Airports Go Extra Mile to Get Smiles

When last month's unraveling of an alleged terrorist plot to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners sparked a nationwide ban on carry-on gels and liquids, unwitting passengers were forced to fill airport trash bins with everything from shaving cream to French perfume.

But at Florida's Daytona Beach International, they could ship the offending items home -- free.

Under a 3-year-old program designed to give Daytona Beach a leg up on competition from the likes of Orlando International, 65 miles to the southwest, the airport spends about $300 to $400 a month for envelopes and postage to mail back items confiscated by Transportation Security Administration screeners. New this month: clear plastic bags to help sort fliers' carry-on belongings (the TSA just relaxed its gels and liquids policy, allowing up to three ounces of travel-size toiletries if carried aboard in a clear, quart-size bag) and free booties to swaddle sockless feet during TSA-mandated shoe inspections.

Daytona Beach is among the growing ranks of U.S. airports trying to boost their reputations among anxious, irritated travelers who view terminals more as torture chambers than as gateways to adventure.

In an aviation world where yogurt has become a suspect substance, wearing the wrong T-shirt can bounce you off a flight, and airlines raise fares while cutting service and cramming more bodies into smaller planes, "Passengers blame airports for everything," says Stephen Cooke, Daytona Beach's director of business development. "Anything we can do to increase convenience and alleviate stress on the ground, the better."

No matter that Daytona Beach, a small regional airport squeezed by low-fare competition at Orlando and flight cutbacks from principal carrier Delta Air Lines, expects this year's passenger count to plunge 20% from 2005's total of 615,000.

Five years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks sent air travel into a tailspin from which it has only recently recovered, financially strapped airlines aren't the only ones duking it out: "Airports are fighting for their lives, doing whatever they can to get and keep customers," says Minneapolis-based travel expert Terry Trippler.

From pitching wine bars and free high-speed wireless service to hosting travel fairs, "The battle is on."

A decade ago, when most airport directors concentrated more on passenger processing than on passenger service, "Airports weren't in the mind-set of tooting their own horns. But now, the whole dynamic has changed," says Pauline Armbrust of trade publication Airport Revenue News, which this month launched Project: Airports, a nationwide marketing campaign that promotes "the industry's efforts to create a better, safer traveling experience while spotlighting its impact on the local community."

Those efforts are clearly needed, notes Jim Gaz of J.D. Power and Associates. The company's latest North American Airport Satisfaction Study, released in June, polled nearly 10,000 passengers who took a flight from January to May.

The good news: Airports gained substantial ground from the last survey, in 2004. The bad: With an average score of 689 points on a scale of 1,000, airports still hover near the bottom of J.D. Power's 20 ranked industries. (Airports rank below airlines, which average 692 points; cable companies languish at the foot of the list with a score of 665.)

Limitations abound

Airport officials say they're hampered by existing design limitations and are unfairly tarred and feathered for the actions of others, from TSA screeners to FAA air traffic controllers to airline baggage handlers.

"Large airports are making major investments that help reduce the hassles created by systems they don't control," says former airport director Mary Rose Loney, head of consulting firm The Loney Group. In the spring, Orlando signed a $1.7 million contract with a private security firm to boost customer service at TSA's security lines.

She adds, "Denver, Phoenix, Atlanta and Los Angeles are investing millions in relocating explosive-detection equipment from terminal lobbies to baggage-handling areas, relieving passengers of the need to schlep bags to TSA stations."

Other ways airports are trying to burnish their profiles:

*Going high-tech. Dallas/Fort Worth recently launched monthly podcasts in English and Spanish that give tips on airport parking, dining options, art shows and shopping, while Akron/Canton's website added three blogs written by airport officials.

Many airport websites now post flight trackers and TSA security wait times, and a few, including Norfolk, Va., and Cleveland, provide fare comparisons.

And although it's still far more common at smaller regional terminals than at the majors, "You're seeing more and more airports provide free Wi-Fi," says Loney. Among them: Las Vegas, Phoenix and Philadelphia, which added free wireless in its food court/mall area this month.

