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Airports trade layover horror for 'terminal bliss'

By Jason Keyser

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 08:02 p.m. HST, Dec 23, 2012

CHICAGO >> Getting stranded at an airport once meant enduring hours of boredom in a kind of travel purgatory with nothing to eat but fast food. These days, it can seem more like passing through the gates of Shangri-la to find spas, yoga studios, luxury shopping and restaurant menus crafted by celebrity chefs in terminals with calming, sleek design.

Stung by airline bankruptcies and mergers, more U.S. airports are hunting for alternative revenue streams by hiring top design firms to transform once chaotic and dreary way stations into places of Zen-like tranquility and luxury where people actually want to get stuck — and spend money. As the holiday travel season is in full gear, airports are putting what one designer calls "terminal bliss" on display in hopes of drawing in higher passenger numbers and revenue.

"It's classy, it's very classy. ... It makes you feel good about the layover," said Marty Rapp, 70, who was getting rosy cheeked last week with the help of a large glass of merlot under ice-crystal chandeliers at Chicago-O'Hare's Ice Bar, whose white and softly reflective decor gives the feeling of being secluded in an igloo — where everyone is drinking and merry.

Airport redesign has been accelerating in the U.S. over the past 10 years, fueled by a combination of things like an airline industry beset by bankruptcies and consolidation that is less able to shoulder as much of the operating costs for city-owned airports through landing fees and gate rental. More revenue from better retail and dining helps make up the shortfall.

At the same time, travelers are becoming savvier and want more than just to get from A to B. The airport has become almost a destination in its own right, a place worthy of stopping off for a while for a little shopping or pampering.

"There's the ability to go swimming at some airports, there's the ability to actually perfect your golf swing at some airports, there is the ability to — it's not just getting a quick massage on your shoulders — it's almost really going to a spa in some cases," said Bill Hooper, an architect at global design firm Gensler, which has transformed airport terminals, including San Francisco's Terminal 2, whose abundant natural light, art installations and cool club feel set a new benchmark for contemporary airport design.

The United States and Canada still lag behind Europe and Asia when it comes to the number of airports that are architectural gems and the array of unique offerings. Stockholm's Arlanda Airport has a wedding package where couples can tie the knot in the control tower balcony. And Seoul's Incheon International Airport is building a six-level terminal that will include a soaring glass-paneled ceiling giving passengers the feeling they are passing through a terrarium-like wonderland, complete with babbling brook, tropical plants and butterflies.

But American airports are catching up. Space-age-looking redevelopment at Denver International Airport slated to be finished by 2015 includes a Westin hotel and conference center with a rooftop pool and views of the Rockies. With an outdoor plaza for events and a fast new rail line, the airport hopes to be seen as an extension of downtown, about 23 miles away.

Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport opened a nearly mile-long walking path over mosaic floor art inside Terminal D in April. There are two optional cardio step courses leading up 55-foot high staircases, and the path ends up at a free yoga studio, where barefoot travelers with a view of taxiing aircraft can stretch behind light-diffusing screens.

In a sense, airports have taken some of the members-only airline club lounge experience and opened it up for all.

"They're actually trying to create the same sort of sanctuary concept for the more casual traveler," Hooper said.

Business travelers in particular are catching on and actually choosing which airport they want to spend their layover in based on the offerings.

"Montreal (airport) has a smoked meat place ... that if I'm booking travel and I need to go back on the East Coast, sometimes I'll say, 'Can you get me to Montreal for an hour layover so I can have a smoked beef sandwich?' " said Wil Marchant, 40, who works for a financial services firm in Winnipeg.

The transformation is paying off.

Concessions revenue from food, beverage, retail and services at U.S. airports hit $1.5 billion in 2011, up 12 percent from the year before, according to Airports Council International-North America, which represents the vast majority of governing bodies that own and operate commercial airports.

The new business model has helped airports like San Francisco International, which finished a major refurbishment of Terminal 2 in April 2011 with the firm Gensler. The design is sleek, super modern and playful, with children and adults spinning in comfy swivel chairs around coffee tables placed at every gate. Check-in desks — imposingly high at some airports — were lowered to look more like hotel concierge desks.

