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It seems to be a pretty strong convention for airport terminals with more than one level to have the departures above, and the arrivals below. Is this specified in some international standard? Are there any exceptions?

Is there any practical operational reason why this is so (maybe related to luggage handling)? Or is it just because people like to associate up with taking off and down with landing?

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    I was wondering just this yesterday at LAX! – Mark Mayo Jun 19 '15 at 7:33
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    It would be nice to know if there is an exception to this rule some where in the world.. anyone knows? – Nean Der Thal Jun 19 '15 at 7:41
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    One (partial) exception to the rule is the airport of Beijing if I remember correctly. There the initial arrival and immigration is on a higher level than the departure. Baggage claim is, however, in a different part of the building and on a lower level. – Emil Jun 19 '15 at 9:16
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    @Emil here is T3 layout at PEK- the international arrivals and departures are flipped from usual, but domestic has departures on top. – Spehro Pefhany Jun 19 '15 at 17:46
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Warning, guesswork ahead -- I couldn't find anything definitive.

Checked baggage is handled at ground level (i.e. that's where it comes out of the plane). Therefore it makes sense to have baggage claim on the same level to save the not inconsiderable energy it would require to move baggage up a floor (and then inconvenience people having to take it down again). Once baggage claim is on the ground floor it makes sense to have arrivals there to.

The other concern is that you need more space for departures -- people spend more time there and that's where an airport can make money with shops and things. In arrivals people are generally moving through the airport and leaving; as such not as much space is needed. That means you can use the extra space on that ground floor for all the behind the scenes stuff (such as baggage handling).

Also, many airport terminals are big 'hanger' designs and having departures (where people spend more time) upstairs means they get the space and the high ceilings, etc. People coming off a plane are not going to care that much about how high the ceilings are. I borrowed this last point from this thread discussing the same thing. It also notes there are more than a few exceptions to the convention.

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    Agreed, airlines make more money from departures than arrivals, so it makes sense to put departures in the nicest bit of the airport. – superluminary Jun 19 '15 at 12:14
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    @SteveJessop But the hoisting upstairs is done by the passengers and not your workers. Although with people using elevators and such, you're probably right that it doesn't make a big difference energy wise. – Sumyrda Jun 19 '15 at 20:36
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    Also worth mentioning that it makes sense to have departures at the same height as the jetways, which leaves about a floor of space underneath. – Random832 Jun 20 '15 at 12:57
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    It may also be a security feature for immigration: it's more difficult to jump to the upper level than from the upper level to try to enter illegally. In some airports the immigration queues of arrivals and the waiting lounges of departures are in the same hallway but on different levels (e.g. RUH). – tricasse Jun 21 '15 at 21:14
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    @superluminary That would be the part of the airport where they store all the "please pardon our progress" signs, right? I'm pretty sure every airport has 80% of their floorspace under permanent construction. – corsiKa Jun 22 '15 at 14:35
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In addition to SpaceDog's answer, the main issue which forces airport designs to make arrivals at the lower level and departures at the higher level is land space due to vehicles.

Cars, taxis, buses, etc. when dropping people for departures they take much less time to do so, just drop and leave. Which means less space is required for that and upper levels fulfill that.

Unlike arrivals, taxi queues, buses and private cars picking up people need more waiting time because people do not come out from flights at once (Immigration, Customs, etc.). In addition to that, there are rentals as well. All of these require more land space which is available at the lower level.

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    Plenty of the buses that directly stop at airport buildings tend to be hotel shuttles; they drop off passengers and wait for others in one run. In contrast to that, at least in my experience, chartered tour buses that just transport one tourist group to/from the airport never drive up right in front of airport buildings but always park on some further away parking lots while the tourists are picked up/guided by the guide by foot. Also, car rentals are also relevant for departing passengers who want to hand back their rented vehicle. – O. R. Mapper Jun 19 '15 at 20:27
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    I'm not so sure about this: at many of the airports I visit, the arrivals and departures levels are both elevated above ground level, and have about the same amount of curb space. And still, departures is above arrivals. – Nate Eldredge Jun 19 '15 at 22:25
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Note that these are just assumption based on observation.

To add to the other answers:

Good design can be born in many ways. Either by creation, but also by trial and error (or a mix of both). With airports people just realized that this setting works.

