The bags are packed and the journey is about to begin. Your mind turns to the words of Mark Twain protege Charles Dudley Walker, who declared, "There is no moment of delight in any pilgrimage like the beginning of it."

From a psychological point of view, what was true in the late 1800s is just as true today, though one glaring abrasive element has emerged over the years that can make any journey start poorly: the airport.

For today's travelers, it is all too often the launching point of a pilgrimage, and for most, it is viewed as a place to get in and out of as quickly as possible, with a wish list that includes a fast check-in, a seamless security line, a seat with a power port at the gate and an on-time departure and arrival.

In many regards, airports are changing for the better. Strip away the vagaries of airline takeoffs and arrivals and the impenetrable procedures of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and what you have left is getting better all the time. Many airports have become destinations in and of themselves, barely resembling the terminals of old with their uncomfortable plastic seats, long walks between gates, mediocre dining options, a dearth of rest rooms and a mix of stress and boredom.

In fact, these days, airports are spending big bucks to take the pain out of travel to help ensure that this first chapter in any traveler's pilgrimage is a positive one. The aim is to make these places more hospitable, even fun, as travelers begin their journey or at a stop along the way.  

Something for everyone

The best airports today don't feel like airports. Think close-in parking; fast, free WiFi; speedy TSA clearance; menu choices ranging from high-fiber to high-end; as well as access to lounges, shops, playgrounds, massages, gardens, outdoor terraces, waterfalls, spas, supermarkets, meditation rooms, hotels, fenced-in dog runs, solar lighting, designer signage, lactation rooms for nursing moms and a greater sense of space and place.

Even parking is getting major makeovers. At Dusseldorf Airport, robots park a traveler's car when departing and return it curbside upon arrival, linking the passenger's itinerary to the license plate. Frankfurt Airport has parking spots for women, which are closer to the terminal, making the walk from the garage shorter and, presumably, safer. Denver Airport offers 20 free electric vehicle charging stations in its parking garages.

Culture has found its way into airports. The Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport last month opened the first Cuban art exhibit in a U.S. airport. Titled "Buoyancy," the exhibit features works by three Cuban artists and is housed in a 6,000-square-foot gallery on concourses E and F in Terminal 1. It is a collaboration between the new Airport Foundation MSP and the Metropolitan Airports Commission.

"The mission of our program is to enhance the image of our airport, enrich the public's experience and promote a sense of place through arts and culture," said Robyne Robinson, director of the foundation's [email protected] program.

Terminal cures

At Miami Airport, in-terminal artwork includes permanent installations, galleries housing rotating exhibits, community art projects and a space for children's artwork.

"Customer service is at the heart of everything we do at MIA, and our arts program is an invaluable part of that effort," said Miami-Dade Aviation Director Emilio Gonzalez. "We like to think that MIA is like a very busy gallery space that welcomes more than 100,000 visitors each day."

Airports are getting more kid-friendly, too. The household and baby-care line Seventh Generation introduced breast-feeding pods at New York LaGuardia and Newark airports, while Boston's Logan and several other airports feature indoor playgrounds. Automated kiosks stocked with diapers and wipes kits have been installed at Dallas/Fort Worth, Atlanta, New York Kennedy, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Bush Airport in Houston by The Honest Co., a consumer goods brand.

Needs are growing with traffic

All these improvements and innovations are emerging as passenger traffic continues to grow around the globe. The world's airports handled more than 6.7 billion passengers in 2014, a 5.7% increase over 2013, according to the Airports Council International's (ACI) World Airport Traffic Report, and far higher than the 4.3% average annual growth rate in passenger traffic from 2004 to 2014, according to Angela Gittens, ACI's director general.

In a recent speech, IATA Director General Tony Tyler said, "Aviation is a team effort. From the moment someone begins to plan a trip to their arrival at their destination, we have numerous touch points to interact and influence their experience."

Those touch points include time spent in airports when departing, connecting or arriving, and many airports around the world are seizing on them as opportunities to indulge the myriad whims and desires of their massive captive audience, while at the same time meeting the ever-increasing demands of passenger traffic.

Capital improvements

Airports Council International, the worldwide association whose members include 590 airport authorities operating 1,850 airports in 173 countries, declared Atlanta the world's busiest airport in 2014, with more than 96 million passengers, and the group describes the Dubai airport as "the fulcrum that connects long-haul international flights from east to west, north and south."

Both airports are investing heavily to build and expand futuristic superstructures that blur the lines between indoor and outdoor spaces. But their investments pale in comparison to a few over-the-top airport construction projects. Singapore Changi Airport broke ground last December on the Jewel Changi Airport development, a visually stunning glass-and-steel, mixed-use complex that, when completed in 2018, will feature a five-story Forest Valley filled with thousands of trees, ferns, shrubs and other plants; a 120-foot-high Rain Vortex waterfall cascading from the roof of a glass dome; walking trails; a 130-room hotel operated by Yotel; a Canopy Park and playgrounds.

"Faced with intensifying competition, we challenged ourselves to rethink what an airport can be, not just as a gateway for flights but as a tourist destination on its own," said Lee Seow Hiang, CEO of Changi Airport Group and chairman of the Jewel Changi Airport development.

