I Learn What It’s Like to Experience an Airport as a 70 Year Old

LAX - Los Angeles

I get a whole lot of pitches from PR folks, and very few of them catch my eye. But about a month ago, I received a note from an agency working with Corgan Associates, a national architecture firm. These guys acquired an “aging suit” to help them better understand how airport design impacts the elderly and those with limited mobility. I was given the opportunity to go strap on the suit and walk around LAX. It was an eye-opening experience.

Corgan does work in a lot of different areas, but aviation is a big one. The company has done everything from city ticket offices and lounges to much bigger projects. The Dallas Love Field modernization? They did that. They also did Atlanta’s international concourse, the SkyClub at JFK, and the renovation of Terminal 6 at LAX. It was there that I met one of their architects, Michael Steiner.

In between Terminals 5 and 6 on the ticketing level, there are some old ticket counters that are walled off. Those are now offices, and it’s where I was invited in to put on the suit. The “suit” came out of Germany and it’s not really a suit at all. It’s a whole bunch of different pieces that come together to make you feel about 30 years older than you are.

  • There are awkward shoes that slip on over your own to make you feel less steady with every step you take.
  • Weights are put on your ankles to make it harder to walk.
  • Braces go on your knees and elbows to make your joints stiffer and to limit mobility.
  • Gloves and weights go on your hands to make them harder to raise and grasp. (They also have gloves that have electrical impulses to simulate shaky hands.)
  • A weight vest goes on your upper body to make you feel more sluggish.
  • A brace goes around your neck to limit movement.
  • A variety of goggles are available to simulate different sight issues that develop as you get older.
  • Headphones are put on to reduce hearing by various amounts. I wore ones that reduced it by 10dB.

And what did I look like after strapping this on?

Wearing the Aging Suit at LAX

Sweet mother. Can you imagine seeing me walk toward you in an airport looking like that?! That would scare the living crap out of even a mildly cautious traveler, so they gave me something else to soften things a bit.

Aging Suit with a Vest

Ah, much better. With the work vest on, it was time to venture out.

Of course, as people age, the changes are more gradual and not as noticeable. But when you age 30 years in 5 minutes? Wow is it hard to adjust.

Fortunately I didn’t have to go through security. I was instead escorted through to walk around the concourse in Terminal 5 and get a feel for life as an old man with limited mobility. The first thing I noticed? Even the gradual slope between different parts of the terminal was a whole lot more challenging to navigate than I expected. And escalators? That was quite an adventure getting on and off.

The suit is new to Corgan, but they’re already starting to prove some of their hypotheses. Escalators, for example, may seem like a great idea for moving people quickly, but as the population ages, more people are going to have trouble using them. That’s why Corgan has tried to push more toward high capacity, fast elevators (with stairs as an alternate for the able-bodied) when needed to go between levels.

The next thing I noticed was how much more isolated I felt. Simulating hearing loss and having goggles restrict my vision meant I felt more removed from the situation at hand. It was disorienting for me, and I can imagine it being overwhelming for people in a new, strange location like an airport.

Those goggles were actually really crazy. Apparently as you age, your vision turns more yellow. I’m sure you don’t notice it when it’s a gradual change over time, but it gets really significant. Here’s a picture from the middle of Terminal 5 without any goggles.

Regular Vision

Now here’s the same picture taken with the goggles. (Best I could do since my phone didn’t fit fully inside.)

Vision with 70 Year Old Eyes

The first thing I noticed was that signage gets a whole lot tougher to read. I was told that different colors can interact to form a much different picture for older folks. That’s one of the big takeaways here. Way-finding and signage is incredibly important in any airport, but it needs to be done in a way that’s more accessible to everyone.

We walked from Terminal 5 over to Terminal 6 and I was getting quite the workout. At several points, I just wanted to get out of the way. Apparently creating way-stations through busy corridors in an airport is something that’s finally being thought about in greater detail. People need a place where they can take a break and regroup.

After walking back from Terminal 6 to the office, I was exhausted. I was dripping in sweat (it was hot in there), and I was really surprised at how different it felt to walk through an airport in that suit.

