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Travelers Gain a Measure of Serenity as Airports Add Amenity After Amenity


Airports aren't the wastelands they used to be. You can go to the dentist without ever leaving JFK in New York, have your nails done between flights at Ronald Reagan National in suburban Washington, or swim laps and get a massage at Changi airport in Singapore. Healthful salads and smoothies are on the menu in many airport snack shops, and on some concourses the stores are so enticing that you could easily miss your flight while browsing.

These airport amenities, which may have special appeal to women, make flying more pleasant and even humane. They are all the more welcome given the increasing amounts of time travelers must spend in those concourses--before flights, between connections and during unanticipated delays. (Nearly a quarter of all flights on the 10 largest U.S. airlines were late in September, according to the Department of Transportation.)

Someday air transportation experts may find a more efficient way to handle delays and congestion. Meanwhile, they're paying more attention to making the time that travelers must spend in airports interesting and comfortable, says Max Lane of OAG, a travel services and information provider based in Oak Brook, Ill.

There's nothing comfortable about spending a dozen hours flying in coach. But a year ago, when I went to Finland, my early morning, jet-lagged arrival was smoothed by Helsinki-Vantaa Airport, 12 miles north of the city, where big windows look out at Finnish firs and there are noise-deadening parquet floors. While checking my passport, a friendly customs and immigration officer pointed out that we share a birthday. And later, I passed the time waiting for my flight home in the airport's excellent shops, where I found the same beautiful blue glass pitcher, designed by Finnish modernist Alvar Aalto, that I'd admired at a department store downtown. It cost about $5 less at the airport, so I snapped it up.

Helsinki-Vantaa Airport ranked behind Copenhagen's in the International Airport Transport Assn.'s most recent Global Airport Monitor, a survey of 57 airports worldwide. Its top five choices for overall consumer satisfaction were Copenhagen, Singapore, Helsinki, Toronto and Manchester, England. A Consumer Reports article in October gave highest marks to Atlanta's Hartsfield International for its shopping and food outlets.

Sharon Wingler, a Delta flight attendant for 31 years and author of "Travel Alone & Love It" (Chicago Spectrum Press, $14.95), says it's too far to the gates in the Atlanta airport. Still, she's a fan of the facility, partly because she once found a smashing leather bag on sale for $35 there. She also looks forward to passing through Atlanta because a concourse restaurant called Paschal's Southern Cuisine serves plates of delicious yams, black-eyed peas and greens. "When I started flying," she says, "about all you could get at an airport was a hot dog."

Food selection, shopping, parking prices, layout, easy-to-follow signs and proximity to urban centers are some of the criteria used to assess airport user-friendliness, says Ron Salk, editor and publisher of the California-based Airport Transit Guide, which provides information on airport facilities worldwide. But he also thinks rankings are highly subjective.

For instance, frequent flier Marybeth Bond, who wrote "Gutsy Women: Travel Tips and Wisdom for the Road" (Travelers' Tales, $7.95), never minds flying into Amsterdam's huge Schiphol Airport because its flower and fresh fruit shops open as early as 6 a.m., and it has shower rooms to rent for freshening up. She also loves the little airport in Katmandu for its lovely traditional woodcarvings, which make her feel immersed in Nepal as soon as she disembarks.

I, too, favor airports that have a sense of place. So I didn't mind spending the night between flights years ago at the airport in Papeete, Tahiti. It's built like a large open-air grass house, with the scented air of the island wafting in. And even though I couldn't get a manicure at the tiny airport in Gustavus, Alaska, near Glacier Bay National Park, the purple lupine that dappled the landing field made my arrival unforgettable.

Aesthetics and the arrival experience are actually more important to me than amenities. I thrill every time I see the great curving roof at Dulles International Airport, designed by Eero Saarinen (though for convenient access to downtown Washington, Ronald Reagan, with its own Metro stop, is a better choice). Landing at the airport in Juneau, Alaska, gives you a good look at the blue-ice face of Mendenhall Glacier. And though the huge new airport in Hong Kong, on an artificial island 16 miles west of the city, has express train service to downtown and a SkyMart with 140 shops, I miss the excitement of swooping over busy, brightly lighted Kowloon on the approach to old Kai Tak airport.

Sometimes smaller is better, says Salk of the Airport Transit Guide. He cites the Long Beach airport, where long-term parking costs just $3 to $6 a day, travelers don't have to walk far to the gates and there are fewer delays than at LAX. Delta attendant Wingler thinks that service people tend to be nicer at small airports because they don't have to deal with frantic crowds all day. Small airports don't offer as many flights and destinations as behemoths (requiring travelers to make connections), but heightened civility may make them worth the trade-off.

Last year, when I flew into Tamarindo near the Pacific beaches of Costa Rica, I discovered the joy of dispensing with airports altogether. The little facility there has neither an arrival nor a departure hall. But it's in the lovely Costa Rican savanna, with a man selling soda from a cooler and a perfectly good pasture for takeoff and landing.

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