The Improving Airport Experience

Two random facts about RobRob: He lives in the vicinity of DFW and he loves him some Saltlick Barbeque. To the point that he dragged the entire family plus friends hours out of the way on a Texas road trip to indulge his BBQ-tooth (similar to a sweet tooth, but more savory and satisfying). This was born of necessity, as there is – or was – no location closer to home.

Saltlick BBQ Ribs Plate

A juicy plate of ribs from the original Austin location of Saltlick Barbeque – Too good for airport food?

Much to my delight, Saltlick has opened their first outpost in north Texas, right in Terminal A of DFW Airport! Much to my chagrin, only passengers can pass through Security. You actually have to be going somewhere. On a plane. Going to Saltlick, apparently, does not qualify you to pass through security. Good Lord, man! There may be no more important destination than a good BBQ restaurant! But, I digress.

Point is, the airport experience is improving. My dining options are now better INSIDE the airport than out! Maybe not entirely true, but there are several stellar options, including stand-outs like Reata, III Forks, Blue Mesa, a couple Pappa Bros restaurants and a handful of good, maybe great BBQ joints. It could soon rival Restaurant Row in nearby Addison! New York’s JFK has some seriously high caliber chefs behind eateries like Brasserie La Vie with menus by Chef Riad Nasr, Todd English’s Bonfire Steakhouse, and the first-ever airport tapas joint, Piquillo, by Chef Alexandra Raij. And I’ve long been a fan of SeaTac simply for the seafood at Anthony’s Restaurant and Ivar’s Seafood Bar. And we’re just scratching the surface, folks. There are really good restaurants in airports – IN AIRPORTS! – all around the world.

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Thankfully, airport food is getting healthier, too. More accurately, airport restaurants are offering more good-for-you options, according to a survey last year by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The survey of restaurants at 18 of the busiest airports in the US found that more than 75% of them offered low-fat, high-fiber and/or cholesterol-free entrées. The key word there is “entrées” – they did not count any of the kiosks or stands that did not offer an entrée meal. They also noted that restaurants are still serving a lot of greasy (or, as I call it, tasty!) burgers and fries, but the overall trend is towards offering more healthful options.

But wait, as they say, there’s more.

Last year, DFW decided it wanted to be the world’s healthiest airport so, in addition to mandating healthy food options, there’s a free yoga studio and a walking path. They’re not alone; a growing number of airports are pushing for health-conscious dining options and opportunities to exercise…besides dashing to your gate. San Francisco introduced its own yoga room for passenger use this year, and Minneapolis-St. Paul marked off a mile-plus walking path. Many in-airport hotels have opened their gyms to layover passengers as well, some for a fee. The bonus: exercise is a great stress beater which can be particularly important during travel.

Singapore took the first swing in the fight against airport boredom when they put a swimming pool on the roof of Changi Airport in the 1990s. Since then, we’ve seen a 24/7 free movie theatre (not those kind of movies, you kinky monkeys!), also at Changi, a 9-hole golf course at Hong Kong International, an ice rink at Incheon, complimentary spa treatments in Sydney, and my personal favorites, the almost ubiquitous massage stations. Aaahhh…better already.

The Traveler, artwork at MCO

A flight weary passenger making a connection? No, The Traveler is an art installation by Duane Hanson in the main terminal at Orlando International Airport.

Once upon a time, people spent time in train stations which soon became desirable locations for local artists to display their work. That experience is transferring to airports and growing far beyond a showcase for local artwork. To help passengers unwind, airports around the world are working with museums, galleries and cultural institutions to provide passengers with welcome diversions, from rotating exhibits to permanent installations. It’s a win-win-win situation: The airport benefits from the improved atmosphere, the institutions get much needed exposure, and we passengers get a little stress relief as well as a glimpse of what’s beyond the security gates. One more win: airport stores often see increased sales as passengers linger longer in the vicinity of the artwork.

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Delta Power Tower

The passenger experience is also improving from a tech point of view: free Wi-Fi and additional power outlets are becoming the norm, but some airports and airlines are going above and beyond. As part of their terminal updates in New York’s LaGuardia and JFK airports, Delta has stationary iPads at departure gates and some restaurants for customer use, for entertainment, shopping or even ordering “seat service” – order a meal and it will be delivered to your seat. (Perhaps defeating the advances in exercise options?)

Airports and airlines have made huge investments to improve our experience at the airport, and it will be exciting to see the state of the art when the $1.5-billion modernization of Los Angeles International is completed. Developers and designers are promising a deeply integrated, multi-media passenger experience throughout the terminals. Architect Curtis Fentress, who also designed Seoul’s Incheon Airport, says the modern airport is no mere food court or shopping mall, but a mini-city. After all, as he says, for the frequent flier, the airport is the new hometown.

Feedback: What has made your airport experience better, and which airports do you find advancing the passenger experience? Let us know in the comments!

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