I have no idea how accurate that experience is, but it certainly makes sense that the older you get, the more impairment you’ll have in a variety of ways. Corgan has just started using this suit, but it thinks it’s going to help inform design at a time when the baby boomers just keep getting older.

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38 comments on “I Learn What It’s Like to Experience an Airport as a 70 Year Old

    1. SEAN – So they did have gloves that give electrical pulses to simulate involuntary reactions in hands. I tried that on in the office but not out on the concourse. It can vary in frequency and degrees of shock, and it was pretty interesting to feel it. Also, they have a bunch of different goggle types that allow you to simulate all kinds of visual impairments.

      1. Ah fascinating. As someone who has CP & a visual challenge I applaud this as a way to educate everyone on what is necessary to make all public facilities accessible.

        Brett – you brought up escalators in your piece & it reminded me that at LAX T6, to reach gates 65 – 69b you are required to go up a healthy amount of stairs. Yes there is an elevator, but it is off to the left of the escalators & not obvious to most travelers. Contrast this to T1 in LAS where the entire terminal is wide open with excelant sitelines & all vertical circulation can be spotted despite the crowds & slot machines.

        There is a term – universal design – that describes in detail what is required to make facilities in public & at home user friendly regardless of ones own ability.

        1. SEAN – Yes, the problem with T6 at LAX is it’s effectively 3 different buildings, and they’re all at a different grade. The first was the rotunda area which is the original building where some of the gates and most of the concessions are now. Then years ago they finally connected those rotundas to ticketing above ground and added gates there. Those are the former Continental, now American gates. Lastly there was the add-on past the rotunda toward the runways where there are those escalators. With an existing hodge podge like that, it would be a nightmare to try to make it work better without just knocking it down. Existing structures are always the biggest issue.

  1. Regarding escalators, did the architect say whether they were designed so people would stop moving or continue walking at a normal pace? It seems like if you just plop onto it, a person walking on steps at a normal pace is faster. It could just be a problem with user-error (i.e. laziness–though the actual mobility impaired should use the alternate elevators).

    1. Eric Morris – He didn’t say, but I think the point was that people don’t keep walking at a normal pace anyway. It could be a mix of things, but I think you combine elderly, people with impairments, people with kids (which I would definitely consider an impairment in an airport!), and people who are just trying to find their way in a foreign spot, then you probably get a lot of bottlenecks. Personally, I hate the idea of having to wait for an elevator, but if they have high capacity elevators that are fast, maybe it’s not so bad.

      1. FYI – T5 at JFK has several high capacity elevators within the terminal it self & all garage/ AirTrain elevators are also high capacity.

      2. Thanks. I did some googling and some British researchers forced people to stand two abreast on the escalators in a station in the Tube for two weeks and determined not having a “walk” path is best. I don’t like standing so seek out steps–but that is a personal problem, and many times when I am with my kids the elevator is the only safe option anyway.

  2. Me and my wife are in late seventies and can relate to this. The biggest problem that we experience is the distance. From check-in to boarding gate and arrival gate to baggage claim, the airports are becoming longer and longer. On some airports wheel chairs are limited and on some non existent. On some airports there may be inordinate wait times for getting the wheel chairs which leads to tense moments. After waiting and waiting, if you decide to take a walk then the distance becomes a serious problem. Since elderly population is increasing airport authorities have to resort to out of the box thinking to solve this problem.

  3. Hi Cranky –

    As a 73-year old (you knew you’d get email like this, didn’t you?), I have to at least grump at you about using age as a measure of mobility restrictions. I go to the gym 3-4 times a week, work an urban farm, lift bee hive boxes (about 60-70 lbs average), and walk around airports about as fast as the next person. Yes, I have diabetes and recently had a hip replaced, but none of that slows me down.

    My impression of my peers is that the caricature of age that you present is to a considerable extent out of date, at least in the 60/70 -year range. I do agree, however, that airports present a challenge to mobility-challenged people, but I think that these days mobility has less to do with age and more to do with illness and plain old luck of the draw.

    I’m not trying to discourage testing of the sort you did. I just think that it should be focused more on the restrictions, which often strike much younger people, than age.

