For the most part, airports in the USA are workaday places, serving merely as points of transit for people in a hurry.
By contrast, many large airports in Europe and Asia are designed to encourage lingering, providing unique services Americans can't commonly find inside airport terminals at home: spas, showers, hotels, dry cleaners, massage centers, casinos, swimming pools and movie theaters.
"U.S. airports now lag far behind," says Tom Ferrari, a sales executive in Fox Island, Wash., who has extensive foreign travel experience. "We have been doing lots of construction but nothing new and bold."
So why the difference? Geography, culture and finance, says Dick Marchi of Airports Council International-North America.
Many European and Asian airports are major international hubs where travelers wait longer for connecting flights.
Airports design services to accommodate passengers' longer waits, he says. Other countries also take great pride in the capital airport as a showcase for their economic development and tourism opportunities, giving them an extra incentive to spruce up.
Relatively new airports
Foreign airports, which commonly are run by national governments, aren't as beholden to airlines for revenue as their U.S. counterparts, Marchi says. They can design facilities and amenities without having to consult extensively with carriers, which often insist on low-cost operations at U.S. airports to keep rents and fees low.
Another big edge for Asian airports is that they are relatively new, and they had more room to build, Marchi says.
Some airport services, such as showers and massages, also may not be culturally appealing to Americans.
Some airports with cutting-edge services:
*Singapore Changi. It's one of the best airports in amenities, says Matt Holdrege, a telecommunications executive from Los Angeles.
It features a lounge, which, for a fee, offers showers, massages, private jacuzzis, manicures and facials. The airport also has rent-by-the-hour hotel rooms, a gym, private TV monitors for rent, a movie theater and an indoor swimming pool. There's a flower garden and an outdoor swimming pool on the terminal's roof. Connecting passengers with a few hours to kill can opt for free city tours.
Doreen Huro Michelini, president of China Mexico Solutions, a consulting company in Chicago, is a big fan of Changi's hourly rental rooms. Flying in from Chicago, she usually arrives around midnight and often must wait until 6:30 a.m. for a connecting flight. "By being able to rent a room right at the airport, you can take a quick shower and get more hours of rest before you board your next flight," she says.
*Amsterdam Schiphol. A kid-friendly airport, it has a children's playground with video games, Lego pieces and TVs playing Disney shows. It's also celebrating Rembrandt's 400th birthday this year with an exhibition of his work. Travelers heading to tropical destinations can get various vaccines.
For the spiritually inclined, it has a meditation center, with worship services in English. For gamblers, it has a casino.
"It was small, but it was a nice diversion," says Gary Bellaire, a technology consultant from Richmond, Va., who's visited the casino.
*Hong Kong International. It stands out for its upscale mall that "is a shopping mecca with great stores," says Timothy Burke, a marketing director in Denver, who buys business and personal gifts there. Its tenants include Bulgari, Cartier, Tiffany, an Oriental medicine pharmacy, a Chinese bakery and a tea shop.
*Frankfurt Airport City. The German airport features rows of counters for more than 35 tour companies that sell last-minute seats on flights and European tour deals with deep discounts.
"This is cool if one is flexible, has time off and is open to various locations," says Tom Morgan, a Hoosier living in Germany for his job with drugmaker Abbott. He once got a good deal on a family vacation package in Crete.
You would not choose to land at any airport in the United States. This isn't a big surprise to most air travelers, who consider hanging out in our airports akin to root canal work.
Some of the best airports abroad are also known for expansive "aerotropolis" developments - in which a miniature city develops around an airport - and fancy amenities, particularly at on-site hotels.
The A380, which will eclipse the Boeing 747 as the world's largest commercial plane when it enters into service next year.
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