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March 23, 2008

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London Heathrow opened a new terminal this week.  I love this quote from Saturday's Globe and Mail, "Until now, that is. Heathrow's controversial new Terminal 5, which opens to passengers on Thursday, is supposed to put a shiny gloss on the airport's reputation by relieving some of that congestion. The fat lady hasn't lost weight, but she has bought a bigger dress."

The Queen gave it her official blessing.  Italian Stone Floors, open airy terminal, 4.3 billion pounds on the buildout.  What do you think?



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Michael Wells

I haven't seen the new Heathrow, but going back to the last jet set post if they added the new terminal but didn't address the issues Gary mentioned, then most travelers experience isn't improved.

How important is the airport to traveler's impression of a city? Maybe for London, NYC, DC it's secondary, because the reputations of the cities are so strong? Or does a poor welcome affect the experience and expectations even there?

For smaller cities I think it's vital. "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." Just as many businesses make the mistake of undervaluing the receptionist, many cities don't pay enough attention to their airports. They've become the Greyhound teminals of the 21st century, as Greyhound has become the 3rd world travel within the USA.

So what makes a good airport? Roger Martin spoke in Portland recently and talked about Four Seasons Hotels and their innovation of making the hotel room a place you don't mind being -- more like both home and office. I'd argue that airports should do the same. So these should be the basics: A variety of foods, Taco Bell is OK as long as you also have other choices -- maybe sitdown semi-gourmet and some good ethnic, plus a decent deli and STREET PRICING -- food packaged so you can take it on the plane or eat it in the waiting area. Bookstores & newsstands with more than the top 40 paperback bestsellers and the local paper. Good shopping with different stores, not just the airport/mall chains. Acoustic peace, make the TV news available for those that want it, but don't inflict it on the gates. Lighting you can read by. Visable and understandable signage.

But for quality, there should be more. A sense of place -- not just poster ads but local artwork, historic exhibits and good design. An easy way to get downtown, by rail if possible. Places to work, with copying, fax, etc. as cheap as possible. Free high-speed wireless internet, places to plug in computers or iPods, good cellphone coverage. Concourses wide enough to move in. Accomodation not just to ADA requirements, but actually wheelchair friendly and with thought for small children, elderly, nursing mothers, etc. Food choices that include Kosher, Halal and the common allergies (milk, wheat). Gas stations where you can fill rental cars before returning them. Easy to access long-term parking.

This isn't that hard to figure out, nor expensive to do. Oakland is an example of a working class city that gets a lot right. Portland does a good job, and despite the creative class buzz it's not a rich city.

Zoe B

Someone (on another posting) recently commented on the 'magazine rack' test for checking out a community. The local airport (and perhaps particularly the before-security-check areas) IS being used to advertise the mid-level or small cities that they serve. Techniques include

- public art that references the area's history or a major industry (even if it no longer is there)

- local arts and crafts on display and/or for sale

- local specialty foods for sale

- freebie magazines or papers about the community

- visitor assistance - could be a brochure display, help finding a hotel room, or a full-fledged visitor center

Amazing, though, that some airports who do these things to promote their community also have: overpriced or tasteless food, terrible baggage service, rude staff, poor management of passengers at risk for missing a flight connection, or the other life-impacting messes that linger longer in the memory than a bit of public art.

Michael Wells


What a concept, the airport serving its customers as an extension of civic outreach. As the airlines race to the bottom and service goes down the tubes, the airports have a tremendous opportunity. What if instead of seeing themselves as passive loading docks for the carriers, they were traveler advocates and service providers? If instead of an information booth there was a concierge? What if they paid for extra TSA gate employees at rush hours?

I remember sitting at an American gate and watching four people from another late American flight sprint down the hall as their plane pulled away. The leader of the group argued with the gate attendant who basically told him the American Airlines motto: "We don't care, we don't have to." What if the airport tracked flights and made sure people made connections?

Last fall Delta canceled our flight to Atlanta with no notice, causing us to miss an international connection, and we had to deal with....Delta. What if the airport had come to our rescue and put us on another airline?

This would be a tremendous impression. Combined with the other things mentioned above, it could make the airport a positive experience. You'd remember that city warmly.


I've always liked Schipol -- maybe the three-odd times I've flown there I've been lucky, but it is the *only* airport I've ever been to where deplaning caused me to breathe a sigh of relief, admire the view (even if it's only the polders), stroll to customs (instead of running madly), and then catch a high-speed rail/tram thing in to town (one of the ones to Haarlem runs next to the bike lanes swarming with cyclists).

Side note: Schipol apparently makes more money from retail than it does from flights. However, nothing beats American airports for *dire* terminal shopping. La Guardia anyone?


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