What Travelers Want From Their Airports

Airport Experience, Airports

Earlier this week, I was on a panel at the Airports Council International – North America (ACI-NA) conference down in San Diego talking about airports. The panel was called “The Air Travel Experience-Is This As Good As It Gets?” The general answer was “no” but everyone talked about different aspects of the experience. What do people care about when it comes to airports? Here’s what I told them.

Good Airport Construction Along with Bad

Though I had my own ideas, I decided to head to Twitter to get opinions, and you guys delivered. There were more than 60 responses, so thank you very much. If you had to guess what the top two responses were from a tech-savvy, Twitter-using crowd, what do you think they would be? You probably guessed wi-fi and power outlets, and you’re right. Those were the most popular requests.

For many, the wi-fi request was really for FREE wi-fi, of course. Someone from Boingo, a provider of paid (and other) wi-fi services, came up after to discuss. He talked about all the technical issues and the fact that the free wi-fi experience isn’t as good and tends to be slow due to all the users. That may be true, but it doesn’t matter. It’s still what people want, so the airports need to figure it out.

When it comes to power outlets, that’s even more important now as many airlines have continued to refuse to install power on airplanes. I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that travelers would be happy to see airport carpet replaced with wall-to-wall power outlets just to make grabbing a quick charge easy.

The third biggest issue was a broader one: food. People want good, healthy, and cheap dining options. I don’t think by “cheap,” that means the dollar value meal but rather having it closer to street pricing. If the food is better, people will pay for it. They just don’t want a $20 turkey sandwich. Food becomes even more important now with airlines offering buy-on-board. You never know if they’ll have what you want, or if they do, whether they’ll run out before they get to your row on the airplane. Many people prefer to play it safe and buy grub in the airport.

Food is a good story because some airlines and airports are getting it right. I look at Delta’s efforts at JFK and La Guardia as perfect examples of how this should work. They’ve put food right into the gate areas without reducing the seat count. Now there are plenty of seats that have power outlets and iPad ordering stations so you can wait for your flight and order food from where you sit. That’s the kind of thing that benefits everyone.

Of course, many of the things that you guys want aren’t really something the airport can control. People want shorter security lines, but that requires the TSA to provide more security staff. And you don’t want rude gate agents, but that’s controlled more by the airline than the airport in most cases. Still, there are things airports can do to help in those situations.

But let’s back up here. Sure, you want wi-fi and you want good food, but those are little things. What do you really want from your airport? You want to get out of it as quickly as you can. If you’re flying into a city, you want to get in your car, bus, train, whatever as quickly as you can so you can get to your destination. That’s why people hate those big rental car facilities that require long bus or train rides from the terminal. It just takes up time.

If you’re flying out of a city, you want your flights to be on time and frequently departing for the city to which you need to go. Airports can help with the on time piece by having a good runway/taxiway design (for new airports, as few as there are today) and by clearing snow quickly to keep things moving.

But to ensure that there are frequent flights to as many destinations as possible, it’s important for airports to keep their costs down. I’ve said it many times before (and I can already guess some of the comments that will come in, as usual), but a lot of airports throw money away on things that don’t really matter to the passenger experience. If you’re going to spend money, spend it on things that really improve the travel experience like spacious gate areas with ample seating and power along with short walking distances and good food outlets. Save the architectural flair for something else, some place where it won’t negatively impact the ability of the airport to keep a full schedule flights, just as people want.

[SMF photo via Sacramento Airport]
[LAX photo via Los Angeles World Airports]
[Goldilocks image via Hiro Sheridan/CC 2.0]

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43 comments on “What Travelers Want From Their Airports

  1. While I would love free wifi and power outlets. What I really want from airlines and airports are gluten free dining choices. It’s getting pretty old having to get a “burger no bun” at every fast food joint or bar or a finding the one place that serves salads that I can eat (you know where the chicken is grilled not breaded). Also while I enjoy being upgraded to 1st on flights that have meals on them its really disappointing to not be able to eat half of the food given. So out comes my gluten free protien bar or some other form of gluten free snack. (Same problem in coach, snack boxes usually don’t contain much I can eat, so out comes my gluten free snacks etc.)

    So healthy food and allergy sensitive food is what an airport really needs

  2. You can’t just call out SMF or LAX without calling out IND too. I know you visit quite often, so you have to agree that that airport is a substantial waste of money compared to what it could have been by skipping all the upgraded finishes and extra bells and whistles that they have.