Rendering of the Forest Valley planned at the Jewel Changi Airport in Singapore.
Rendering of the Forest Valley planned at the Jewel Changi Airport in Singapore.

A new terminal that will open next spring at Tokyo's Narita Airport is being designed to handle a growing number of budget passengers attracted to the airport by the rise of low-cost airlines operating no-frills flights, as it will feature the country's largest airport food court.

Another project of vaulting ambition is Mexico City's $9.2 billion international airport, which will quadruple the capacity of the current Benito Juarez Airport when it opens in 2018. Mexico President Enrique Pena Nieto described it as the world's most sustainable achievement in recent years. The soaring, vaulted terminal is designed as a giant X. Massive and energy-efficient, it is housed under canopies of glass wrapped in an opaque skin to let in natural light and air.

The twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda opened its $98 million terminal at V.C. Bird Airport in Antigua this summer, featuring four jet bridges, 46 check-in counters, multiple gates and food outlets, 30 retail units, free WiFi, three lounges and a pet rest room, positioning the destination to become the largest hub in the eastern Caribbean, according to Asot Michael, minister of tourism, economic development, energy and investment.

Southwest Airlines recently celebrated its expanding international service with the opening of the $146 million, five-gate terminal at Houston Hobby Airport to service flights to Mexico, Belize and Costa Rica. In New York, the first stage of the LaGuardia Airport overhaul will cost $4 billion and include a redo of terminals A and B, following the anticipated final approval from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey next year. Eventually, all four old terminals will be replaced by a unified terminal with a central arrivals and departures hall and a 200-room hotel.

The hospitality factor

As airports compete for business and leisure travelers, more and more are getting into the hotel business. JFK will no longer be one of the few major U.S. airports without an on-site hotel when its historic TWA Flight Center, designed by Eero Saarinen and opened in 1962, is redeveloped into a 505-room hotel, scheduled to open in 2018. MCR Development and JetBlue Airways will own 95% and 5% of the $256 million project, respectively.

Two, six-story hotel towers will be added to the 53-year-old building with 40,000 square feet of meeting space, up to eight restaurants, a spa, a 10,000-square-foot observation deck and an energy system that will enable the building to generate its own power. The iconic, curving, stark white concourse will remain in place, and the old terminal will serve as the hotel lobby. The Port Authority will invest $8 million in a connector to the JetBlue terminal, a parking garage and an AirTrain station to serve the hotel.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, "This administration has committed to modernizing New York's airports for the 21st century by creating gateways worthy of New York City and ensuring that travelers have the services they need."

The lobby of the MIA Hotel lobby at Miami Airport.
The lobby of the MIA Hotel lobby at Miami Airport.

Unlike most airport hotels, the JFK newbuild will be located within the terminal. The most recent in-terminal hotel was the Westin Denver Airport, which opened Nov. 19. It was the first hotel built in the last 10 years to be located within a terminal.

The design of the Westin Denver Airport resembles a bird with extended wings hovering above the public plaza, accentuating the tents of Denver Airport's Jeppesen Terminal, which were designed to represent the snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains. The 14-story Westin property features wall-to-wall windows in its 519 rooms and suites with views of the Rockies, the High Plains and the airport itself. And the hotel uses Starwood's keyless technology system, which "redefines the traditional hotel experience by allowing guests to get to their rooms quickly after a long day of travel," said Tom Curley, general manager.

Terminal couture

Wine-and-dine options are crucial components of airport amenities. Many airports offer satellites of local restaurants and bars so passengers can get a taste of the destination on the go. Munich, for example, offers a Bavarian brewery that serves its own beer, along with schnitzel and sauerkraut, while the new Terminal 2 departure lounge at Amsterdam's Schiphol features a Heineken bar.

The Westin at Denver Airport has plans for a brewery-themed restaurant that will feature Colorado's craft beers.Popular Houston restaurants Tony's Wine Cellar & Bistro and The Breakfast Club are planned for the $244 million Terminal C North Concourse at Bush Airport when it opens in early 2017.

And the first Air Margaritaville restaurant to be located in a U.S. terminal landed in September at Miami Airport's Central Terminal adjacent to the MIA Hotel lobby. Inspired by Jimmy Buffett's trademark song and the laid-back lifestyle it represents, menu items feature giant margaritas, frozen drinks, LandShark Lager, coastal-themed seafood, salads and sandwiches, along with signature Cheeseburgers in Paradise and Volcano Nachos.

YU Lounge at Robert L. Bradshaw Airport in St. Kitts.
YU Lounge at Robert L. Bradshaw Airport in St. Kitts.

Airline lounges evolve

The traditional airline lounge has been making a comeback. A great perk while waiting for a connection, sitting out a flight delay or catching up on email, being able to step outside for a breath of fresh air is even better.

Delta was one of the first to create Sky Deck, its outdoor terraces available in Atlanta and JFK. The carrier's new Sky Club at San Francisco Airport inside security in Terminal 1 was built on the roof of the existing terminal. All chairs have power outlets. Delta clubs are slated for Seattle-Tacoma and Atlanta, opening in mid-2016.

