We all know travel today means lots of airport time. We arrive earlier and earlier for our flights and build in more layover time to ensure smooth connections. The good news is that, while waiting for your flight is rarely the highlight of a trip, a growing number of airports and airport vendors are showing some real creativity and customer service flair with their offerings.
Airports look increasingly like shopping malls, with chain retailers, boutiques, souvenir and book shops and, of course, food and drink venues – all to the benefit of the bored or unprepared traveler. However, the new wave of services goes much further in terms of energizing, entertaining and even educating passengers with time on their hands. Here are our top 10 favorite ways airports are now enhancing the journey.
Once upon a time, there was a disco at the Frankfurt airport where passengers danced their way through the night. The club closed with the disco era (and the increase in airport regulations). However, music is making a comeback as airport entertainment. Music cities are among those leading the way. The Austin-Bergstrom Airport in Austin, Texas, home of the Austin City Limits Music Festival, has local artists playing on multiple stages expressly for ticketed passengers every Monday through Friday. The Nashville International Airport, in country music’s hometown of Nashville, Tenn., also features a regular line up of free performances. Keep an eye out for other concert events and series as you travel. Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson offers concerts every few months, and Dulles International Airport just outside Washington, D.C., has been known to host a jazz series. Likewise, Vancouver International Airport in British Columbia, Canada, had historically thrown summer parties called Take Off Fridays. JetBlue turns its terminal at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport into a concert hall periodically with its Live from T5 events.
As you stroll (or sometimes dash) through many airports, you are likely to see a sculpture here or art display there. However, some cutting-edge airports are partnering with area art museums to create in-terminal exhibits and even branches. Case in point: the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam Schiphol, an annex of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, a Dutch national museum known for its collection of the masters from the Golden Era, located at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. Free of charge specifically for passengers, this museum has a permanent exhibit, including 10 pieces by Dutch Masters, as well as a regularly changing series of new shows. At San Francisco International Airport in California, a partnership that started with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco evolved into a fully accredited museum within the airport. The SFO Museum has more than 20 galleries throughout the airport showcasing rotating art, history and cultural exhibits.
In this day and age of iPads, downloads and WiFi, it’s certainly possible to get your fill of movie entertainment while you travel. However, when you have a few hours to fill, there is something about the big-screen movie house experience that offers an unparalleled sense of escape. Travelers passing through Hong Kong International Airport can lose themselves in more than just a basic movie. The airport offers passengers the story immersion of a full IMAX experience, with 2D and 3D movies. The theater in Singapore’s Changi Airport ups the ante with 3D and 4D offerings!
Medical and dental care
While getting medical help at an airport in an emergency has always been an important and available service, there are now full-service medical and dental clinics springing up that offer both urgent and ongoing care, sometimes for less than you’d pay at home. While slipping into a dentist chair or onto an exam table may seem like an odd experience at the airport, it may suddenly seem a good use of a layover as you can often refill a prescription or get a needed travel immunization.. Look for such clinics in airports like Vancouver International Airport in Canada, Zurich Airport in Switzerland, Guarulhos International Airport in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Narita Airport in Tokyo, Japan, San Francisco International in the U.S. and Frankfurt Airport in Germany.
Whether you are bringing your pet along or need a home away from home for him or her while you’re gone, there is at least one airport that has you covered. The Pet Hotel at Tokyo’s Narita Airport offers on-site boarding so you can pick up and drop off your pet as part of your travel plans. And, with adjoining vet and grooming services, the Pet Hotel can take care of your pet’s needs while you are away or help get a traveling pet ready for takeoff.
If you have time to leave the security area, getting a workout in while in transit is as easy as obtaining a club pass to an airport hotel. But airports are finding ways to offer you exercise opportunities that don’t include removing your shoes and laptop for another screening. One option growing in popularity is a yoga room. In the U.S., such rooms have sprung up at places like Burlington International Airport in Vermont and San Francisco International in California. Dallas Fort Worth International Airport in Texas not only offers a yoga room but a marked walking trail that helps passengers and employees step their way to a workout.
Kids of all ages should like this. While there are play areas, mazes and toys for young kids at most airports, your competitive spirit can come out at any age with more hands-on games at select airports. From Playstations to an old-school ping pong table, these games are one of the best ways to make airport time fly by. Some of the great options we found: iSports, a venue dedicated to playing simulated sports, from boxing to car racing to basketball, at Hong Kong International Airport, and free Playstation 2 and 3 areas at both Paris area airports (Orly and Charles De Gaulle). And the ping pong table? Well that is in Milwaukee, Wis., at General Mitchell International Airport where it was brought in for a short-term event but proved so popular it has stayed on permanently.
Why not pick up a touch of local culture as well as a passport stamp when you have a layover? Korea’s Incheon Airport has dedicated whole sections of the airport to educating passengers on local culture. Featuring local architecture, food and dance performances, these cultural zones also offer craft classes where you can learn to make traditional artifacts such as fans and “lucky” bags. At Hong Kong International, a “Tea through the Ages” exhibition includes tea-making workshops. Another short-lived (but we hope revisited) learning experience: a series of quick but tasty French cooking classes offered to passersby in Paris’ Orly Airport and Charles De Gaulle Airport.
A brush with nature
Airports are, almost by definition, indoor spaces. So bringing Mother Nature inside can add a breath of fresh air to the travel experience. We’ve got a few favorite airport spots for some face time with the great outdoors. Changi Airport in Singapore may set the standard here with a Butterfly Garden, which boasts an indoor waterfall and more than 1,000 butterflies, in one terminal plus a sunflower and an orchid garden in another terminal. Vancouver International in Canada brings the ocean inside, though, with its two Vancouver Aquarium Marine Exhibits. The main tank, a 30,000+-gallon aquarium, holds more than 5,000 sea creatures, while a second tank, a 475-gallon aquarium, is dedicated just to jellyfish.
A pet to pet
Service animals offer great comfort to their owners and take the stress out of travel for many people. Those traveling via Miami International may well get a first-hand chance to see the power of a pet when it comes to smoothing the edges of the flying experience. Casey, a four-year-old golden retriever and official airport ambassador, roams the airport with her human partner, Liz Miller, two days a week to dole out stress release and affection. Sporting a blue “Pet Me” bandana, official credentials and business cards, Casey is a popular sight and tension balm for grown-ups and kids alike.
(Main image: indywriter)