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Concourses Vs. Terminals – What Are The Differences?

Tegel Airport Closes Following Opening Of New BER Berlin Brandenburg Airport

BERLIN, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 08: An Air France passenger plane prepares departures as the last commercial flight at Tegel Airport on the airport's closing day on November 08, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. Berlin's new BER Berlin Brandenburg Airport, which finally opened last week nine years behind schedule, is replacing Tegel. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

When it comes to airport architecture, concourses and terminals are terms that one often hears. These two words are sometimes used almost interchangeably, but is this strictly correct. Let’s examine what the differences are between these two structures.
Terminal boundaries
An airport terminal is generally a more all-encompassing facility than a concourse. They generally consist of the buildings where passengers and crew pass through the necessary checkpoints that allow them to make their way from an airport’s ground transportation to its boarding gates.

The boundary for this is fairly clear-cut in terms of road transport, although the line can become a little more blurred when arriving by rail. Germany’s Frankfurt International Airport, for example, has two railway stations. While the long-distance Fernbahnhof is situated adjacent to Terminal 1 at FRA, the local Regionalbahnhof is located almost directly underneath its arrivals area. As such, one can see that the boundary between ground transport and terminals can be both vertical and horizontal.

All-in-one, or more than one?
Larger airports often have multiple terminals to sufficiently accommodate a given day’s aircraft and their passengers. The aforementioned Frankfurt International has two, with New York JFK boasting as many as six! London Heathrow had five, although the site of Terminal 1 is now being used to extend the new Terminal 2. Meanwhile, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has caused Terminal 4 to shut due to reduced traffic. This will remain the case throughout 2021.

On the other hand, smaller airports can have just one terminal building. These facilities are particularly all-encompassing, as they must offer all of an airport’s services under one roof. In extreme cases, this can mean checking in and passing through security just minutes away from one’s boarding gate. Speaking as someone who once went from plane to train in 10 minutes at London Southend, this condensed layout can also be beneficial when arriving at a small airport!

However, single-terminal operation does not mean that an airport has to be small. Indeed, the new Istanbul Airport is currently operating just one terminal. However, this is none other than the world’s largest terminal building under a single roof! This particular terminal features five concourses – but what exactly are these?

While terminals are more all-encompassing facilities, a concourse is a more specific structure. Specifically, the term generally refers to the area of a terminal where one finds its boarding gates. At larger terminals, these often protrude from the main building, as seen below.

Having multiple concourses can also be useful in EU airports for another reason. Setting aside a dedicated concourse for non-Schengen passengers saves having passport control checkpoints for every concourse. This would otherwise be a waste of resources, given that many European countries are part of the Schengen zone, in which passports are not necessary for international travel between member states for citizens of these countries.

While some terminals have their concourses attached, others are situated further away from the building. Known as satellite terminals, these concourses are generally accessed by walkways or light-rail systems. Examples can be found at airports such as London Heathrow, where the satellite concourses are designated as Terminals 5B and 5C. Madrid Barajas Airport has a similar setup, and designates its satellite terminal as 4S.

What’s the most impressive airport terminal that you’ve ever passed through? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!


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