. Where to find the souvenir shop? Which restaurant is recommended and where is it located? The gate has changed - what’s the fastest way to get there? All these questions can easily be answered within airport apps using Indoor Navigation.


Sixty-six percent of millennials already book their trips via their smartphone, and there’s no doubt that this number will only increase as airports and airlines get more technologically advanced. In the Netherlands, Eindhoven Airport N.V. recently published a video of the future airport showing how everything from booking and checking in, to ordering transportation and buying duty-free products is handled through the phone.

In China, the majority of consumers shop online more than once a week. It’s well known that the country is at the forefront of technology with Indian Millennials following closely behind. Keeping in mind that these two countries combined have 790 million Millennials and that they’ll be two of the fastest growing air travel markets in the future, underlines just how important technology will be in the next generation airport.

As older generations may not feel comfortable entrusting every step of their journey to their phone, there will of course be a transition period. However, it’s clear that (mobile) technology will be at the epicenter of the next generation airport.

A World of Experiences

Millennials want experiences. They’re forcing retailers to move into uncharted waters with their increasing demand for in-store experiences, they’re twice as likely as any other generation to seek adventure, and 72% of the them would like to increase their spending on experiences over physical things.

That’s why airport architects are busy rethinking the traditional terminal experience. Several airports have recently morphed into community spaces with butterfly gardens, indoor skating rinks, IMAX movie theaters, beer halls, yoga rooms, and children’s playgrounds, but this is just the beginning of the physical airport disruption.

According to architects, airports will become “a place people want to be, rather where they go for transportation”. Although travelers are waiting impatiently for this transformation, we won’t see any major changes in the near future, but there’s a good chance that today’s airport will be a community with a town-square feeling in a decade or two.

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