    1. It wasn’t meant to be an exhaustive list, but Indy definitely is up there. Since that’s where the in-laws live, I’m particularly sensitive to the flights that have disappeared thanks to that palace.

  3. You would have thought that when airlines dropped meals in favor or passengers buying meals on board, that in terminal food outlets would have lowered prices to attract more people into buying from them instead of onboard.

    Bathrooms are a good point to bring up. It’s amazing how small some are in big city airports.

  4. It often seems like an airport’s priorities are different from a traveller’s. Airports seem to want to build shrines to their city’s glory. Travellers want cheap and convenient — we’re not terribly concerned by architecture and such. As noted, off-airport rent-a-car sites suck. For example, why a smallish airport like ABQ built an off-airport car rental shrine is incomprehensible. We also don’t want to be gouged in rent-a-car taxes. Paying a “normal” sales tax and, perhaps, a one-time $5 facility charge would seem to be “fair” to pick up a car, no? But good luck getting these terms anywhere!

    Similarly, we want free internet, since there’s no logical price-point that makes sense. We’re not going to pay even 5 bucks to check our emails. And we want decent food at “street” prices — along with a good selection. Like have fast food, better takeout food, and sit down, as our needs can be different depending on our travel plans.

    1. “Similarly, we want free internet, since there’s no logical price-point that makes sense. We’re not going to pay even 5 bucks to check our emails. And we want decent food at “street” prices — along with a good selection. Like have fast food, better takeout food, and sit down, as our needs can be different depending on our travel plans.”

      The thing is, people do pay $5 to check their email, and pay too much for food. Of course they don’t want to if they have the choice, but fact is that enough people do pay for these to make it worthwhile.

  5. PDX needs to get some love here. Free wifi and the food vendors are required to charge normal prices. Also, the food options are pretty good, with a lot of good local restaurants and breweries, rather than gross national chains (e.g., no Chilis 2!).

    Also, the architecture is pleasant, with a spacious terminal and lots of natural light, which makes a difference in rainy Portland.

    1. Well said. You know an airport has good food when the flight crews get off the plane to go get it. PDX is very high on my list of favorite airports.

  6. I don’t quite understand the economics of in-terminal car rentals. Take for example BWI: they used to have a car rental facility right in the middle of the horseshoe as part of the hourly garage, but several years ago all rentals were pushed off-site and the space was converted to additional parking spots. Current charges for in-terminal parking are $4 an hour with a maximum of $22 per day. Let’s say an average parking space spends equal times between the hourly, daily, and empty rates, this gives an average yield of just under $40 per space per day, or about $1.64 per hour. So that’s the minimum the airport should charge rental companies that want to operate from the garage.

    I see why a car rental company wouldn’t want to keep its entire fleet in the garage — I’m guessing a car spends many hours or even days on the lot between rentals. But why can’t a company keep a small facility in the garage, and drive cars on and off the property as needed? I would think it can be arranged that a car spends maybe 4 hours in the garage for each rental, which amounts to just under $7 at the above rates. I’m sure a $10 premium on the daily rate can be justified for some of the higher-end rental outfits at a place like BWI; I know that I always look to see if in-terminal car rentals are available, and I do pay higher prices even on leisure rentals. So it’s a bit mind-boggling that BWI can’t make in-terminal car rentals work. Is there something else going on?

    (Just for comparison, DCA has hourly/daily rates which are quite comparable to BWI, yet they do allocate a portion of their garage to car rentals.)

    On a related note, it’s frustrating how difficult it is at some airports to figure out which car rentals operate in-terminal and which do not. I’m flying to Springfield-Branson (SGF) in a few weeks, and I’m getting contradictory information from the airport website, rental companies’ websites, and independent websites. It seems that for some, a desk in the terminal with a shuttle outside qualifies as “in-terminal”. Aargh…

  7. My addition: Quiet spaces or quiet areas, sheltered from the chaos of gate traffic, constant shrill announcements and TVs blaring CNN. (Without needing to by a club pass.) O’hare has absolutely zero places to sit, except for gate seating, which is impossible to spend a pleasant few hours at because they’re tiding in and out with people boarding and deplaning. The seating at the ends of B and C are packed tighter than a Target on Black Friday. Unless you know an airport well it’s hard to find a large or simple lounge area. (For example DEN has a center mezzanine in all concourses which feels very removed from the hustle and bustle below. When I clear security I head straight to the coffee shop there.) PHX has the center mall area, but it feels like sitting in a mall and it’s outside security.

