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What is an Airport Terminal?

  • avatar
    Jonathan Chum

The airport terminal is the building that provides services to passengers arriving or departing from the airport.

Your local airport may be known by one name such as LaGuardia or O'Hare International Airport. That refers to the entire complex including runways, parking garages, hangars, and access roads. The terminal refers to the building that you enter for arrivals or departures. Larger airports may have multiple terminals, some of which are dedicated to major airlines or only international flights. Your ticket should indicate which terminal you should use for the easiest and fastest access to your gate.

However, if you have ever visited an airport, you know that a lot goes on in the terminal. We have broken down how the terminal functions so that you will have an easier time finding your way during your next trip.

How does an Airport Terminal Work?

Most passengers will use six common areas at the terminal while they wait to board their plane or while leaving.  The areas that you need to know are the:

  • Arrivals and Departure levels
  • TSA Screening area
  • How to find your Gate
  • Services in the Waiting Area
  • How to find food, shops, and restrooms
  • Lounges for Premium Frequent Flyers

Arrivals and Departures

Arrivals and Departures for the same terminal are often on two separate levels to expedite foot and vehicle traffic through the airport. They are the only areas that are open to the public without tickets. All areas of the terminal are accessible and will meet or exceed ADA standards.

Follow signs for Arrivals for your terminal. When you walk in the door, you will see a large open area with ropes and long desks for check-in. This is where you confirm your arrival at the airport and have your baggage weighed, measured, and checked in.

After you get off your plane at the other end, you will be directed to the baggage claim area downstairs. If somebody is meeting you at the airport, you can connect at the baggage claim. After collecting your bags from the carousels, there are convenient taxi stands, shuttle busses, and rideshare areas. Departures also has rental car desks and visitor information. It will be adjacent to parking areas, too. You can expect to find restrooms, vending machines, and perhaps a coffee cart in this space.

TSA Screening

Security screening has become a big part of your trip to the airport. The TSA Screening area is located near the Arrivals desks. There are typically more ropes for a large waiting area and several stations to speed things along. Be prepared to take off your coat, shoes, and belt and have your carry-on baggage inspected. You must have a ticket to pass through TSA.

Gate Numbers

Once you have passed TSA, you now have access to the remainder of the terminal and the gates. The gate is where you will board your plane. Look overhead for large displays indicating Flight numbers and the gate to which they are assigned. Follow signage to reach your gate. You may have to use escalators, stairs, or moving sidewalks to get there. There will be a representative from your airline at your gate able to answer any questions.

Waiting for Your Plane to Arrive

Once you reach your assigned gate, you may have time to enjoy the amenities offered in the airport terminal. There will be seating at the gate. Many airports offer wi-fi and charging outlets. There may be televisions broadcasting news playing overhead. Announcements for your flight can be heard over the intercom in this area.

Shops, Food, and Restrooms

Many airports provide shopping and restaurants inside the terminal for the convenience of passengers. Restaurants can range from popular fast-food chains like McDonald's or Subway to pubs and steakhouses. If you are sitting down for your meal, make sure that you have time to eat. Food ordered inside the terminal can be brought on the plane for a mid-flight snack.

Shops will offer a variety of things to purchase from books to first aid items to souvenirs to tax-free items. Larger airport terminals may have popular mall stores offering clothing and accessories.

After a long day of travel, take a minute to refresh yourself in one of the large restrooms. You will not have much elbow room once you are on the plane for fixing your makeup or hair.

The Business Class Lounge

If you purchase a First Class or Business Class ticket, your airline may offer access to their airport terminal club or lounge. While the rest of the passengers in the terminal are vying for fast burgers and small chairs at the gate, the lounge delivers comfort, quiet, and luxury. Amenities can include high-speed wi-fi, oversized recliners, snacks, beverages, and concierge services. Beware that lounges are not included at every terminal. If you want to use a lounge at another terminal in the same airport, you may have to pass through security multiple times to take advantage of its comforts.

Security, First Aid, and Help

The bigger the airport, the more services are offered to care for the thousands of passengers that visit the terminal every day. If you wish to speak to airport security or the police, simply ask at any desk. If you are hurt, there may be a first aid station staffed by EMTs or a nurse that can provide assistance and help you still make your flight. Of course, 911 always works in an emergency.

If you still have questions about your particular travel plans, visit the website for your airline carrier and the airport. Some services at the airport terminal may only operate during regular business hours, while others remain open as long as flights are arriving and departing. However, when passing through an airport, the airport terminal will generally be able to provide any assistance or service that you might need.