1. The recession hasn t been all bad for air travelers.
THE TALK COMING out of U.S. airports over the past year has been mostly gloomy. With passenger counts down more than 9 percent in the first four months of 2009, compared with the same period a year ago, a number of the country s approximately 565 commercial airports are tabling construction, raising landing fees for airlines and upping parking rates for passengers. But in many ways, the recession has made airports a nicer place for frequent travelers. No construction means easier navigation through terminals. The passenger decline has reduced the rate of delays, to 22 percent of all flights in the second half of 2008, down from 27 percent in the second half of 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. As a result, customer complaints at airports also fell 19 percent in 2008 from the previous year.
Security lines are indeed shorter, and delays are perceptibly down, says industry consultant David Rowell. But the structural deficiencies that caused the delays, like an outdated air traffic control system, still remain. Until they bring [the system] kicking and screaming into the 21st century, more flights will mean more delays, he says.
2. The smaller we are, the better we treat you.
WHEN IT COMES to airports, bigger isn t always better. Frequent flier Jeff Stollman, a Philadelphia consultant, became a devotee of New York s Westchester County Airport when he was making regular trips to visit a client there a few years ago. He chose it over LaGuardia even though Westchester had fewer scheduling options. Why? The terminals were easy to get to, and the rental-car office was steps from the gate. Stollman says the benefits of small airports boil down to time. It was infinitely faster in every way, Stollman says.
Friendlier staff and shorter lines are other reasons travelers say they prefer small airports. In fact, those serving fewer than 10 million people a year consistently edge out large airports those serving 30 million plus a year in an annual customer-service survey by J.D. Power & Associates. The survey asks about parking, ticketing, security, terminal experience and food, among other things. Roger Dalraine of Bardstown, Ky., who makes regular trips to England, flies into Birmingham or Bristol, avoiding Heathrow. I m looking to get away from the cattle truck and get back to flying the way it used to be, he says.
3. If you want to be safe, you ll have to give up some privacy.
WE ALL WANT TO be safer when flying, but more effective security likely means more invasive procedures for passengers. The current debate centers on advanced imaging technology essentially, full-body scanners which sees through passengers clothing to find nonmetal weapons. They re used at 21 U.S. airports in cities like Los Angeles, Baltimore and Atlanta; so far they re used mostly as secondary security, instead of a pat-down. But that could change. (A spokesperson says the Transportation Security Administration won t speculate about future use of the technology.)
In response, a group of privacy organizations has demanded tighter regulations of the machines, including laws about informing passengers and ensuring prompt image deletion. The TSA says there are explanatory signs posted, machines can t store images, and officers never see passengers being scanned. But that doesn t impress Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Agencies don t work well with fuzzy, she says. They need rules. Next up: technology that tracks pulse, skin temperature and breathing (still in testing).
4. You ll love our airport if you can get here.
GETTING TO THE airport is a real pain in many cities. Even if they re not located way outside of town (as many are), few U.S. airports are accessible by convenient public transportation. In fact, as of the end of 2008, only eight of the 20 largest U.S. airports were served by trains that ended within walking distance of terminals. Meanwhile, potential funding has gone toward expanding parking in some airports, and cities like Los Angeles have reportedly gotten flak from taxi and shuttle bus groups, which many advocates say have been big behind-the-scenes sources of opposition to airport public transit.
A few airports are particularly inconvenient to reach. For example, getting from Washington Dulles outside of D.C. to Capitol Hill (26 miles) costs about $54 in a taxi. And while more airports are getting the message and building trains, it s slow going. (Dulles s Metrorail, for example, won t be complete until 2013.) Until then, Web sites like Hitchsters.com which lets users enter flight information and pairs them with other travelers and a car service have stepped in to help passengers share rides.
5. We re cashing in on advertising.
WHEN YOU WALK through most airports, you ll see advertising banners hanging from the ceiling and hear televisions blabbing ads from nearly every gate. You may even see ads lining the bins where you put your shoes and belt to go through security, as well as on baggage carousels. Indeed, advertising in U.S. and Canadian airports is a booming $243 million market as of 2008. According to a study of 29 airports, advertising revenue rose 36 percent from 2006 to 2008. And it s only expected to increase, as airports scramble to replace revenue lost in the recession, when passenger numbers dropped.
Advertisers are more than happy to pitch their products in airport terminals to their captive, often affluent passengers. A 2007 study by market-research firm Arbitron shows frequent fliers are likely to be wealthier than the average American. They also spend less time at home exposed to commercials, thanks to busy schedules. As airports ramp up ads, some observers wonder how much more real estate they can sell off. But the ads don t phase seasoned traveler Steve Miller. That s just life, he says. Everybody has to make a buck.
