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Your airport has something to tell you

Posted by Chad O'Connor  November 27, 2013 06:00 AM

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Are you a holiday traveler? A frequent business flyer? You may at this moment be stuck at the airport, staring at your mobile device, seeking distraction from the long lines and travel delays ahead.

Take a break to look around (then come back and finish reading). What is the airport telling you about where you are? Do you notice soaring architecture? Restaurants serving regional specialties? Sports shops hawking the jerseys of local teams? Advertisements for nearby museums? Do you feel that this airport you’re trapped in is consciously letting you know that it’s part of a larger place? A region? A city? A country?

If you feel that way after being at Boston Logan, it’s no coincidence. The Massachusetts Transportation Authority, or Massport, must address many concerns in running Logan – safety, efficiency, comfort – but branding the region is right up there on the priority list. With 30 million travelers using the airport each year, the Logan team understands that the airport is a platform to advertise Boston, Massachusetts, and New England more broadly.

“It is something we think about each and every day,” says Matthew Brellis, Massport’s Media Relations Director. “Part of Massport’s mission is to connect Massachusetts and New England to the world and the world to us.”


Massport / Boston Logan


Terminal A at Boston Logan

Hear the crickets and birds chirping in the Central Garage elevators? They’re local; “Sounds of New England“ is one of the largest public art exhibits in Boston. See the banners celebrating Massachusetts’ sports champions in Terminal C? The “Freedom Trail” leading international transfers from terminal E to C? The preponderance of posters and murals promoting regional attractions? The cranberry rocking chairs? It’s all intentional. “We target the people who use the airport,” reports Brellis. “We try to instill a sense of place in everything from our artwork to our concessions.”

Public diplomacy, the art of using communication and culture to accomplish foreign policy goals, comes in many shapes. Traditional forms include international broadcasting (think Voice of America), visiting scholars (Fulbright), and cultural exchanges (Duke Ellington in the USSR). Newer public diplomacy tactics integrate commercial and cultural interests, use experiential programming, and embrace social networks. Commercial airport design, while rarely referred to as a public diplomacy tactic, has been important to regional and national promotion since, well, commercial airport design.

Take Amsterdam’s Schiphol, much more of an international hub than Logan, with nearly twice as many passengers using the airport each year. It’s important for Schiphol to show off the Netherlands, considering that 41% of the airport’s passengers are only passing through. It’s Holland’s big chance to sell itself, and Schiphol doesn’t miss out.


Schiphol Airport


The Schiphol Airport Library for travelers.



If you’re at Schiphol right now, you will surely notice the predominant orange of the beloved national soccer team (not to mention the royal family). You may confront large, stand-alone multimedia displays highlighting leading Dutch businesses. Check out the café with tables built to resemble Holland’s famous Delft pottery. Try, and fail, to avoid the ubiquitous tulips and butterflies. So much around you – regardless of your destination – tells a story about the Netherlands.

Want to entertain your children? An indoor pseudo-park (complete with birdsong) doubles as a science museum-cum-rest stop, with child-friendly displays and games accompanied by a row of lawn chairs for tired grown-ups – all subtly demonstrating the Dutch commitment to green space. Need to recharge your device? Do so with pedal-power at a bike charge station, invoking the outdoors, green energy, and the well-known Dutch propensity for two-wheeled travel. (There’s a “Schiphol cycle route” that circles the airport, as well as bike paths to the surrounding cites.)

Perhaps the most over-the-top attraction at Schiphol is the free museum inviting you to spend your inter-flight time viewing works by Dutch Masters. Check out the “Typically Dutch” exhibition “showcasing typical Dutch scenes: the Dutch countryside, Dutch waters, Dutch towns, Dutch royalty, Dutch people and their families.” Get the picture?

Why do these and other airports try so hard? Because they’re trying to sell you, traveler, on the region they serve. Promoting the social, cultural, and economic vitality of their surrounding area is both in the interest of airports themselves and of the public that relies on them. After all, they want to attract more travelers, airlines, and routes, and a vibrant regional economy makes that possible. The daily flights between Logan and Schiphol are symbolic themselves, “linking two innovative economies” according to Ilse van Overveld, head of Dutch public diplomacy in the USA.

So, traveler: what is your airport trying to sell you, today? Innovation? Red Sox? Liberty? Tulips?

Is it working?

Jed Willard works on public diplomacy challenges at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Purple Strategies Inside the Beltway, and various other locales around the world. He lives in Cambridge and flies BOS-AMS every so often.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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