Executive Travel : Golf, Get a Massage, Land a Plane, Enjoy Art--at the Airport

Airports just aren’t what they used to be. At today’s cutting-edge airport, a business traveler can get a massage, play a round of golf, maybe take in an art exhibit, even land a plane using interactive video.

It’s all part of a national trend in airport make-overs.

“More and more airport operators are looking into providing a wider range of services,” said Victoria Pannell, spokeswoman for the Airports Council International/North America in Washington. “The unique seems to be the trend.”

Improved food service was a first step, and attached shopping malls have followed. Now some airports are getting into other ventures, from children’s play areas to museums.


Many of the new services and facilities going into airports are designed to make travel less stressful and more entertaining, Pannell said.

One service aimed at reducing stress, for example, is massage. At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac), there is an “open-air massage bar” strategically positioned to catch tense travelers on their way to and from the gate areas. The massage bar provides upper-body massage to seated customers and is staffed with state-licensed practitioners. A 15-minute massage runs about $12; no appointment necessary. Denver International is trying out a massage bar as well.

A few holes of golf offer another way for passengers to relax during layovers. A number of airports, looking for alternative ways to use vacant land, have leased property to cities for golf courses adjacent to their runways. Salt Lake City International’s Wing Pointe golf course has taken off recently. There are courses near Sea-Tac; Dallas-Ft. Worth International; Port Columbus International in Columbus, Ohio, and El Paso International.

Children’s play areas are also being added, Pannell said. More than a dozen airports, including Oregon’s Portland International, Logan International in Boston and airports in San Jose; Burbank; Indianapolis; Jackson, Wyo., and Battle Creek, Mich., have installed such facilities. The Portland play area, for example, has a model of an airplane kids can crawl into, as well as a mock control tower. Los Angeles International Airport has a play area in the international terminal that features sculptures of dolphins and a whale for climbing.

One of the trendiest new features at airports is the enhanced observation gallery. Watching planes has long been a popular pastime, but now airports are making the experience more complete.

“One of the things airport operators are recognizing is that travelers today are different than they were two decades ago,” Pannell said. “They want . . . some source of entertainment during layover times.”

Baltimore-Washington International recently opened an observation gallery that includes interactive computer screens that passengers can use to access weather and air traffic data around the country. A flight simulator allows them to “land” a plane, although if they are doing poorly the computer takes over and prevents them from crashing.

Plane parts and cutaway sections, including the cockpit and nose cone of a 737, are on display. And the area boasts the first airport installation of a Smithsonian Museum Shop.

Since the gallery opened in June, it has had 20,000 visitors, said Karen Black, spokeswoman for BWI. It draws not just passengers, but people from the community as well, she said.

Art galleries also attract airport neighbors.

LAX has a rotating art exhibit in its international terminal, said airport spokeswoman Nancy Niles. An airport committee and an art consultant review works of local artists to select which ones will be displayed, she said. The exhibit changes every three months. Other cities with airport art programs include Seattle; Salt Lake City; Louisville, Ky.; Palm Beach, Fla.; Boston, and New York.

Improved food courts and shopping malls, featuring nationally recognized names, are also growing in popularity.

One of the things that takes the stress out of travel is having familiar things nearby, Pannell said. So instead of offering generic burgers and pizza, many airports have installed McDonald’s, Burger Kings and Pizza Huts.

“The fast-food franchises and food courts tend to mirror what people are accustomed to seeing in large shopping malls,” Pannell said.

That trend has been successful enough to spark an interest in expanding the concept to non-food items, such as clothing and gifts. Airports are now putting in nationally recognized chain stores, such as the Nature Company. BWI, for example, is expanding its mall from 15 to 30 stores by the end of the year, adding such familiar names as Hallmark, the Body Shop, Sunglass Hut, the Tie Rack and the Museum Co. LAX now has Waterstone’s books and Benjamin & Co.

The increasing number of vendors in airports has increased competition, which helps keep prices close to “street level,” Niles said. Still, the convenience of shopping during a layover usually comes at a price.

Of course, not everyone plans to shop in airports.

“I always figure I’ve done something wrong if I’m at an airport long enough to need anything like that,” said David Stempler, an aviation attorney and passenger advocate in Washington.

Carol Smith is a Pasadena-based free-lance writer.