You Must Buy Before You Can Fly


A few years ago I was at the recently renovated Kristiansand-Kjevik airport, in Norway. My flight was delayed, so I looked around for somewhere to have a drink with the people who had come to see me off. But the café was on the other side of security control. An hour went by; no plane, no news — and no information desk. I would have to go to the boarding gates to find out what was happening, but the door that used to lead to the gates had gone, so I asked a security guard at the entrance to the duty free shop how to reach them. He said I would have to go through the shop. I explained I was just going to find out what was happening, expecting I’d be able to come back the same way. He said that wouldn’t be possible: if I went through the shop, I’d have to go through customs again.

Instead of going directly down a public corridor to the gates, I had to walk through a shop filled with toys, perfumes, chocolates and bottles of gin. The terminal used to be open-plan, but was now divided into three sections, with access from one to the next strictly controlled.

The next month, I found on the tarmac that my son, then aged two and a half, had filled his pockets with packets of sweets and a bottle of Chanel No 5 he had picked up in the duty free shop that all travellers had to pass through to get to the boarding gates.

These incidents were the inspiration behind the Duty Free Shop Project — to investigate the novel strategies for the organisation of space and foot traffic that are changing the nature and purpose of public spaces. At European airports I observed movements, objects, the attitudes of airport staff, the decor, lighting, design and signage, and drew maps to explain the changes and their significance.

Those responsible for the changes are the airport authorities, the transport ministries and the companies that manage the commercial spaces and airport services. It’s a theatrical production: they cast and train the stars and the extras: security guards, duty free shop staff, airline ground staff, customs officials, police — and travellers; they collaborate on the interior layout of the terminals; they decide on the decor, lighting and fields of vision, which areas should be “open” and which “closed”. Everything is designed to bring passengers to the point where they are ready to buy.

The airport authorities deny any involvement in the changes. Jo Kobro, former head of media relations at Oslo airport said: “The shop managers decide their own selling strategies.” (He was unable to look me in the eye.) But the stores make money and the airport authorities get a cut.

Retail therapy after the ordeal

The vulnerability of civil aviation became clear in the 1950s after two aircraft were blown up over North America by bombs in their baggage holds, in 1949 and 1955 (the bombers’ motives were marital infidelity and life insurance fraud). However, for nearly half a century more, airports were relatively open places where families came for an exciting day out, to stare at VIP passengers and daydream in front of posters advertising exotic destinations.

The bombings of UTA (Union des Transports Aériens) flight 772 in 1988 and Pan American Airlines flight 103 in 1989 led to stronger surveillance and security systems, but the 9/11 attacks marked a new era: air travel suffered a slump that lasted until 2005, and airlines and airport authorities faced an unprecedented crisis.

Many airports and airlines initially received massive public subsidies, especially in North America, but airports were soon told to cover their own running costs — all the more difficult because the taxes on air tickets had been significantly reduced, or even temporarily waived, to stimulate growth. Airport management was outsourced to private, public or mixed public-private enterprises.

The new managements’ solution was to turn airports into commercial spaces. Some became little towns, complete with supermarkets, duty free shops, parking garages, hotels, business and conference centres. The airports took a cut based on turnover (the figures are not published).

After 9/11 the airports also revised their approach to surveillance and security. The “outside world” is now strictly separated from the “inside world” and crossing from one to the other means being scanned, searched, patted down and dispossessed of any object that presents a “threat” (including a bottle of mineral water).

Airports have become hyper-commercialised and hyper-securitised spaces, in which travellers are held prisoner. Management companies have reorganised the flow of passengers through terminals, turning them into laboratories where they test subtle spatial modifications to determine how to make the most money from passengers, who are manipulated and channelled through specially designed zones filled with tempting merchandise.

Everything in the “inside” space is regulated, from the freedom to gather in groups to photography. No complaints or choices of route are allowed. It’s a capitalist and monopolistic economy, where just a few multinationals run hundreds of shops, restaurants, bars and airline ground services, contracted out to local operators. The right to information is denied: notices setting out “passenger rights” are placed where they are least visible, in dark corners or behind pillars. Advertising based on themes such as dreams, travel and sex distracts attention from the way public space has been hijacked.

The first step is to disorientate passengers. Security guards and duty free shop staff wear almost identical uniforms. Shop staff are responsible for keeping order in and around the shops; security guards act as touts for the shops. At Kristiansand-Kjevik, a guard pointed with authority to one of the two doors behind him, and so nearly all the passengers off a flight from Copenhagen were diverted into the duty free shop. Nobody saw the door next to it, which leads directly to baggage reclaim.

Directed to the shops

The signage uses the same graphic codes to direct passengers to the boarding gates and to advertise the shops, so passengers think they are getting information, but are actually reading an advertisement; they think they are setting off on their journey, only to end up in the shops. At London’s Gatwick Airport, the main toilets are inside the duty free shop and are treated as a customer amenity not a public resource. To board a plane at Brussels, passengers must pass through shops — enforced retail therapy after the ordeals of check-in and security control.

Less than a decade ago, airport commercial spaces, where there is a charge for everything, were separate from free public spaces, where everything is free. Today they have merged, and in London, Oslo, Bergen and Milan, “free” public corridors have simply disappeared. The two spaces sometimes exist side by side: the carefully designed commercial world, brightly lit, filled with merchandise, and with colour schemes dominated by brilliant white, bright yellow and red; the public spaces, where passengers may sit down — if they can find a seat, often a greenish grey. In airports such as Copenhagen, many seats have been removed to make room for restaurants and shops. These uncomfortable zones offer no frills: they are not seen as useful.

These changes affect only a few (only 10-15% of Europeans fly regularly), but they have prefigured what is now happening in other formerly public spaces, including rail and underground stations, whole streets and town centres. Paris’s Saint-Lazare Station has become a shopping centre; at Bodø, in central Norway, the whole of the main street has been privatised.

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