Business travelers who wonder how airlines treat their very best customers might want to check out a new amenity at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.
Select passengers paying top dollar for first- or business-class seats and arriving at O'Hare after long overnight flights are being offered the use of luxurious "shower suites," where the tile floors and towel racks are heated and a valet is standing by to press clothes, shine shoes and fetch breakfast.
Such facilities are nothing new at airline clubs and lounges at busy international airports, particularly London's Heathrow, but their number and variety is expanding in the U.S. as the airline industry goes after upscale customers.
"It's a competitive business," says United spokesman Joe Hopkins. "If we can offer a service no one else has or if we can do it better than the other guy, then some of this upper-end business will move toward us."
United will soon offer the shower suites at Miami International. It's offering similar services through hotels near two dozen airports to give arriving upscale travelers a place to regroup and refresh before taking on the business day.
None of this, of course, is for the day-tripping business traveler making the rounds from Denver to Dayton and back. Use of United's shower suites is by invitation only and is restricted to full-fare first- and business-class travelers flying overnight for five hours or longer. In the case of the O'Hare facility, which features just four of the suites, the service will be offered initially to passengers on flights from Hawaii and Alaska.
United's suites at Miami and Heathrow are more numerous--13 at each--because there is more traffic warranting such service at those locations.
"All travel is expanding," Hopkins says. "If you look at our traffic this year, we're up something like 3% or 4%; it's all expanding--first, business and economy. People are willing to pay the additional fare for business and first class, but they expect more value."
Also growing, he said, is the use of airline clubs. The larger of United's two clubs at O'Hare can seat 540 people, and it's not unusual to find every seat filled at busy times, Hopkins said.
There's no shortage of "best hotel" lists these days. Although often based on polls of magazine readers or a specific group of travelers, it is often hard to know exactly why one hotel is rated above another and whether it means anything.
For example, the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago was named the top city hotel in the United States in a reader poll conducted by Andrew Harper's Hideaway Reports. It traded places with the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, which finished first last year.
But the Hotel Bel-Air won the top spot in the Annual Survey of Top Hotels Worldwide, a poll of readers of Institutional Investor. It traded places with the Oriental Bangkok in that poll.
How to get out of the airport?
That's actually the name of a new book that answers the question, at least where more than 100 airports around the world are concerned.
Author Howard Wendland, a Minnesota businessman, says he gathered much of the information from personal experience, including four years living in Europe and traveling to about 70 cities there.
Each entry discusses which rental cars are available, how much and how far away the city center is by taxi, whether the taxis are safe and reliable, the degree to which public transit or special shuttles are available and other tips.
In many cases, Wendland singles out a best way to leave the airport. For example, in Amsterdam he suggests going by rail from Schiphol to Amsterdam Central Station, with a fare of about $3.50 and trains leaving every 15 minutes, or a KLM shuttle bus to specific hotels. For Nairobi, Kenya, he suggests the government-sponsored Mercedes taxis in front of the terminal, at a fixed cost of about $16 to the city center. And in Seoul he suggests the Korean Airlines shuttle bus at $5, which is considerably cheaper than a taxi.
Copies of "How to Get Out of the Airport" ($8.95) are available through Natalto World Publications, P.O. Box 41323, Plymouth, MN 55441-8323. Orders may be faxed to (612) 559-0039.