6. Wildlife and airports just don t mix.
SINCE JANUARY S emergency landing of U.S. Airways flight 1549 on the Hudson River after birds flew into its engine, more fliers are paying attention to the interaction between wildlife and airports. Deer, coyote and feral pigs are regularly sighted on runways throughout the country. But birds get struck more than any other animal, and such instances have increased in recent years due to heavy flight traffic, quieter two-engine planes and growing populations of birds like Canada geese and wild turkeys.
The Federal Aviation Administration has asked airports with frequent wildlife sightings to design plans to prevent collisions. These typically involve changing the environment, including fencing, downing trees or removing grasses that attract animals. It can also mean moving animals to another location or even killing them, as in the case of Canada geese that lived near John F. Kennedy Airport at the time of the U.S. Airways incident. A spokesperson for the federal Wildlife Services department says the geese were killed because their limited range meant they would continue to plague planes. The goal, she says, is to keep flying safe.
7. If you think flying s dangerous, try spending time at an airport.
DONNA PETROSKI-KNOX of Barnesville, Ohio, vividly remembers hurtling down a corridor in the Port Columbus International Airport on a motorized passenger cart manned by a worker, when it hit a podium and then the wall.
Luckily, all she got was a sore knee. We could have gotten seriously injured, says Petroski-Knox. (The airport says cart drivers work for companies contracted by airlines.)
Lots of people are scared of flying, but navigating the airport has its own hazards. Passengers trip over luggage, fall on escalators and occasionally get bumped by motorized carts. Pick-up and drop-off areas are particularly dicey, as cars, cabs and buses weave to and from the curbside. Denver International Airport, for example, estimates it has about one passenger injury or accident per day but says that s no more common than at other businesses with heavy foot traffic.
8. Our best customers lives just got a little less convenient.
IN RECENT YEARS, as many as 250,000 frequent travelers were relying on a company called Clear to get them through security lines more quickly. Started in 2004, the company allowed members to enter terminals at 22 airports, including San Francisco and Boston, through a separate, speedy line. But Clear shut down in June, citing money problems, leaving road warriors to rejoin the security cattle call. It felt like the rug was pulled out from under me, says former member David Cumpston, a San Francisco public-relations executive. (Clear s parent company could not be reached for comment.)
This has the National Business Travel Association petitioning for implementation of a new and improved program with full TSA backing. But Kevin Maguire, the business travel group s president, doesn t see this happening anytime soon. The TSA seems to be spinning its wheels, he says. The TSA declined to comment, saying Clear was a privately run enterprise.
9. We ll rent you a car, but it will cost you more.
AIRPORTS DO everything they can to make renting a car easy, putting offices in the baggage claim area or positioning rental car shuttle stops right outside the door. But that convenience will cost you. Thanks to the concession and facility fees airports charge car companies for the right to set up shop there, renting a car at the airport is almost always more expensive than at other locations.
In addition to these passed-along fees, airport renters often pay city or county excise taxes, which go to fund things like new baseball stadiums or local entertainment districts, costs local politicians like to aim at out-of-towners. It s taxation without representation, says Bob Barton, president of the American Car Rental Association, an industry group.
For example, it costs $97 a day, including taxes and fees, to rent a car for a weekend from the Hertz desk at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, according to a recent search on Orbitz.com. In contrast, renting from a nonairport Hertz in Dallas was only $72. A Hertz spokesperson acknowledges the extra fees at airport locations, but adds, Consumers should keep in mind what it will cost to get to the off-airport location. Before you travel, do some online comparison shopping using sites like Orbitz or Expedia. Serious bargain hunters may find the difference makes it worth renting outside the airport.
10. You ll love our food if you re a 16-year-old boy.
DESPITE THE prerecession trend toward high-end restaurants, the food choices are still pretty abysmal at many U.S. airports, where candy, fast food and fattening baked goods seem like staples. Even relatively healthy options like a turkey sandwich may come slathered in mayonnaise, sending the calorie count through the roof, says Peter Greenberg, author of The Traveler s Diet. It s come a long way from the mystery hot dog, he says, but airport cuisine is still fraught with nutritional hazards.
How bad is it? According to a 2008 study by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, one-fifth of restaurants at the nation s busiest airports have no low-fat, high-fiber, cholesterol-free option or vegetarian fare. Among the worst offenders: Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, where 33 percent of restaurants have no healthy menu items, and Ronald Reagan Washington National, where 40 percent are lacking. (An Atlanta spokesperson says the airport has added more healthy choices since the study s release and is in the process of bringing in more; Washington National says the study commends it for improving since 2007, when 58 percent of its restaurants lacked healthy options.) To help travelers navigate the options, the physicians committee recommends nutritious dishes at featured airports, at www.pcrm.org.