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Chicago - Getting stranded at a US airport once meant enduring hours of boredom in a kind of travel purgatory with nothing to eat but fast food. These days, it can seem more like passing through the gates of Shangri-la to find spas, yoga studios, luxury shopping and restaurant menus crafted by celebrity chefs in terminals with a sleek design.
Stung by airline bankruptcies and mergers, more US airports are hunting for alternative revenue streams by hiring top design firms to transform once chaotic and dreary way stations into places of Zen-like tranquillity and luxury where people actually want to get stuck – and spend money.
Airports are putting what one designer calls “terminal bliss” on display in the hope of drawing in higher passenger numbers and revenue.
“It’s classy, it’s very classy… It makes you feel good about the layover,” said Marty Rapp, 70, who was getting rosy-cheeked with the help of a large glass of merlot under ice-crystal chandeliers at Chicago O’Hare’s Ice Bar, whose white and softly reflective decor gives the feeling of being secluded in an igloo - where everyone is drinking and merry.
Airport redesign has accelerated in the US over the past 10 years, fuelled by an airline industry beset by bankruptcies and consolidation and less able to shoulder as much of the operating costs for city-owned airports through landing fees and gate rentals. More revenue from better retail and dining helps make up the shortfall.
Travellers are becoming savvier and want more than just to get from A to B. The airport has become almost a destination in its own right.
“There’s the ability to go swimming at some airports, there’s the ability to perfect your golf swing at some airports, there is the ability to – it’s not just getting a quick massage on your shoulders, it’s almost really going to a spa in some cases,” said Bill Hooper, an architect at global design firm Gensler, which has transformed airport terminals, including San Francisco’s Terminal 2, whose abundant natural light, art installations and cool club feel set a new benchmark for contemporary airport design.
Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport has a wedding package where couples can tie the knot on the control tower balcony.
Seoul’s Incheon International Airport is building a six-level terminal that will include a soaring glass-panelled ceiling giving passengers the feeling they are passing through a terrarium-like wonderland, complete with babbling brook, tropical plants and butterflies.
Space-age redevelopment at Denver International Airport slated to be finished by 2015 includes views of the Rockies.
Dallas-Fort Worth International opened a 1.6-km walking path over mosaic floor art inside Terminal D in April. There are two optional cardio step courses leading up 17m high staircases, and the path ends up at a free yoga studio.
Business travellers are catching on and choosing, based on the offerings, which airport they want to spend their layover in. The new business model has helped airports like San Francisco International, which finished a major refurbishment of Terminal 2 in April 2011. The design is sleek, super-modern and playful, with children and adults spinning in comfy swivel chairs around coffee tables placed at every gate.
At O’Hare, where once there was little more than hot dogs and souvenir shops, domestic terminals are now dotted with restaurants led by celebrity chefs like Rick Bayless, piano bars, and a tranquil aeroponic herb garden – a mini forest of green on a quiet mezzanine level.
But airport bliss doesn’t come cheap, and its price can be a little jarring for passengers.
Back at the Ice Bar – which offers 23 vodkas and four kinds of ice (crushed, cubes or sphere) – blues musician and actor Cedric “Catfish” Turner was lamenting that his Jack Daniels on the rocks cost $11 (R94). But he needed it to ease a headache from a long layover.
“I could have stolen a bottle,” he laughed, his guitar propped next to his bar stool. “I’m a bluesman. Come on, you don’t treat a bluesman like that. – Sapa-AP