"What we were aiming for is a four- or five-star hotel experience for passengers in the terminal building," said airport Director John L. Martin.

The average spent per passenger at the terminal is now about $14. That's 22 percent more than domestic travelers spend at the airport's other terminals.

At O'Hare, where once there was little more than hot dogs and souvenir shops, domestic terminals are now dotted with restaurants led by celebrity chefs like Rick Bayless, piano bars, and a tranquil aeroponic herb garden — a mini forest of green on a quiet mezzanine level.

"It's pretty amazing. ... I didn't expect that to be here," said grad student David Janesko, 30, reading a book in a comfy lounge chair beside the garden on his way to see family in Pittsburgh.

But airport bliss doesn't come cheap, and its price can be a little jarring for passengers.

Back at the Ice Bar — which offers 23 different vodkas and four different kinds of ice (crushed, cubes or sphere) — blues musician and actor Cedric "Catfish" Turner was lamenting that his Jack Daniels on the rocks cost $11. But he needed it, he said, to ease a headache from a long layover.

"I could have stolen a bottle," he said with a laugh, his guitar propped next to his bar stool. "I'm a bluesman. Come on, you don't treat a bluesman like that."

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allie wrote:
i hope honolulu international can catch up with this trend
on December 23,2012 | 07:32AM
matsuyama wrote:
Be careful what you ask for. Fancy new airports charge very high taxes that are added to the price of your ticket. I'd rather travel through an old American airport and pay a $5 airport fee(PFC) than travel through a modern luxury airport like Incheon, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc. and pay $20-$30 for the pivilege.
on December 23,2012 | 05:25PM
aomohoa wrote:
Come on, you have to admit the Singapore airport is amazing and very efficient. I never got through an international airport faster.
on December 23,2012 | 07:38PM
aomohoa wrote:
I would rather just keep our beautiful garden to relax in while I wait.
on December 23,2012 | 07:36PM
Bothrops wrote:
In Hawaii we do as little as possible to attract tourists, relying on our weather to muddle us through.
on December 23,2012 | 11:03AM
aomohoa wrote:
And yet, hundreds of thousands of people would rather come to Hawaii than any where else.
on December 23,2012 | 07:38PM
inverse wrote:
Hawaii at the presently time will have a strong tourist industry DUE to increased world wide terrorism, increase hatred against Americans and the US, hurricane Sandy that devastated the East Coast, Mexico illegally jailing a US war veteran (just released) and Bill O'Reilly almost about to advocate Americans boycott Mexico, kidnapping and strong anti-American sentiment in Egypt, Syria, and other middle Eastern and African countries, bombings in Isreal, etc. etc. The REALITY is that the Hawaii Visitors Bureau has NOTHING to do with Hawaii's strong visitor industry, rather all of the terrorism, hate and natural disasters, etc. that are happening around the world. HOWEVER, HPD and the City better get a handle on what appears growing violence against Hawaii visitors such as the stabbing in Waikiki and other punks hanging out in Waikiki looking to prey on visitors. Also the outer island case where some Japanese visitor was thrown off a cliff better be taken care of by arresting the guy who attempted to murder that Japanese visitor soon or there will be a growing negative backlash of Japanese visitors who come to Hawaii to vacation.
on December 24,2012 | 07:56AM
mr808surfguy wrote:
HNL = no mans land
on December 23,2012 | 11:06AM
localguy wrote:
HNL International airport will forever rate last among USA airports. No aloha at all. Endless, mindless drivel plays over the PA system, advising there is no lost and found office at the airport, any lost items are immediately destroyed. Yes, your children would fit into this too. Dark, dingy, no free wifi, noisy, cluttered, typical for the Nei. Best event would be to tear it all down and rebuild with contractors from another country. No one in the Nei could do it right.
on December 23,2012 | 01:22PM
cunfuzd4 wrote:
