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Improving American Airports

It’s rare that anyone actually enjoys being in airports these days, but if you’re obliged to wait out, say, a seven-hour layover, you’ll likely find it far more pleasant to do so overseas than in some bleak U.S. terminal. Consider your options abroad: at Singapore’s Changi Airport, you can go to the movies or wander through a tropical butterfly garden. At Hong Kong International, you might fly in a simulator or play nine holes of golf. The new spa in Helsinki Airport’s Terminal 2 has relaxation beds with runway views. Even T+L has branded stores in Vancouver and Halifax airports (not to mention JFK’s Terminal 2). It’s enough to make you want to miss your connection.

Despite some notable exceptions, stateside hubs “haven’t kept pace with the new definition of an airport, which is about far more than transportation,” says John Kasarda, director of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina and author of Aerotropolis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), a book about airports as engines of local economic development. Considering that our airports provide the first impression foreign visitors have of the United States—and constitute a virtual second home for millions of domestic business travelers—their generally poor condition is baffling. What gives?

The simple explanation is that our philosophy is markedly different from other countries’. In Asia and the Middle East, airports are seen as primary assets in the competition for visitors, and they’re surrounded by elaborately planned commercial and residential development. But at busy U.S. hubs, Kasarda says, “the main concerns are passenger flows, timely loading of bags, tarmac times, and capacity constraints—not the wow factor.” Furthermore, it’s often the individual airlines—not government or other authorities—that dictate the services offered. Under the wing of low-frills carriers concerned with maximizing profits, many American terminals have been reduced to what Kasarda calls “efficient boxes.”

Fortunately, there are glimmers of light. Some industry players are realizing that improving the airport experience for passengers can turn a profit. According to aviation consultant Roy Williams, longer terminal “dwell times”—resulting from earlier check-in requirements and flight delays—have stimulated sales at shops and food outlets. All players have a stake in terminal concessions: most agreements stipulate that stores hand over a percentage of profits to the airport authority. Particularly in terminals that are occupied by only one carrier, airlines hope that good concessions can lure fliers. The logic is clear: the more time passengers spend inside security, the more money you can make.

Budget carriers have long been wising up to the math and realizing that making the experience more pleasant—instead of just cheaper and more bare-bones—can help lure fliers to their terminal. JetBlue’s open-planned new terminal at New York’s JFK has lounge-style seating, free wireless, and touch screens that allow you to order food to be delivered straight to your gate. In another welcome change, many airports, including Chicago O’Hare and Washington Dulles, require that shops and restaurants lower prices to compare favorably with stores in town—a clever way to improve image and boost sales.

Globally speaking, the most successful airport designers and developers are adding hotels, entertainment and recreation facilities, and other perks both fanciful and functional. Kasarda’s forthcoming book Aerotropolis makes an example of Asian hubs, like Seoul’s Incheon International, that have “transformed city airports into airport cities.” Could we expect similarly ambitious developments stateside? The simple matter of available space makes such projects unlikely—and besides, airports here have traditionally played a more limited role. But as U.S. hubs discover that they can make more money by offering things travelers actually want—and at fair prices—their scope and design will surely evolve, along with the way we use them. Kasarda expects that “in twenty or so years, domestic airports are going to look very different.” Let’s hope it’s for the better.

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