    Power – I keep a small splitter in my bag. Never met anyone unwilling to share and I get compliments on being prepared :)

    Food – While not practical for everyone, my solution is “bring your own.” I’ve brought sandwiches, baked potato, salads, bagels, cheese (non refrigerated,) with me many times, and keep crackers, powerbars and tea in my travel bag. A few meals is $20 saved, and for quick meals I prefer to eat stuff I’ve prepared myself and save money for nice diners. If you know you have a day of flying and connections just grab leftovers from the fridge at home.

    Love in terminal car rentals. SNA, TPA, MCO are regulars. Last weekend I made it from plane seat to freeway in 25 minutes at MCO on a Sunday afternoon. For short trips like I do the time saved is immense.

  8. Speaking of parking, Cranky, I know you like what they did at Long Beach, but the net result is that the cheapest parking jumped from $11/day to $17/day. Not good for customers. Though one would think that this should open up an opportunity for a private operator to open a lot. I could even see the Marriott doing it — they already have a shuttle, and they should have some space on their lot (they currently offer free parking for guests).

    Also, the $2 price differential between lots A and B seems very small to me; I don’t see myself using lot B to save that little amount. Then again I live so close to the airport that it wouldn’t make sense for me to park for more than 48 hours anyway — at that point it’s cheaper to take a taxi both ways.

    1. I’m with you on this. I couldn’t believe that’s what they put the pricing at – it’s way too much for an economy lot, even if it is walking distance to the terminal. They like to say it’s cheaper than the near-terminal parking at LAX, but LAX still has economy lots. Misleading and frustrating.

      We’re in the same boat. We paid for parking on our two day trip a couple days ago, but we’d be better off taking a cab for anything beyond that.

  9. Bathroom stalls large enough to fit a carry on roller bag is important without having to do the curly shuffle to get in and out. Good food is important to me, in the $7-10 price range. IAD in the US Airways Terminal is a good example of this. Unique eats at moderate prices.

    Any airport without the dreaded rental car shuttle buses saves so much time both leaving and arriving (especially when a meeting runs late and you have to do the OJ Simpson sprint to the gate).

    Decentralized security checkpoints are nice at most locations that have it, other than EWR of course. Dulles for one is outstanding offering many options.

    You hit it on the nose with power ports and free wifi. I have no issues with a slowish wifi system as long as I can VPN into work for a few minutes to look into an issue that came up during the first flight. A fast wifi network is not necessary for that.

  10. Was just at BWI Delta terminal C and there were no visible outlets – a real battle to find those that were hidden. There were some wall outlets, but no seats and thus people were sitting on the floor to recharge.

  11. My desire, beyond those well articulated above, is for a water dispenser (or several, depending on the size of the airport) in each concourse so I can fill the water bottle I must bring empty through TSA. All tap water in the US must meet AWW standards and by now we know most bottled water is actually tap water (except the most expensive fizzy brands?). I hate paying $2-3 for water when I can fill a 16-20 oz bottle of my own. The problem is that most water fountains don’t provide a high enough arc to fill my bottle beyond 2/3. Petty, I know, but still . . . .

    1. I’ll always ask the Starbucks in the terminal for a water refill (Its Starbucks policy to say yes, and provide the refill, even at the locations they don’t own.) Also many restaurants will have a water tap on their soda fountain, or staff that’ll refill your bottle.

    2. Make sure you wash the bottle between refills. I see lots of people at work that continuously refill water and soda bottles they bought from the vending machine. That’s like drinking the agua drinks off the street carts in Mexico.

  12. Airports do a good job at planning and organizing airside operations. But a lousy job in planning and organizing landside operations. If there is a way to consolidate, organize and upgrade ground transportation modes it would make ground and air travel more seamless.

    I’ve been to many Brazilian intercity bus terminals that would rival many US airports in terms of gates, amentities and wayfinding. In Shanghai the regional high speed train network is hubbed at Hongqiao airport.

