Charlotte/Douglas Fliers Soon Able to Surf

Starting this week, passengers at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport can walk up to the granite counter by the food court, pass through the sliding glass door and sit at a booth where they can surf the Internet.

The center will offer the first public wireless Internet access at the airport -- a service officials say should be popular among business and leisure travelers.

The business center will have a lounge area where passengers with laptops and wireless Internet cards can access the Internet for free. The airport will charge for access to the booths, which offer more privacy, but officials had not yet settled on a price last week.

The business center also will offer access to copiers, phones, fax machines and conference rooms, and it will sell phone and computer accessories.

In opening an independent, full-service business center, the airport is venturing into rare territory. Many big airports, including New York's LaGuardia and Chicago's O'Hare, have centers operated by national companies. Corporate interests that operate such centers say it's a booming enterprise, as business travelers return to the skies and look for ways to maximize their time.

Charlotte's center is overseen by the airport and staffed by HMSHost, which operates the airport's concessions. Charlotte-based Bank of America Corp. is sponsoring the business center, under a two-year agreement that pays the city $425,000 a year in exchange for lending the bank's name to the center, two ATMs at the center's entrance and a nearby kiosk to sell bank products.

Travelers have long asked for a business center at the airport -- and not just business travelers, says Haley Gentry, the airport's public affairs manager.

"It could be a vacation traveler who needs a copy of their passport, or you could be going to a presentation and they made changes to the presentation on the way there and you need a copy," she said. "It's been something we've been missing in our customer service offerings."

At a sneak peek for the Observer last week, workers were finishing work on the reception desk at the front of the center, while others examined architectural plans to figure out Internet wiring.

On the left side of the center, in a separate and futuristic-looking room, are 11 booths, each with white, wing-shaped canopies designed to mute noise. All will have phones. Four will have computers, and the rest will have connections for laptops.

To the right sits a lounge, which will have chairs and could be used for a future expansion of the booths. Two conference rooms are at the back of the 2,300-square-foot center.

"It's high-tech, ready for the businessman," said Billy Bowers of The Bowers Group LLC, which was finishing construction last week.

The center will be open between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. and will be staffed by several attendants, some of whom used to work at the airport's US Airways clubs.

Airport officials say the center is not designed to compete with the clubs, which require membership or a fee to enter and do not offer photocopying, or computer rentals.

"There's really no major overlap there," Gentry said.

Companies who run airport business centers in other parts of the country say they're growing in popularity.

At Laptop Lane, a division of Austin, Texas-based Wayport Inc., revenue has increased steadily each month, as travelers seek privacy while they work, said spokeswoman Michele Fanning. The company has 15 locations at nine major airports.

The most popular service is Internet access, Fanning said, although making phone calls and buying phone accessories also are big draws.

Even after the 9-11 attacks, the company did not see a drop-off in business, she said.

"People were having to get to the airport two or three hours in advance and needed to stay productive," she said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press