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Taking the Kids

Playing Around at Airports

September 07, 1997|EILEEN OGINTZ

The Mitchells weren't flying anywhere, but they'd driven half an hour to spend the afternoon at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport with David, their 3-year-old son.

"David loves airplanes. He's happy as a clam," said Adele Mitchell, who lives in Darien, Ill. "And it's very restful for me."

Restful? An airport? Especially one as big and crowded as O'Hare? I generally think of O'Hare as the last place to relax with my noisy, rambunctious, sometimes crabby kids.

But that was before Kids on the Fly opened last fall. Managed by the Chicago Department of Aviation and developed by the Chicago Children's Museum, the enclosed, 2,200-square-foot area in Terminal 2 (home to Southwest, America West, Continental and US Airways flights) is the perfect place for kids to run, jump and yell while their parents relax on benches nearby.

Even my preteen, who wouldn't deign to play, sat contentedly during our recent visit, listening to music on a portable player instead of whining about the long layover.

The hours are good, and there may even be a little education involved. Kids on the Fly is open until 10 p.m., and the entire family can learn something about airline travel while they wait. There's a two-story, air-traffic control tower model (kids can slide down from the top); a cockpit where little passengers can pretend to be pilots; a cargo hold, complete with pretend luggage to load; and even a padded crawl-through area for babies. Budding architects can build skyscrapers out of blocks alongside a 10-foot-tall LEGO Sears Tower, while pilot wannabes can watch real planes take off and land through the floor-to-ceiling windows.

"It's going to be hard to get my son to leave," said Doug Jahns, who had stopped with his 6-year-old before driving home to Wisconsin. It took me 15 minutes to pry my own 6-year-old daughter away.

"Kids need to be able to run off their energy if they're going to behave on a plane," observed Lynne Seyb, a Chicago pharmacist, as she let her children, ages 2 and 4, play before their flight to Idaho. "Every airport should have one."

Actually, I was surprised to learn that nearly 50 airports in the U.S. and Canada have children's play areas, according to a survey by Airports Council International, North America. Boston's Logan International has one, as well as Dorval International in Montreal, San Francisco International, Vancouver International, New Orleans, Milwaukee and Bangor, Maine. (For a copy of the list, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to: Airports Council International, 1775 K St. NW, Suite 500, Washington, DC 20006, attention Kidport.)

"Airports are attuned to serving customers' needs, and that includes children," said Linda Greene, spokeswoman for the Airports Council. "These children's play areas are a growing trend. More kids are flying, and that means a lot of children traveling through airports."

Some of the airport children's centers are large, airport-run facilities, while others are airline-funded. For example, Air France runs the Planete Bleue playroom at New York's Kennedy International Airport, and Southwest Airlines has play areas in its terminals in Phoenix, Dallas, San Antonio, Houston and Burbank airports.

During the summer and holidays, Delta Airlines opens Dusty's Dens playrooms at nine airports around the country, including Los Angeles International, New York's Kennedy International and Orlando International. At those centers, kids and their parents--along with youngsters traveling solo--who are awaiting Delta flights can watch movies, play games and share snacks. There's no charge. And for $35, parents qualify for an array of travel discounts by enrolling their children ages 2 to 12 in Delta's expanded--but formerly free--Fantastic Flyer program. The new program may be worth the fee, though, because it includes coupons for Delta discounts, as well as for hotels, car rentals and theme parks. For information, call (800) 392-5437.

Even the crankiest young traveler in Indianapolis is bound to cheer up at the sight of the 1,400-square-foot Geokids exhibit. It was developed in cooperation with the Children's Museum of Indianapolis to teach kids about weather and geography. Parents can brush up on their map-reading skills too.

At Baltimore/Washington International Airport's two-story Observation Gallery, families can view live radar images of planes or listen to the control tower. The flashing lights along the make-believe runway lead downstairs to a children's play area decorated with a mural and complete with a make-believe plane (perfect for climbing on) and baggage and fuel carts.

Keeping the kids amused and, perhaps, educating them in the process makes good sense, since even a short wait at the airport could be longer than you think.

"People now typically are spending an hour and 15 minutes at the airport, and you can't take the kids to the cocktail lounge," Greene said. "If the kids can play while they wait, they'll be happier fliers, and that's what the airlines and airports want."

Parents too.

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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