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