    All that aside, I’m an avid reader of Cranky Flier, and I’m going to recommend your Cranky Concierge services to some of my friends.

    1. jspencer – Certainly it’s not going to apply for everyone the same way. But the reality is that age does weigh people down and slow mobility. Maybe the right number is 80. And maybe in 50 years it’ll be 90. So the actual age itself isn’t the issue. It’s more the fact that age will indeed slow everyone down eventually.

  4. The escalator issue is real. When my mom and dad were younger they had no problems with escalators. They are now in their mid-70s and have difficulty in judging when to step on the escalator (combination of vision issues and reduced physical mobility). And this can result in overall loss of confidence in being able to navigate the terminal. Also, as you slow down, the fast pace of others racing to get to their gate can also distract you (I’ve seen this with my parents as well). This was a great article on an issue I had not really thought about.

  5. Next time, try navigating the airport wearing a small back pack and pulling a maximum size and weight roll aboard. Older folks need elevators rather than escalators when struggling with luggage.

  6. Interesting!. Good Halo warrior look. I’m (currently) a speedwalker, and don’t have issues getting around, I just have to navigate around the slow. Fascinating to understand how it can feel to be slowed down, I’d like to try that myself.

    For me with escalators, it would help if they were wider, and more clearly marked, like in HKG. Stand this side, walk this side. There often isn’t enough room on airport escalators to walk, especially with baggage.

  7. Approaching 77, with air travel dating back to 1952, a dozen times back in forth “across the pond” in all 3 classes, “faster or more furious” from 1994-2008, I don’t need an “old suit”. I’m sure there are many here willing able to comment on air travel as “oldsters”. Combined with all the cr*p with which it’s been infected (and to experienced, travel-hardened cynics, the TSA’s rank ranks rank – That’s right! 3 of the same words, each with a different meaning) – among the most cumbersome, ill-staffed, poorly administered, ineffective bunch of bureaucrats and place holders ever foisted upon an insecure populace), there’s simply “No Joy in Mudville” (as it sez in the old poem).

    Your observations from the perspective of the semi-/almos/a bit disabled are largely correct on many points, but it’s less the airports than the access to and from flights and the facilities. My bride of 50+ years is more hardened than I, and has reached the edge of “Never Again”. I’m not as nauseated by it all, but see absolutely no reason to go by air on any trip of less than 2 hours flight time (which these days means adding another 3 hours minimum getting there, getting on, and getting somewhere afterwards). In the past 12 months our crowded (Ha!) social calendars have taken us from Texas to Central Florida and back twice. Well, even Detroit’s standard tin and the time involved is preferable to flying (and there’s something to see along with bad food – better than no food!) along the way.

    As for me, it’s as much a matter of the Economy seat pitch, designed to fit very short Nepalese, as the rest of it, a lot less glamorous and certainly as uncomfortable as was my first trip, a long hot Summer day across the Southeastern US, bumping and bouncing along on the rigid wings of a DC-3.

  8. Wait until you turn 60, you won’t need a suit to feel 30 years older…..LOL

    But this suit is a good idea, having to deal with older parents/relatives I can tell you it’s a whole different way of life as you age. The escalators were a big issue and having an older person try and use a walker with an escalator is not a good thing. You do a lot of long walking in large open spaces so spaciing out seating is a big must to have for resting.

  9. As a 74 year old, I appreciate the thought that is going into this project. Age is perhaps not the best tag to put on the work. At the moment, none of the issues described are a problem, but there are a lot of folks with different levels of mobility, strength and airport savvy.
    Airport design needs to make sure they can get through the facility comfortably and efficiently.

  10. Yes, your experiences are pretty accurate to real life.  I am 62 years old with some hearing loss and vision issues.  The ramps and escalators are challenging, and the walking is very tiring.  And also, as you noted, one may not notice the problems piling on with age, but there is no avoiding them when you venture out.  Thank you for doing this and putting it in your blog.

  11. If those architects want to know how old folks manage (or struggle with) airports, why don’t they ask those old folks in person. I am one and would be happy to cooperate.

