'Zombie' Airport Sleepers To Be Replaced By 'Pod' People

May 10--As anyone who has been stranded in the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport late at night can tell you, there isn't much in the way of accommodation for late-night travelers.

The last flights get in from Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake City, and Minneapolis at about 2 a.m. But people looking to make a connection to another Alaska city or village often have to wait for hours before their next flight. That time is often spent trying to charge a cell phone or grab a nap on the floor or chairs. That, and many other things about the state's largest airport, may soon change.

By the end of the summer, travelers stuck in Anchorage's airport during those "zombie hours" -- the time between when most airport shops and restaurants close and when they reopen hours later -- will have alternatives to the floor and McDonald's (the only restaurant at the airport that is open 24 hours per day).

Airport managers said so-called "sleeping pods" will soon be installed in the C concourse. The small shelter boxes will contain two to three bunks each and offer electronic charging, high-speed Internet to check email and download a movie before the next flight, and even food deliveries. An alarm clock built into each bunk will make sure customers don't oversleep. Travelers will be able to simply slide a credit card on the outer door and pay by the hour. Cost hasn't been determined yet.

"Like many things here, it's a niche market, and if you guess wrong about the price, you are going to be out of luck," airport concessions manager Javier Robinson said.

Robinson said the Miami and Atlanta airports are looking into the sleeping pods, but Anchorage would be the first airport in the nation to install the micro-hotels. Robinson said they have become extremely popular overseas, and he hopes they will catch on in Alaska.

About 50 people could been seen trying to sleep off the down hours this week as Thursday night faded into Friday morning. They were stretched out along seating areas at almost every gate and some were lying on the floor. Some simply sat in the chairs, watching a stream of news play over the airport's televisions. Most travelers haunting the terminals at those hours arrived from the Lower 48 late at night and have to wait hours to catch connections to their homes in communities around the state.

Matthew Hester was fueling up on McDonald's hamburgers while he waited another three hours for a flight to the North Slope. After that, Hester planned to grab a nap near his departure gate.

"Right now I will be trying to crash on the floor. I think the pods would be a pretty amazing way to go," Hester said.

John Hagen had just arrived on the redeye from Seattle and was waiting for a 5 a.m. flight to Kenai. Looking around at the gathered bodies of sleepy travelers, he agreed with Hester's assessment of the sleeping pod idea.

"I think it will catch on," Hagen said. "I see a lot of people here trying to sleep on the floor or chairs. They look hellaciously uncomfortable."

But sleeping pods won't be the end of the airport's effort to offer travelers everything they might want -- day and night.

A new salon offers haircuts, coloring, tanning, massages, and even mani-pedis. Have an impulse to buy some night-vision goggles? No problem. Want to buy some Alaska-made booze or a growler of beer and take it with you on the plane to relatives down south? Check. Robinson said Anchorage is one of only five locales in the U.S. where you can buy retail booze and take it on the plane -- although you can't drink it until you land.

A new pre-security addition to the Norton Sound Seafood Restaurant will allow people to have a non-rushed dinner with friends and family before they leave the state.

The addition of new stores, restaurants and services at the airport is all part of an effort to increase its profitability. And Anchorage's airport has been doing well. It is in the top five for dollars spent per passenger in the U.S., and concessions brought in about $78 million in 2013.

"What concessions do is, they help offset the fees," Robinson said. "So the more we grow the non-airline revenue, which is concessions, the better it is for the airlines, the better it is for the passengers, and the better it is for the airport."

A new hotel, with between 100 and 300 rooms, a full restaurant and perhaps even a swimming pool, is planned for the airport's North Terminal. Robinson said requests for proposals will go out for the project later this summer, with construction to begin as early as 2015. The project would make Anchorage one of only about a dozen U.S. airports that have full lodging facilities connected to its airport.

Despite all the changes, Robinson said, the mechanics at play in Alaska travel will likely stay the same. Alaska is a long way from anywhere else, making its residents the kings and queens of the redeye flights, according to Robinson. And he plans to capitalize on that.

"We have to catch up to the Lower 48 traffic pattern," Robinson said. "So Seattle, Portland, they are not changing for us; we have to fit their niche."

Reach Sean Doogan at sean@alaskadispatch.com

Copyright 2014 - Anchorage Daily News

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