Dear Yanni...Why are airports so confusing?

Dear Yanni...Why are airports so confusing?


Dear Yanni,

Why are airports so confusing? Any tips on navigating all of the inconsistent signage and construction? 

- Lost in Los Angeles 

TL;DR: There is no consistent jurisdiction for signage across airports, so you’ll need to pay close attention as you go. And don’t expect the style of signage to stay consistent in one airport for long.

Travel by airplane necessitates one major thing: airports. Trouble is that they can be confusing, overwhelming and even the ones we often visit can change enough to get you to the wrong place. One of the major challenges in the US is that there is a lack of a universal wayfinding standard. This means that while airports may be similar, you can expect varying signage at each airport. We can often expect some roadside signage that displays which airlines are served at which terminals, some signage for rental car pick up and drop offs (hopefully) and some indications of connections to transit. Within airports there can be tv screens that list arrivals and departures on older monitors, as well as digital signs that point to check in desks, but static signs still are placed at many US airports as well.

What travelers may not realize is that signage has differing jurisdictions across airports, leading to various elements of information across the network. Out of home advertising companies compete for airport business as a place to catch many valuable views for brands or tourism. To make sure to maximize opportunities to grab some of that attention, out of home companies have worked diligently to get exclusive deals with airports and place their own digital signage. As part of many of those deals, digital signs are also promised for airport wayfinding, which can also sometimes contain advertising. Airports are therefore increasingly relying on an external vendor with an interest in advertising dollars to solve for their dynamic displays and digital signage may not always be oriented in the best way to help with navigating an airport as a result. 

With many disparate information systems across airports, one isn’t quite sure where to look for what information. Baggage claim information is frequently posted on LED scrolling screens, perhaps with some televisions listing claim numbers. Public transportation is often through a different governmental organization that has a different signage standard. Rideshare companies have slowly been embraced by many airports, but the signage on where to pick up a rideshare can be lacking, with small static signs or simple stickers directing travels and provided by those companies rather than by the airport. Of late, the most changes have been happening in the space of rideshares, so it would behoove a traveler to review their preferred rideshare’s website or app for information on each airport as there have been major shifts to keep vehicles from crowding traditional passenger drop-off areas.

Some of my recent experience to my hometown airport of Boston proved to me that my overconfidence in knowing where things were wasn’t exactly helpful. I ended up in the international terminal for an international carrier that actually departed from elsewhere and ended up in the totally wrong area to pick up a ride when I came home. The best advice for navigating is to not necessarily expect things to remain the same as your last trip, so pay close attention to signs along the way, even if you think you know exactly where you’re going. 



About the Author: Yanni Poulakos
Yanni has had the travel bug from a young age. From traveling to over 50 countries and stints spent living in Asia, South America, Europe and the Caribbean, his insights into hacking personal and business travel are grounded in first-hand experience. As a former road warrior, he once covered every province in Italy in 6 weeks by car, served as a travel manager for dozens of colleagues across the US and Europe while leading a fundraising team, and customized exclusive travel experiences for a smattering of politicians and celebrities. No matter whether at home or on the road, Yanni stringently adheres to his approaches to nutrition and self-care, with a fervent commitment to help others do the same.