  12. Thank you for sharing. Very interesting article indeed; what an experience for travelers with physical restrictions (not just age based). I wonder if we will start to see more motorized carts with drivers to shuttle between gates/terminals or more wheel chair assistants. Thanks for all of your articles, lots of great information!

  13. Great topic. My #1 travel buddy, my Mom, is in her early 70s. We’ve traveled many parts of the world both modern and developing and get around great. But, the biggest challenges are steep curbs/steps (thankfully I have a shoulder for that) and escalators. She even prefers a long stairway (with railing) over an escalator.

    In large airports, metro stations, malls, – we often spend time hunting in back corners or corridors for the elevator, which can be a hike in itself.

    If anything better signage to elevators would be useful, since it might be assumed elevators are only used by service personnel or wheelchair users, and everyone else heads straight to the escalators.

  14. I hope you really don’t think every 70-year-old person lives in the world the experts are trying to portray. Wait until your 70 and see how mad you get when you read this BS.

    1. Research is exceptionally solid that individuals as they age have more fragile bones, loss of muscle strength, and increased risk for serious fractures and damage. There is no substantive argument physiological argument that this is not true, and we know with age, that these numbers skyrocket. Let’s take hip fractures for example. While only roughly 1% of women and .7% of men by age 70 have had a hip fracture, the following numbers demonstrate how exponentially quick the risk goes up. One in five women over the age of 80 will have had a hip fracture, and by 90 basically half would have had hip fractures. The curve for men is a bit shallower, with incidences lagging behind women by quite a bit until age 80, when they become roughly comparable. The point I am making is facts have to drive the discussion of accessibility, and while it would be ideal if we could prevent through interventions many of the difficulties of the aging process, the reality is as we have an older population these issues will become paramount whether we like it or not.

  15. Everything you describe (except the color change) is as my mother reported to us. She always traveled on her own and took her last plane flight 3 years ago at age 98. I was particularly glad that you noticed that seemingly small grades can be big problems. She stopped taking escalators in her 80’s. She couldn’t see them clearly enough and was afraid she wouldn’t react quickly enough to “hop off” at the end. I agree jspencer, however, that picking 70 is arbitrary and ageist. It’s not the number, it’s the mobility.

  16. As someone who’s approaching 70, I’m happy to see someone at least thinking about the issues around aging. Each of us ages differently. I get around fine 97% of the time, but have some minor issues with escalators, especially when they’re going down. In the end, attention to these details will help everyone, young and old alike. Most of us want to get older. As Mark twain put it, “It beats the alternative.”

  17. My 74 year old sister in law flies out of Denver to Chicago every year. She always asks for and gets a wheel chair assist getting from the entry to the gate. She is very active normally but said that walk would be just about impossible without the assist. Southwest which is her airline of choice has never given her a problem with the wheelchair. I say if you need it just ask and don’t be embarrassed about it.

  18. Cranky, Sneaky you are, as today’s The Donald’s 70th birthday!

    But, then, Hillary turns 69 in October, and Bernie is nearly 75.

    And, those poor airline pilots have to retire at 65, I believe it is. Of course, being in command of an airliner does require better mobility and cognitive skills than someone being the Pr…, well, whatever!

    As a WWII baby, I never thought I’d get old and things wouldn’t work quite as easy as they used to–mobility, sight, hearing, plumbing, you name it. Every time I take a flight from IAD to LAS, check my bag at that gorgeous IAD terminal, ride that wonderful aero-train to C/D, and then continue past the “Now entering Almost Heaven WVA” sign, I believe its says, then, Whosh, off to UA’s McCarron gate 56, or whatever, then to the tram, which is somewhere down near Tonapah and Area 51, and then to Terminal 4, near Mesquite, I believe it is, and a final near-whatever walk to Baggage Claim 19 (Is there a bag claim carousel anywhere more distant from its gate than UA’s carousel 19?) and…when did I get so old?

  19. Hi Brett, thanks for making light of that situation which my husband and I always have traveling together. He and I are knocking on 70 years now! You are appreciated.