Note that this setting (2 floors) is typical in large airports. A good reason for having 2 floors is because it saves horizontal space and that is precious for airplane parking. Many small airports only have one floor because they have little traffic and enough space to keep everything at the same level (stairs, elevators, etc all occupy space and cost money).

Once you have the need for 2 floors you start thinking what to do with them. Since we have 2 types of airport users (arriving and departing) it's natural to keep each group together, at the same level. You could split the building differently, but using one floor for each group is, in principle, more rational. Also we can easily assume, as others suggested, that airports worry more with departing passengers than arriving ones. Not that arrivals are not important but they stay less time and require less space. The comfort on departures is probably an important factor in an airport and it's where the airport can make extra money.

With this setting you can occupy part of the space in ground floor with technical areas, car parking, luggage handling and also arrivals. It;s also easier for employes working on the field to enter leave the building. And you might want to have those technical areas not only at ground level but also underground. This way you keep them adjacent.Having departures in the first floor allows not only for larger areas but also for natural light, either by using large windows or sky lights. Natural light and the sense of depth through the windows is a factor of comfort.

Probably as a consequence airport designers also realized that having the departures above puts passengers approximately at the airplane level and therefore jet bridges were born. I think they were born as a consequence but it's now a reason to support keeping the same design. It's also more comfortable to the departing passengers to just walk in to the airplane.

Currently in most airports I know departing passengers cross with arriving ones in the commercial area. But I've seen a few older airports where this didn't happen. Arriving passengers would actually be dropped on the ground floor. This kind of setting makes it easier to route persons (to add signs, etc). Also, you require less space since people always follow the same route and arrivals don't cross with departures. I now see many airports that drop passengers exactly in the same floor as departures. Although airports still try to separate them early, by routing arrival passengers down this is probably a commercial decision since it might induce consumption in the shops. After all many people still have to wait a couple of minutes for their luggage. Better have them around the shops than looking at a luggage belt.

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    The main reason for mixing departing and arriving passengers is probably that then you need only one set of corridors leading to/from the gates. It's cheaper to build! Airports that don't allow arriving passengers to mix with departures generally do so for specific reasons -- such as wanting/needing arriving passengers to pass though immigration or additional security checks before letting them into the departures concourse. – Henning Makholm Jun 19 '15 at 13:19
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    The other reason for mixing departing and arriving passengers is connecting flights. – sixtyfootersdude Jun 19 '15 at 16:14
  • "we have 2 types of airport users (arriving and departing)" - as implied by others, these two groups are not very clearly separated (connecting flights; also, I often wished for an obvious opportunity for going to one of the stores I saw before my departure again on my way back). One could argue that different groups are much more clearly disjoint (people inside vs. outside the security area; people who have immigrated vs. those who have not yet or who will at no point). – O. R. Mapper Jun 19 '15 at 20:39
  • @HenningMakholm Agreed. In places like the U.S. where the vast majority of passengers are domestic, it makes much more sense to have both arriving and departing passengers use the same part of the concourse. It's helpful for space savings, for allowing arriving and departing passengers to have access to the same shops, restaurants, etc., and for allowing people to easily connect between arriving and departing flights. In the U.S., almost all airports are designed this way, except that international arrivals will be sent to a different area until they clear immigration. – reirab Jun 19 '15 at 20:57
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I think the basic reason comes down to baggage and gravity. If you want gravity to help move the baggage forward, it makes sense to have the baggage check in at the top, the baggage claim at the bottom, and the loading dock at tarmac level somewhere in between.

This not only saves energy in moving baggage along the conveyer belts, but also cuts down on wear and tear.

I think some of the earliest baggage conveyer systems weren't even motorized. They just had lots of rollers mounted on ball bearings, and let gravity do the work. That would have been enough to set the precedent.

I've been at a few airports that only have one level, but they are the exception.

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In addition to the point mentioned about baggage generally flowing downhill (which definitely makes baggage collection on the ground floor / basement a good idea), and the tendency for for drivers waiting to pick up spending longer than drivers waiting to drop off, there is one other point that has not been mentioned.

Passengers generally spend very little time in the airport once they have arrived. It is in the interest of both the airport and the passengers for them to be gone as quickly as possible.

That often means they walk straight off the plane, through immigration, baggage claim and customs, and out to the arrivals pickup area, without a single change in level.

