Airports scramble to make stranded travelers feel at home

James Dixson, assistant manager of Terminal E at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, shows some of the emergency supplies kept on hand for passengers delayed by weather or air traffic problems.
James Dixson, assistant manager of Terminal E at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, shows some of the emergency supplies kept on hand for passengers delayed by weather or air traffic problems. Rodger Mallison / Fort Worth Star-Telegram / MCT

WASHINGTON — As air travelers begin soaring into another summer travel season starting with the Memorial Day weekend, the nation's airports will be waiting with a growing bounty of services that go well beyond mere takeoffs and landings.

Passengers can catch live music at airports in Austin, Texas, and St. Louis; settle into rockers in a tree-lined atrium in Charlotte, N.C.; or curl up in a sleeping pod at Miami International. Dallas/Fort Worth Airport is poised to dole out hundreds of cots and blankets if weather strands passengers overnight.

At a time when record flight delays and long waits on the tarmac have become part of Americans' flying experience, more and more airports are trying to convert themselves into huge comfort zones to soothe the nerves of harried passengers — and, at the same time, bolster their credibility with the flying public.

A recent survey by J.D. Power and Associates showed a 14-point drop in customer satisfaction with airports between 2007 and 2008. Overall, customer satisfaction with airports is lower than three other travel industry components surveyed by the company — hotels, rental cars and airlines.

"The flying public understands we're making progress, but from the public standpoint, it's still not enough," said Jim Crites, executive vice president of operations at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, which dropped from first to 15th in customer satisfaction among the nation's airports. "We as an industry understand that and we're working very aggressively to try to find solutions."

Despite its slide in the latest survey, Dallas/Fort Worth has taken the lead in an industry-wide campaign to more aggressively assist passengers stranded by bad weather and flight delays. After widely publicized delays in which passengers were stranded for hours on tarmacs at other airports, Crites convened a summit of more than 30 groups representing industry, passenger advocates and government in September 2007 to begin charting emergency responses.

Now, with the start of the peak summer flying season, Dallas/Fort Worth and other airports are stockpiling blankets, cots, pillows and sleeping mats to hand out to stranded passengers. Other measures include keeping at least one concession open around the clock to feed hungry passengers and deploying volunteer "ambassadors" to aid travelers. Red Cross units are also working with some airports to provide relief.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport, the nation's busiest, has purchased air stairs and 100-passengers buses to spare passengers from long-tarmac delays and deploys a "Go-Care" team to assist passengers in emergencies. Airports in Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul and other cities have aggressive training programs to help employees deal with "irregular operations" caused by delays.

Kate Hanni, who became one of the nation's leading passenger advocates after her American Airlines flight was stuck on the tarmac at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport for more than nine hours in late 2006, says she consider Crites a hero for confronting the problem. The California real estate agent, who heads a coalition for passenger rights, works closely with the airport executive on a government task force to improve airport responses to passenger needs.

"He's on our side," Hanni says of Crites. But, while some airports "are doing a tremendous job," says Hanni, others "are ignoring it altogether." Among those that have a long way to go, she says, are smaller airports that have limited food services for stranded travelers.

The emergency measures implemented over the past year parallel a broader effort by airports to greatly diversify their concessions and offer a home-away-from-home environment to an increasingly mobile society.

"People are spending more time at airports," said Debby McElroy, executive vice president at Airports Council International-North America, the umbrella organization for U.S. airports. "What airport management wants to do is make that experience as pleasant as possible."

Increasingly, airports have children play areas, game rooms, Internet connections, business centers, massage services, nail salons, DVD rentals and trendy restaurants that often reflect the local culture. Several have fitness centers and health clinics. At least four have pet hotels. Art exhibits grace numerous airports.

Passengers at Miami International can drop into the Jetsetter Spa to catnap in one of the two futuristic sleep pods. The white oak rockers at Charlotte Douglas International, intended to resemble a Southern front porch, quickly became one of the airport's signature touches and have touched off a nationwide trend.

Rockers now line waiting areas in nearly two dozen other airports.

"This is a nice start," said U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker of Indianapolis as she sat in a rocker at Washington's Reagan National Airport awaiting a flight back home. She called the experience "decompressing."

Airports are also rushing to meet the needs of high-tech passengers lugging laptops and cell phones. Debby McElroy of the Airport Council said passengers often complain about a shortage of electrical outlets at airports, often forcing travelers to sit on a walkway floor huddled around one of the few wall sockets.

Joanne Paternoster, an airport consultant with Gateway Group One in Newark, N.J., says airport managers are like orchestra conductors as they produce harmony from a diverse assortment of service, staff and unexpected emergencies.

"More and more airports are providing new innovative levels of service as the cost of doing business today," she says. "A lot of them are stepping up to the plate."

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