Is Apple designing airport terminals now?

A cryptic announcement from United hints that Apple is working on a project for the airline company.

Is Apple designing airport terminals now?

[Photo: Michael Vi/iStock]

By Mark Wilson2 minute Read

It’s no secret that Apple spends a staggering $150 million a year on plane tickets from United. The technology company buys 50 business class seats every day to fly from San Francisco to Shanghai alone. No doubt, all these miles are necessary to coordinate the production of hardware that generates over $250 billion in revenue for Apple year but is actually produced 6,000 miles away from its headquarters. Now, the tech giant seems to have found a customer closer to home: Apple is in discussions with United about something to do with its SFO terminal.

“The Apple team in San Francisco has been in our baggage hold areas, customer service, and the lobbies,” said Linda Jojo, executive vice president at United Airlines Holdings Inc., at an event in Chicago last week, according to Bloomberg. Jojo admitted she was “being deliberately vague” on further details.

So what could those details be? One could easily imagine that Apple could be rethinking technologies to track and check bags, sure, or the way tickets are collected by customers. Apple could also be rethinking the architecture and interior design of the space. Heck, it could be developing the experience design—basically, the whole route of a consumer through a United terminal, down to details like how United employees engage with customers.

[Photo: Flickr user Mike Liu]

All these possibilities are feasible because Apple has executed pieces of them in the past.

Led by Jony Ive, the company’s design team worked closely with architects on their new circular headquarters, Apple Park, down to the furniture inside it. The company developed much of its impactful Apple retail store model, with its open spaces and friendly staff, in-house. And of course, the company has unparalleled expertise with all sorts of microelectronics that could address the logistical infrastructure of moving people and their belongings through the piping that is air travel. That’s all table stakes.

SFO could be a test bed for Apple to tap a new market. After all, built environments are getting smarter and more responsive. Airbnb is literally considering how future homes will reshape themselves to our will. Apple wouldn’t need to reinvent tech as we know it to develop customized iOS products built for travel environments and offices.

Of course, there could also be another motivator at play in Apple’s collaboration with the airline. SFO’s Terminal 3 (where United is located) is kind of shabby, especially by millionaire traveler standards. It’s devoid of the glitz and glam of SFO’s gleaming Terminal 2, which was redesigned by global architecture firm Gensler and won several awards when it opened in 2011. Perhaps money isn’t the primary motivator for Apple’s newest pet project. Perhaps it’s just that with so many Apple employees traveling for work so often, Terminal 3 is really an extension of their office.

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