    Just as the oil industry is re-branding itself as energy companies, I foresee the airline industry to rebrand itself as mobility companies to provide the first and final mile service for passengers. I forsee airports developing its own regional express bus transit networks as part of thier competitive plans and to mitigate traffic congestion.

    Bike access and storage at airports would be a good amenity. (and homage to the Wright Brothers who were bicycle makers.)

    1. If accepted and implemented (security being the main hurdle) a design like this would be excellent:


      A small airport 60 miles from Denver, with a sizable population, handles check in and security, then busses passengers straight to the concourse/gate area.

      Excellent for tertiary markets; skip the drive, parking, check-in, and security – and do all that at a remote station. Certainly be worth a nominal price considering gas and parking fees.

      1. I can see security being a hurdle, but if they’re willing to dedicate a bus to only having its doors opened in the sterile area it seems pretty simple. Put the bus in the sterile area, then board the passengers. Once they’re aboard, affix a seal to the door of some variety, or just two TSA employees ride along, and make sure no one gets on or off. Pulling the bus in as just a charter for the times its needed would be tricker, as it’d have to be inspected each time…

      2. I’m having flashbacks to the old America West Careliner buses that brought people into the terminal from Scottsdale.

        1. Wow, I thought the only time buses got involved were in irrops. Like landing in ELM instead of BGM. More than a few times we got flow into ELM because of fog at BGM. (which happens when the airport is 1,000 feet above the average ground level..)

          I went googling because I was curious about the Careliner stuff, I found a 1994 working paper by The University of California Transportation Center. I haven’t read the full thing but Careliner is on p 43 of the PDF/p 38 of the document. An interesting quick read on its history..

    2. Yes to everything said so far.
      -Water stations (a la SFO T2)
      -Vegetarian/reasonably priced food
      -I can deal with a crappy old terminal if it keeps costs really low (CLT)
      -If there’s wifi, it better be free. Else don’t even bother with it.

      I completely agree with the multimodal transit idea (rail is great, but buses are ok too). It works in every other country. BWI has a new commuter bus (MTA 201) that gets you to the I-270 corridor in about an hour for just $5. I rode it last weekend and it’s really great.

      1. T3 has water filling station(s) as well (saw one in the food court circle) Probably T1, too, but I don’t know from personal experience.

  13. As long as their is something to eat besides the standard Micky D’s/Burger King TGIChilibee’s or mall food (Panda Express/Sbarro) I’m good. I like that airports are starting to move to higher quality restaurants with local ties. Delta’s terminals in JFK and LGA are good examples, as are AUS, MDW and ORD to an extent.

    With regards to food prices, I’m surprised no one has mentioned that concessionaires usually charge higher prices to cover the rents charged by the airports. In some (or most) cases “rent” is simply the airport taking a percentage of revenue, so these places have to charge elevated prices to maintain their margins.

    1. Right. A lot of people think that airport food prices are high just because they are gouging a captive audience. It’s more likely to be the airport charging them high rent and/or taking a cut.

    2. Very true, and that’s why it’s something that I say airports can impact and not just the concessionaires that are brought in.

  14. My request is simple, yet seems most difficult. I’d appreciate “courtesy” from the airlines, and airports! My experience, last time I flew, was horrifying!!! I’m now trying to live as normal a life as possible, with 20 titanium screws in my back! No one cared about safety for the traveler, just making money!
    My biggest concern is, will this ever change for the better? The DOT doesn’t do anything except read your complaint. It’s truly sad! I hope no one ever goes through what I went through!!!
    Everyone that flys, please read your rights, before your next trip. I wish you all safe travels.

  15. I really want observation decks to come back. MSP has a great one in Concourse D. It’s quiet and has a great view of the runway.

  16. I’m glad Cranky pointed out SMF Terminal B. Its my home airport so begrudgingly I’ve already used it. What a waste — half the gates have no jet bridge and will probably never need a jet bridge. Is it nice inside? Yes. Do I care? Not really. Why in a post 9-11 world is the security area so small and slow? Why did they build a people mover when a moving walkway does the same thing?

    Pluses though include basically the NICEST airport seats I have ever seen outside of a lounge. They all have a plug and USB port — crazy comfortable also. Its light airy, blah, blah, blah. But come on SMF — a bigger bar is all I asked for, and no seats last week :(. . . .

