A new sense of place at Fiumicino

Once upon a time, Toblerone, the Swiss chocolate bar patented even before it hit the market, won fame as an exotic classic. You couldn’t find itat your local store, but you could always find it at an airport and bring it home to your loved ones after a trip.


Now you can find it almost everywhere and it is owned by Mondelez International, which also makes Philadelphia cream cheese – the most sold cheese in all of Europe! – and Oreo cookies which recently bought Cadbury’s. These products are in supermarkets everywhere.


Meanwhile, real excitement and most of the growth in the chocolate arena is linked to specialty artisanal products, including bean-to-bar concoctions and extremely local brands.


All this does relate to airports! Once upon a time, airports were the beacons of modernity, globalization and glamor. Like Hilton Hotels, they rose out of their environments to project a commanding, and rather homogenous style. Air travel steadily grew, budget airlines made their raucous debut, and people began choosing credit cards in order to accumulate frequent-flyer miles. Toblerone, as it were, went from a delicacy to a norm.


Now a new era is emerging. People want not Toblerone but what Toblerone once was: something distinctive.


Airports today are a delicate mixture of two forces: on the one hand, they are what the French anthropologist Marc Augé called the perfect instance of a “non-place”, where your main interest is in going somewhere else. On the other, they are the modern equivalent of city gates, and Fiumicino’s Area E now physically represents a new place on earth and thus partakes of what Leonardo Da Vinci called “the ornament and food of the mind of man”.


Rome’s Fiumicino airport has taken to heart the idea of the Italian Renaissance artist after whom it is named. The transformation, most recently embodied in the new Area E for non-Schengen flights and by the travelers who use them, is becoming a place of its own.


Indeed, as an official jested at the new departure area’s inauguration, Tom Hanks might have acted differently if he were in Rome than he did at the nameless airport in which he was trapped for the film “Terminal”.


For one, there are extremely large and comfortable sofa chairs – bright red to boot – for lounging under the enormous skylight and the LED-speckled ceiling. Anyone who travels knows that the availability of a comfortable place to sit is gold. That basic and unconditional amenity is in place. Layovers and delays need no longer spell suffering.


But the new “Made in Italy”- themed urban piazza is, in all regards, an enticing shopping mall, albeit on a human scale as opposed to the dying behemoths that 40 years ago appeared to be the all-conquering western retail format. Layovers and delays can almost be welcome given the kind of shops and eateries at Fiumicino today.


And that’s the key shift. Airports are regaining the mystique they had in the early days of air travel, and doing so with the far more demanding public of today.


As the Gensler airport research consultancy puts it, airports had devolved into places that were all about waiting: parking, checking in, multiple security checks, treks to departure gates where one would… wait to board. Tomorrow’s airport must be about making the inevitable “processing” of travelers an invisible function, allowing them to enjoy a relaxed and efficient pace and abundant amenities.


There’s much hype and many clichés about new airport designs, understandably due to their massive cost and often stretched efforts to appear grandiose. But the experience that matters is inside.


An example: recently a traveller had a travelling misfortune at a large airport. While the catalyst was uncontrollable, the experience was unbearable, stressful and exhausting, and all in crowded conditions with many other people naturally in the same situation at the same time. It so happened that half of the time in purgatory was spent, due to re-routing, at another, smaller airport in the same country, onewhere human traffic flowed so smoothly that it almost appeared empty, where the choice of what to eat was considerable and where there were abundant and spacious relaxation areas.


Fiumicino’s new terminal achieves the alchemy of being both a key part of a major hub and retaining the easygoing feel of a more provincial airport. It’s a subtle shift from Hilton’s International Style of yore to an Individual Preference paradigm based on craft skills and reviving authentic traditions.


That is, by good fortune, the distinguishing genius of Italian urbanism, as most people would agree that small and mid-sized Italian towns are miraculously charming and diverse compared to anywhere else in the world. That’s not some mere residue of history but an enduring trait whose algorithm has proven too complex to copy anywhere. It’s an opportunity Fiumicino has taken to heart.


There are more than 40 retail shops in the new Area E and around a dozen places to eat anything from fresh pasta or wok-fried Asian noodles to a grab-and-go panino sandwich featuring bresaola – a dried beef that incidentally is made from Brazilian zebu beef, a reminder that local and global styles need not be antithetical.


Now, airport shops have a long history. Indeed, do-it-all duty free stores have long been had some of the most homogenous product offerings on the face of the earth. That’s no longer interesting in an age when true luxury often means the most local rather than the most universally branded item. As Da Vinci said, simplicity can be the ultimate sophistication.


Now the proverbial gift a traveler may purchase while transiting Fiumicino need not be obviously something found at an airport.


So, while large Toblerone packs remain a generic duty-free staple, today you find truly artisanal fresh mozzarella, which is hard to find outside of Italy. That’s quite a revolution, representing sweeping changes in supply chains – packaging mozzarella cannot by nature be too compressed - as well as an approach aimed at celebrating a customer’s varied wants rather than ticking their box of needs.


To be sure, there’s a double bonus at work in Area E, as people departing for destinations outside the Schengen area gain exemption from the 22% value-added tax, making it essentially preferable to do a certain kind of shopping at the airport rather than while sight-seeing or engaged in business. That’s one of the main reason why Luxottica, the world’s largest fashion eyewear manufacturer, calls airport sales the “Formula 1 of retail.”


The new Area E offers an ample price range from the fineries of Bottega Veneta and Ermenegildo Zegna to faster fashion brands such as Emporio Armani and Benetton. For anyone daunted by the Italian language, there are personal shoppers available at no charge to help in English or Mandarin Chinese.


How big is the change? Consider that retail revenue is now the leading source at London’s Heathrow Airport, overtaking airline fees. Expect a similar trend in Rome.


One evident reason for that is that travelers are captives in the airport space, neatly dubbed “dwell time” in the trade. Still, a harried traveler may not be the most eager consumer, while having a pleasant ambiance may ease their purse strings.


A survey by the Swiss market research firm DKMA found that the most satisfied passengers at airports are twice as likely to shop and to spend more while doing so.


It all depends on setting the mood.


From a purely commercial point of view, sales will benefit if travelers spend more time at the airport. But it’s actually unstressed time that counts – which is why Area E is designed to allow people to reach their departure gates rapidly, which is also appreciated by the always-on-the-run business traveler.


Convincing airport users that they need not stress out is no longer an art form but a design imperative.


That this is a challenge is clear in Attimi, one of the new eateries in Area E, which puts hourglasses on each table in a sign the restaurant accepts the challenge of delivering rapid service. The menu, mainly healthyish Mediterranean Diet fare, is designed by Heinz Beck, one of Rome’s most successful chefs, and aims to offer meals that can be ordered, prepared and eaten within half an hour. A savvy extra is that they can also be ordered on a take-away basis and brought on board a plane, where food has always been an expensive disaster.