JetBlue has joined the outdoor crowd with its new T5 Rooftop lounge atop Terminal 5 at JFK. The lounge, which is open to all travelers, features benches, landscaping, a kids' play area and space for pets to do their business.

At LAX, the lounge for Star Alliance travelers is reserved for first or business class. It offers an outdoor fountain, fire pits and runway views, while Virgin Atlantic's Clubhouse at London Heathrow features a rooftop terrace lined with greenery. Lufthansa's Senator Lounge in Hamburg is open seasonally. For travelers without lounge access, outdoor decks are available at airports in Amsterdam, Berlin Tegel, Frankfurt and Zurich. Some do charge a fee.

Access to the American Express Centurion Lounge in San Francisco Airport is free for platinum cardholders. Others with Amex cards can get in for $50. Amenities include a shower suite, no-charge beverages, hot and cold snacks and WiFi. Other Centurion Lounges can be found in Dallas-Fort Worth, Las Vegas McCarran, Miami, New York LaGuardia and Houston's George Bush Airport (opening in the first half of 2016).

Even airports are seeing lounge areas as a way to relieve passengers of terminal discomfort. Outbound passengers using the Princess Juliana Airport in St. Maarten, for example, now relax in the renovated departure lounge, which received a transformative face-lift as part of the airport's new retail strategy to give the facility a more attractive sense of place to enhance the passenger experience, according to Regina LaBega, airport managing director.

"Consequently, the aim was to move the passenger to spend more at the duty-free stores in the lounge," she said.

The YU Lounge at Robert Bradshaw Airport in St. Kitts, a private terminal in a standalone facility, is available to guests staying at specific resorts, including Belle Mont Farm on St. Kitts and the Four Seasons Nevis. Guests are whisked away to the lounge in a luxury vehicle as soon as they step off the plane, while the YU Lounge team handles their luggage, along with customs and immigration. The team handles departure formalities, as well.

The new Lignum Club at Lynden Pindling Airport in Nassau, Bahamas, is the latest development at the airport, which has undergone a dramatic redevelopment in the past few years. The club is open daily, offers private meeting rooms, beverages and food, two full-service bars, spa services and computer workstations. The walk-in rate is $38; memberships also are available.

Airport Lounge Development Inc. (ALD) is a developer and operator of independent shared-use lounges in the U.S. and one in London. Its newest lounge, the Club at MCO at Orlando Airport in November, was the company's 11th facility. The Club, located within the secured area near Gate 41, is open to all travelers. Those without memberships in Priority Pass, Priority Pass Select and Lounge Club pay $35 for a day pass. ALD also has lounges at airports in Dallas/Fort Worth, Las Vegas, San Jose, Atlanta, Phoenix, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky, Seattle-Tacoma and London Heathrow.

"Airports across the U.S. have an increased focus on improving the traveler experience and growing non-aeronautical revenue," ALD Senior Vice President Nancy Knipp said. "Airport directors are turning to ALD to tap into our 30 years of knowledge in airline guest experience, hospitality and lounge management."

The lounge at Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky Airport, open to any flyer who pays for a $35 day pass.
The lounge at Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky Airport, open to any flyer who pays for a $35 day pass.

Technology in the terminals

Travelers are willing to pay airports and airlines a premium for more convenience, better communications and expanded choices, according to a recent survey of 2,300 travelers by FlightView, a provider of real-time flight and information solutions for the travel and aviation industries.

"That's what they want and are willing to dig deeper in their pockets for, whether they're planning a trip, booking a ticket, waiting at the airport, boarding, flying or arriving at their destination," said Mike Benjamin, CEO of FlightView.

Airports appear to be listening. LAX will soon install a $1.5 million system to significantly boost Internet speeds, according to Boingo, the provider. To improve security-processing efficiency, Princess Juliana Airport in St. Maarten installed the L-3 ProVision screening machine, which claims to detect any concealed threat faster than other body-screening machines but is image-free, less intrusive than pat-down searches and safer to use, according to Larry Donker, director of the airport's operations division. The system is in use in some airports in the Netherlands, Canada, the U.K., Italy, Germany and the U.S.

In terms of improved communications, airports are increasingly turning to social media to provide timely and relevant updates to passengers on days of travel. Athens Airport recently launched ATH Messenger service, which is delivered via Facebook Messenger and updates users on flight information. London City Airport uses Twitter to provide automated flight updates, and a similar service is offered by Dubai Airport.

But perhaps the technology most crucial to travelers these days is mobile connectivity. To that end, cell phone data speeds at the 50 busiest airports in the U.S. were put to the test by RootMetrics, an independent network analysis company. The analysis measured how the four major carriers performed in upload speeds, download speeds and connection reliability.

The top five airports and the carriers were Atlanta (AT&T); Cleveland Hopkins (T-Mobile); Southwest Florida in Fort Myers (Verizon); San Jose, Calif. (T-Mobile); and Dallas Love Field (Verizon, AT&T).


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