Airports Go Extra Mile to Get Smiles

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

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.

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