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Airline industry pours millions into new terminals

4:42 PM, Mar 16, 2014   |    comments
The south concourse at the Tom Bradley International Terminal, named for the longtime late mayor of Los Angeles, is seen at Los Angeles International Airport on Sept. 18.(Photo: By Reed Saxon, AP)
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(USA TODAY) - For business travelers, crisscrossing the country or the globe, airport terminals can be akin to a second home.

Those beehives where the flying public gets boarding passes, checks bags and waits for flights are also the first and final glimpse a traveler has of a city, a business hub for concessionaires and - depending on the experience - a potentially key factor in whether a passenger boards a jet in a tranquil or testy mood.

Now, airlines and airports are spending hundreds of millions of dollars building and revamping airport terminals across the U.S., from putting in work stations and lounge-like seating to adding Wi-Fi to transforming the building's exteriors into architectural standouts.

"The terminal is key,'' says Deborah McElroy, executive vice president of Airports Council International-North America, which represents governing bodies that own and run commercial airports throughout the U.S. and Canada. "That's where the passenger spends the vast majority of their time at the airport, and that's where there are several opportunities to make a great impression or for the traveler to have difficulty."

Some recent projects include:

• United's new boarding area E at San Francisco International Airport. The $138 million dollar project, unveiled in January, includes complimentary Wi-Fi, interactive digital displays and a yoga room.

• The new Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport, which saw its first flights in September. The $1.9 billion terminal, whose first phase is now completed, features a seven-story "Great Hall," massive windows that allow natural light while protecting travelers from glare, and a rippling aluminum roof designed to evoke an ocean's waves.

• Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, American Airlines' biggest hub, which opened a new section of its Terminal A last March. American says the new area includes kiosks that give fliers luggage tags along with boarding passes, and stations where travelers can work while they wait near their gates.

Such improvements can be particularly important to those who stay on the road for work.

"The terminal experience sets the tone for the entire trip,'' says Brett Snyder, founder and author of the airline industry blog CrankyFlier.com. "If you have someone sitting in a dingy facility with one chain restaurant and a newsstand, then people are going to walk on that airplane feeling worse than if they are able to get a nice meal and do a little shopping. That matters to the business traveler who spends his or her life in airports."

But a massive terminal upgrade may not be so appealing to other travelers. "For those people who just want cheap tickets, an expensive ... renovation is the worst thing you can do,'' Snyder says. "Those costs ultimately result in higher ticket prices or fewer flights."

While it varies from project to project whether the airport, an airline or a combination of the two, pays for terminal upgrades, airports have been increasingly boosting food offerings, shopping choices and other services, partly because they recognize that can increase the portal's revenue.

"I can sit down and work because the airport offers free Wi-Fi,'' says McElroy of the enhanced offerings that fliers can enjoy. "I can have a glass of wine because the airport has a high end wine bar. ... There's a wide array of products and services that allow them to be productive and also to enjoy the airport experience.''

At Dallas/Fort Worth's Terminal A, passengers can get a bag tag at a kiosk, then have an agent activate it and place the luggage on a conveyor belt. "It's very efficient for the customer,'' says Kevin Doeksen, managing director, customer planning and analysis for American Airlines.

Other new perks are "work surfaces plus power outlets,'' Doeksen says. "That's obviously positive for business travelers, who can be productive, but also leisure travelers.''

The Terminal A project is the first piece of a $2.3 billion terminal renewal and improvement program being funded by DFW, Doeksen says.

In contrast to the new contemporary spaces emerging at many airports, the alternative can be embarrassing, some travel watchers say.

The Global Gateway Alliance, an advocacy group focused on improving New York-area airports, has noted the poor condition of LaGuardia's Central terminal, as well as the lack of free Wi-Fi at LaGuardia, Newark, and much of JFK airport.

"People are spending more time in airports as a result not only of delays, but security and layovers,'' says Stephen Sigmund, the alliance's executive director. "It's a big difference between spending two and three hours in LaGuardia's Central building with leaking roofs, and doing it in the modernized (Tom) Bradley terminal at LAX.''

In January, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that the state would take over the management of construction projects at both LaGuardia and JFK from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

"Our airports are the gateways to New York for nearly 50 million people a year,'' Cuomo said, according to the transcript of his State of the State speech. "We are going to redevelop those airports the way they should have been redeveloped many, many years ago and make us proud of that gateway once again.''

Los Angeles airport officials noted the importance of having a state-of-the-art international terminal to make sure it remains a player when it comes to attracting business and visitors.

"The Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX is the first and last impression of Los Angeles for millions of travelers every year," Los Angeles World Airports Executive Director Gina Marie Lindsey said in a statement. "Passenger-friendly terminals and conveniences are among the must haves required as airports around the world compete for the economic vitality that world-class airports create.''

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