  20. As an architect feel I should chime in here. While the age suit may be fun tech to geek out on its what I’d call sloppy programming. There is no better info gathering than interviewing of the actual users. If these guys have designed some big terminals around the country I suggest some post occupancy evaluations, aka, watching people. Should be pretty clear to see what is working and what isn’t.

  21. Glad to see people thinking about this. I’m completely deaf in one ear since birth, and hearing speech in the presence of high background noise is challenging — so, all airports, and especially gate areas, can be difficult.

    The solution is so easily at hand though — with the lovely big screens at every gate area, they only need to use them more effectively to help hearing impaired passengers! Stop wasting screen space with the weather at the destination, and start conveying useful information, such as the current state of the boarding process (e.g., zone/rows/whatever).

  22. I am 70 and took 7 flights from 1 June to 11 June. SEA/DFW/HOU/DFW/ORD/DBQ/ORD/SEA.

    I dare say the 30 something that came up with this idea has no clue what he/she is talking about.

    I have slowed some but this get up is insulting to Baby Boomers country wide.

  23. some may carp about writing that this is not an age issue – they are correct – it is a sight and mobility issue that is not necessarily age related. But there is also an age issue – how many 70+ year olds can wheel a carryon bag up or down an escalator (up is not so bad, down is a bit tricky) – and then walk for a very considerable distance to a gate. My flights are often at the end of a long long long terminal – I walk fairly quickly but it can take about 15 minutes to walk to the gate. Heaven help me if I need to change planes the the next flight is in another terminal that requires that I carry my bag down a flight of icy metal stairs to get onto a bus to the plane 9 (and reverse on the flight home)- Reagan Airport). I am a very active 70+ female -and it was a challenge for me. I do not need a wheelchair but it is tempting to ask for one in some airports (change from domestic to international at Miami for example- takes 20-30minutes to walk the distance.). Airports are not designed with the convenience of passengers – not even young and physically fit passengers. Inadequate seating, too much distance between gates and terminals, not enough visible elevators (Minneapolis is now a nightmare- two disconnected terminal – have to take a train from one to another) – etc. One does not need a suit to simulate aging – just common sense would tell you that airport design is not for the convenience of passengers.

    1. Amen. I’m almost 70. O’Hare, Newark, and Heathrow were our bugaboos on a recent trip to Europe. The escalators and walking distances while dealing with a roller bag and small carry on just about undid us!

  24. I wanted to make another comment on this subject. I was working for HP (America West, in case anyone forgot the name), when Terminal 4 in PHX was built. I thought the long moving sidewalks really helped people along when they were already tired from walking from the parking garage, standing in line for ticketing, luggage check-in, then security, and then down long halls to get to a gate. I’ve thought that more airports should include moving sidewalks to assist seniors, and mobility handicapped folks. And of course, thanks to the electric motorized carts to have folks safely moved to their gates of departure too. I still feel fortunate that I can still walk easily, but believe me there are times when it’s far too tiring.

  25. I think I am an average 70 yr old (actually 71) woman, but the only problem I have is the stiff knees…I wonder if you should have picked 80 yr old instead?

    I’d like to see comments from real 70 yr olds across the spectrum of gender, race, socio-economic strata

    1. Wow, this is an interesting subject for us in the “senior” category! I’m lucky because I’m so mobile …. just battle fibromyalgia on bad days, otherwise all’s well. I’m happy to see that you’re concerned Brett!

  26. Huh. Why didn’t they just ask me? No suit needed….I am 86 years old and travel ALOT. Have been in quite a few airports…and I have my favorites!
    In my trip planning, I try to route myself through those favorite airports.

  27. For those who are commenting about the use of “70” as elderly–please take a quick look through the article again. CF mentions 70 years of age in his title, but the article talks about the suit making the wearer feel about 30 years older than they are. I am guessing that 70 years is a relatively arbitrary number that reflects CF’s current age + 30 years.

    Also, please note that no where does the article even imply that Corgan has not interviewed actual airport users or performed post occupancy evaluations, etc. However, no matter how many studies you read, or how many interviews you do, as far as I am concerned, if the designer has a visceral memory of these challenges, they are likely to change from someone who makes changes because some “statistics” told them to, to a strong champion for the appropriate design changes.

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