*Going high-touch. As over-leveraged airlines have trimmed airport staff, more terminals are ramping up their volunteer efforts. At DFW, whose "holiday helper" program has expanded to more than 100 participants since 9/11, jersey-clad employee volunteers spent Labor Day weekend dispensing directions and mini-footballs to celebrate Texans' annual pigskin mania.

North Carolina's Charlotte-Douglas, which also plans to expand a recent test program designed to spiff up the airport's bathrooms with attendants who hand out towels and mints, started its airport ambassador program last year. In a nod to one of the city's top tourist draws, volunteers wear NASCAR-style pit crew jackets that read "Flag Me Down For Airport Information."

*Easing the hassle factor. Responding to new rules mandating shoe removal at TSA security checkpoints, Chicago's O'Hare and Midway airports started handing out free booties last month. Similar programs are in place at other airports, including Washington's Dulles and Reagan National, Phoenix, San Diego and Des Moines.

Determined to maintain what's become a major source of revenue, more airports are fighting cheaper, off-site parking competitors by offering valet options, "frequent parker" reward programs and free cellphone lots where people can wait for arriving passengers.

The next innovation, Loney predicts: Off-site baggage screening and processing designed to save passengers time and ease pressure on already crowded airports. An Orlando-based program already lets passengers check bags at hotels or cruise ships and pick them up at their final destinations. Starting this month, guests at Hyatt hotels in Boston, Dallas, Denver, Miami, Orlando, San Diego, Seattle and Tampa can pre-check up to two bags for $10.

*Selling "small is better." Despite soaring fuel costs that have helped scuttle or consolidate air service at many regional airports this year, they're trying to earn brownie points with passengers by touting themselves as alternatives to congested hubs. New Hampshire's newly renamed Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, hoping to capitalize on its proximity to its larger neighbor 50 miles to the south, will launch free shuttle service to Boston next month.

In Colorado, Pueblo's new Fly Pueblo campaign peddles the benefits of flying rather than driving to Denver, about a two-hour drive north. And scrappy Akron/Canton, in a poke against nearby rival Cleveland, passed out free T-shirts at a recent meeting of business travel executives. The not-so-subtle message: "Big Airports Suck the Wind Right Out Of You."

*Promoting a sense of place. As they retool their restaurant and retail outlets in recognition that travelers spend more time there, airports are "becoming more reflective of the community," says Airport Revenue News' Armbrust. Memphis' recent $25 million concessions overhaul, for example, features locally themed murals and such Memphis-centric options as Elvis Presley Enterprises and Interstate Bar-B-Que.

Eager to make a good impression with locals more apt to equate them with noise pollution and traffic congestion than as the destination for a weekend outing, airports also are ramping up their community relations efforts. Seattle-Tacoma hosted its first travel expo in August, with free massages and food samples from airport vendors, packing tips from Seattle-based outfitter ExOfficio, and a book signing by homegrown celebrity guidebook author Rick Steves.

Tough mission

J.D. Power's Gaz applauds such moves. "It's smart for airports to think outside the box." But in an era when "time is the new currency, and all people want to do at airports is get in and out as quickly as possible," their missions are tougher than ever.

"When I ask people about their experiences in airports," says Gaz, "I don't hear a lot of advocates. But I do hear comments like, 'I'd rather sit in a dentist's chair for 45 minutes.'"

And for cost-conscious travelers, free booties and Wi-Fi go only so far.

In an effort to lower fares and attract more fliers, airports are spending millions to woo and promote low-cost carriers -- at the same time many older, so-called legacy airlines are using smaller aircraft and cutting unprofitable routes, thus reducing airport revenue from landing and passenger fees.

"By the end of this year, low-cost carriers will control an estimated 28% of the market, more than double since 2001," says airport consultant Loney. "That speaks volumes. For most passengers, fares count way ahead of free amenities and comfortable terminal seating."

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