Airports Go Extra Mile to Get Smiles

Up against heightened security and airline cutbacks, airports try hard to make fliers feel welcome and comfortable.

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.

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