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A sampling of airport upgrades

Airports have come a long way since the first ones opened in the 1920s. Here's a sampling of what you might see on layovers this summer:

AUSTIN

Texas' music capital, which helped propel the careers of Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan and a diverse spectrum of other talent, also displays its best-known product at the airport southeast of town.

Austin-Bergstrom International offers 600 free shows a year in three bar/restaurants and a record store inside the secured passenger area. The daily performances give emerging Austin performers, from country vocalists to blues guitarists, a chance to expand their fan base and peddle CDs. And, says airport music coordinator Nancy Coplin, "the passengers love it."

CHARLOTTE

Charlotte Douglas International's white rocking chairs — the airport's signature amenity — were originally intended as part of a temporary exhibit in 1997, but they became so popular that they became a permanent fixture. The chairs are made from North Carolina oak by the 83-year-old Troutman Chair Co., located 45 miles north of Charlotte.

Another popular trademark — an atrium-bar piano open to anyone who wants to play — is currently out of service but is expected to make a comeback, says customer service representative Jennifer Long.

The airport also features a business center and deploys 70 volunteers to assist passengers.

CHICAGO

Airports are also increasingly installing play areas for children. One of the most innovative is at Chicago's O'Hare International, where an exhibit called "Kids on the Fly" includes aviation-themed stations such as an SUV-sized helicopter, a two-story purple cargo plane, an air traffic control tower and a small check-in counter with a luggage scale.

DALLAS/FORT WORTH

The airport has installed several kiosks provided by commercial sponsors that offer free wired Internet and power. The Samsung business center, less than three years old, has television, Internet access and soft leather chairs, all available to the public. Wi-Fi is available throughout the airport.

In addition to a diverse array of concessions, the airport is also fortified for emergencies, with hundreds of cots for stranded passengers and a giant vending machine that offers sundries including diapers, toiletries and baby formula. Says passenger advocate Kate Hanni: "If you're going to get stuck, this is the most pleasant place to get stuck."

KANSAS CITY

Many airports offer art displays and historical exhibits. More than 30 interpretative panels arrayed through the Kansas City International Airport retrace Kansas City's history as "Paris of the Plains," from the jazz age in the 1920s and 1930s through the political ascent of President Harry Truman.

MIAMI

Miami International is one of the most improved airports in the country in a national customer satisfaction survey, jumping from 14th place to 6th, its highest ranking ever. An abundance of other creature comforts are available in 139 concessions throughout the airport, including tropical shirts, Italian coffee, German ice cream, high-end electronics and a spa with two sleep pods for stressed-out passengers.

The airport is one of the few in the country with a cafe in the meeter-greeter lobby in the baggage claim area — the Cafe Carreta, which offers Cuban and Latin American cuisine. An additional 25 concessions will open within the next six months in the South and North Terminals.

ST. LOUIS

Lambert-St. Louis International Airport has embarked on an aggressive customer relations improvement program since airport director Richard Hrabko took over nearly a year ago. Under an umbrella program called "the Lambert Advantage," the airport has built a performance stage in the main terminal, added rocking chairs and opened a "cell phone lot" where those waiting to pick up passengers can park for free until the flight arrives.

— Dave Montgomery

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