localguy - on the money. While on a business trip, I was watching an old Hawaii Five-0 (Jack Lord era) in my hotel room that had scenes at HNL and though there were SOME additions that were missing, I saw that most of the areas in the airport scenes are still there with only minor changes.
on December 23,2012 | 01:37PM
aomohoa wrote:
Funny how you just say things and expect people will just believe you as the expert. LOL! What you say it not true. It may not be listed in the 10 best but it's also NOT in the 10 worst. I have flown out of HNL dozens of times and people have always been nice. Of course I almost always fly Hawaiian. They are always polite and run on time. You want rude, nasty and ditry try LAX. LOL!
on December 23,2012 | 07:52PM
inverse wrote:
I don't agree with you, there are many USA airports that are a lot WORSE than Honolulu airport. I agree with you some other airports have free Wifi where at the Honolulu airport you have to pay for Wifi. Hawaiian Air, United, etc. combined with ATT or Verizon wireless customers should subsidize free Wifi for travelers waiting at HNL to board their planes. I also agree some waiting areas are too small, however at this point it is NOT worth expanding HNL. One positive thing about HNL is its size. Even the farthest terminals in the domestic and international sections are not that far and all are within reasonable walking distance. Airports like San Francisco, Denver, etc. require extremely long walks or like Denver having to navigate through 3 underground train lines all in parallel with each other which can be incredibly confusing for travelers.
on December 24,2012 | 08:15AM
cunfuzd4 wrote:
HNL is pretty bad compared to most Major airports that I've been through but even more so compared to Hubs such as SFO, LAX ATL, DEN, etc. But even comparing to airports that aren't major hubs such as San Diego and Orange County John Wayne, HNL has a bit of catching up to do. But then there is one bright spot...HNL did not make the top 20 airports for TSA thefts http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/top-20-airports-tsa-theft/story?id=17537887#.UNehxm8ku6U
on December 23,2012 | 01:30PM
cunfuzd4 wrote:
Well, my state sentator and representatives got a copy of this article, I included photos of how bad the restroom l went into when I got off my flight in HNL. Looked and smelled like it hadn't been cleaned in a bit. How about everyone else?
on December 23,2012 | 01:44PM
localguy wrote:
cunfuzd4 - L M A O after your post, I had forgotten how frozen in time we were until you mentioned the old Hawaii Five-O series. Nothing more to say about the shoddy airport, dark fortress of evil.
on December 23,2012 | 04:32PM
cunfuzd4 wrote:
Yeah, though it's always great to be home, but HNL a real let down after having boarded at somewhere like SFO or even San Diego (SAN).
on December 23,2012 | 04:39PM
aomohoa wrote:
Going through security at SAN can take forever.
on December 23,2012 | 07:55PM
cunfuzd4 wrote:
yeah, you're right about SAN, it was also one of the top 20 for TSA thefts but the airport is absolutely superior to HNL when traveling on business. But the facilities and amenities at HNL leave alot to be desired.
on December 24,2012 | 07:29AM
cunfuzd4 wrote:
and I have to add that though the facilities at HNL leave much to be desired, the folks working here at HNL or any of the neighbor island airports are ALOT NICER compared to any of the Mainland airports we've been through. That was something that my wife who grew up in Georgia noticed and which I having grown up here took for granted (shame on me).
on December 24,2012 | 07:39AM
bumbye wrote:
I like SEA-TAC.
on December 23,2012 | 11:08PM
al_kiqaeda wrote:
Try sleeping in it.
on December 24,2012 | 06:09AM
gth wrote:
It's like the TSA, when you've got lower tier employees working at the airport, no supervision, they don't care they just want the money. Although we can't compare with Vegas, HNL can't compare with them. We've got Wikiwiki buses :o OMG!
on December 24,2012 | 07:14AM
cunfuzd4 wrote:
actually a high percentage of TSA agents caught in the investigation of thefts were supervisory or senior line staff.
on December 24,2012 | 07:48AM
cunfuzd4 wrote:
TSA=Theft, Snatch,Abscond
on December 24,2012 | 09:04AM
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