  17. One thing I’d like to see is airports requiring vendors (shopping and food) to be open in the very early morning and very late night. I know it’s a cost issue, but there are still passengers (money) at these lovely times of day and night. I’ve struggled to find options from airports as small as Wichita and Tulsa to as large as ATL.

    On a separate note … love the graphic, Brett!

  18. There are airports where the free wireless internet and paid boingo service exist side-by-side. The free service is impossibly slow during peak times, so if you want to get anything done, you log into boingo. Otherwise, the free service works fine. This seems like a decent model to me, for now.

    I agree with james – put the TVs in the gate area on mute. Or at least, put the TVs on something with straight no-nonsense hard news, instead of the junk that passes for cable news these days.

    There is many an airport where I’ve looked around, and actually decided that they buy-on-board options would be healthier, tastier and better value.

    Unfortunately, some people decide to buy something warm and super-greasy to bring on board. People: the smell of greasy food travels in an airplane cabin, and it smells gross to your neighbors. Bring cold, non-greasy food.

  19. Brett, you are dead-on in what travelers want and need: fast in-and-out, wifi and power, healthy food options, and then the lowest possible operating costs so that the airport will have the most possible service with the lowest possible fares. That means that shopping options must pay for themselves.

    Unfortunately the major thing that ACI (Airports Council) seems to lobby for is higher PFCs (passenger facility charges). I don’t trust the airport operators to spend the PFCs efficiently, and at the end of the day, higher PFCs raise the effective ticket price and reduce demand.

    Most Airports don’t seem to make economically efficient spending decisions. They seem most fixated on increasing their revenues, especially when they can get the spending funded by PFCs or federal grants – which is why we end up with shopping taj mahals, but while they may generate some marginal revenue for the airport, it may not be economically efficient (e.g. if it costs $200 million for something that generates an incremental $2 million per year) and if it raises costs and drives away flights and passengers it can actually be a loser.

    These consolidated rental car centers generally are customer unfriendly, and it’s insulting when car renters then have to pay extra fees to use them. Airport operators seem to be like lemmings, when one airport builds something, they all have to have it, regardless of whether it makes any sense for their particular airport. The Las Vegas consolidated center really sucks compared to the individual operations that preceeded it. There used to be an area for a bus from each of the companies, which took you to that company’s facility. Now there is line queuing and pandemonium boarding stand-room only grey buses which drop you off hundreds of yards from the front of a rental car taj mahal which is located a long distance from the airport and without easy freeway access. Even if they needed to clear out the existing rental car lots, they should have let each rental car company operate its own operation and shuttle, it was better, more convenient customer service. And all the airports are following like lemmings, spending hundreds of millions in a fashion that reduces customer convenience and raises cost.

    So don’t give the airport operators additional PFC money to waste!

  20. Seems like choice and service in airport food is still a pretty hot topic here. in the last 6 months, HMSHost added a mobile app option to have food delivered to designated gates in JFK Terminal 2 (Delta), MSP and ORD from select Host-run restaurants. The app is B4 You Board and includes menus from Balducci’s Food Lover’s Market (JFK), French Meadow Bakery & Cafe (MSP), and Stanley’s Blackhawks Bar (ORD), to name just a few. Just download B4 You Board from the App Store or Android Market and start looking at menus if you’re traveling through any of these airports. Delivery in 20 minutes or less! We’re rolling it out to other airports in the coming 6-12 months so stay tuned.

  21. The Colorado Springs Airport (COS) makes it a priority to make travel in and out of Colorado Springs as easy and traveler-friendly as possible. COS has installed free charging stations on the underside of each side table located throughout the airport’s seating system. Each station has two electrical outlets and two USB ports available, and about 10% of the seats in the terminal are located adjacent a station. Additionally, we have had free WiFi available for almost ten years and recently expanded the program to provide even more coverage for our passengers. We believe there are basic amenities travelers should not have to worry about and we work to make sure those needs are met.

  22. I have to say that I disagree – at least when you state that architectural flair is unnecessary. While in many cases this “architectural flair” does add cost to buildings costs, raising landing fees, etc, it certainly doesn’t have to. I personally believe that have an open, airy, bright and naturally daylight space with a bit of architectural flair enhances the travel experience quite a bit actually and makes it so much less dull and mundane. Good architecture isn’t just for show – it actually enhances the usability of a space.

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