Departures passengers, on the other hand, have to queue for check in, wait for security, then hang around for ages waiting to be called for boarding. While none of this is particularly agreeable, it is unavoidable, and level changes are a trivial additional inconvenience.

Two fairly new terminals I visit frequently (London Heathrow Terminal 5 and Madrid Terminal 4) are prime examples of this.

A departing passenger has to go to the top floor to check in and go through security, then goes down a level, to one or two levels of departure lounge / shopping. If they are not flying from the main building, they may then have to go down to the bottom level to catch the underground monorail to the satellite building(s) where shopping is minimal.

On arrival the passenger either arrives on the ground floor of the main building, or is brought there from the satellite by the monorail. There may be some twists and turns for immigration, but he/she then walks pretty much straight out through baggage claim and customs to the onward transport facilities.

  • This varies quite a bit, though. At most of the U.S. airports I've been to, departing passengers don't change levels, while the arriving ones do (to go down from the gate level to the arrivals level.) However, the vast majority of U.S. traffic doesn't go through immigration, so it's somewhat of an odd duck in that sense. – reirab Jun 21 '15 at 22:20
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In addition to the reasons others have listed, an additional advantage to having the departures on top of the arrivals is that you can then add another floor for departures, if desired. As others have mentioned, departures is where most of the airport amenities will be on the airside. Thus, in order to add more space for amenities, many airports actually have another departures level above the main departures level. Just off the top of my head, I can think of many major airports that do this, such as ATL (at least in concourses A and F,) ICN (in both buildings,) DTW (A concourse,) LAX, and SFO (international terminal.) Even some medium-traffic airports do this, too, though, such as concourse C at BNA.

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There actually is a right answer to this. Surprised it's not here yet.

Look at the airport this way:

                                                        |
                                                       (*)
          Departures                    Jet Bridge     _|_
 ________________________________________________  (*)/===\(*)
|_____________________________________|__________|___(  .  )___________   
|_________//__________________________|     (o)       \___/
 Arrivals         Airport Guts

How high are planes? The jet bridge needs to be one story above ground for passengers to walk more-or-less level when embarking. If the jet bridge was on the ground floor, one would need stairs. Stairs are hard to navigate for many passengers, wheelchairs etc.

The fact that having the airport guts at ground level lets them connect to the airport basement is bonus. There's also plenty of room for arrivals at ground level.

Edit: sorry if this wasn't clear. There has to be a second floor to the airport, but why pick departures over arrivals? To the other posters' points: because arrivals requires much less space than departures. Though, in a modern airport, you can simply use departures as shorthand for "inside security" which may help explain.

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    Both the people who get on the planes and the people who get off the planes go across the jetbridge. – Kate Gregory Jun 22 '15 at 13:26
  • Sure, but when you deplane you arrive in the departures section of the airport. See edit for why departures above and arrivals below. – cmeid Jun 22 '15 at 14:10
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    Yes, but you could as easily argue that when you emplane you do so from the arrivals section. Whichever one is at the bottom needs to have some part of it that is also at the top. So your logic doesn't hold. – Kate Gregory Jun 22 '15 at 14:11
  • Was just writing the above edit. So right, but departures is analogous to past security. All of the passenger part of the terminal needs to be above ground. So, if arrivals were on the floor above ground, departures would need to span two floors. – cmeid Jun 22 '15 at 14:16
  • This makes logical sense. How many airports have you walk across the tarmac to board for departure? Very few, and only the small ones. The jet bridge is the most popular means of loading and unloading planes, and the plane is one story off ground level (that's where landing gear, storage, etc is). If the airport is one story, usually no jet bridge to board planes, either. Arrivals is downstairs with baggage claim, so the bags don't have to be sent back up just to be carried down by arrivals. Cheaper for both man and machine. – phyrfox Jun 22 '15 at 18:11
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Rain.

When someone drops you off at an airport, you can go inside immediately. When you are being picked up, you usually have to stand around for a while.

If departures were on the upper level, either they would have to build awnings or everyone would get wet and miserable. As it is, the people waiting for a ride are sheltered by the departure lanes overhead.

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    Most airports (that I've been to, at least) did have both areas covered, though. SFO is a notable exception. – reirab Jun 20 '15 at 23:22

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