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Back Rubs but No Wireless at Chicago's O'Hare

September 24, 2002|ROBERT CROSS | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The major airports of Europe have dazzled travelers for decades--virtual shopping malls offering everything from duty-free liquor to pet supplies. Chicago's O'Hare International and Midway airports have yet to catch up, but both are showering passengers with more amenities than ever.

At O'Hare, the list should begin at the Hilton Hotel, where guests and other visitors can shop, dine or do their aerobics without passing through airport security.

A ticket-less stroll through O'Hare's United Airlines terminal offers meager pickings, including a booth near the Terminal 1 entrance that sells Illinois lottery tickets. Meanwhile, a tiny Starbucks stand serves as a precursor to the chain's 14 other O'Hare locations--big and small--to be found beyond security checkpoints.

Out on the concourses, passengers' sensibilities are assaulted with food and beverage outlets galore. Small outposts of famous Chicago restaurants, such as Eli's, Berghoff's, Gold Coast Dogs and the Billy Goat Tavern, compete with the national giants.

On any given weekday, O'Hare is pretty much all business. And yet the Laptop Lane Internet and office-away-from-home outlet offers just four booths upstairs in United's Terminal 1 and 11 others in the long underground tunnel linking Concourses B and C, also in Terminal 1.

"Surprisingly, O'Hare doesn't have a wireless Internet capability," said Mark Nicgorski, a marketing vice president for home- improvement and insurance company Hammer Network. "Even a small airport like Louisville has that."

O'Hare, like most airports around the country, tries to inject a bit of local personality in buildings that otherwise are largely steel and glass. Passengers in a hurry to be somewhere else will run across Artist and Writers bars with blurry murals depicting Chicago scenes. A food court celebrates Chicago jazz, and a food booth is called Chicago Salutes the Graphic Arts.

If making the long trek from Terminal 2 all the way through Terminal 3, weary travelers might welcome the sight of the Backrub Hub, where customers mount special chairs and get 10 to 30 minutes of relaxation for $13.50 to $33.

Smaller Midway doesn't offer massages--or quite the overall shopping experience.

At Hudson News and Cafe, traveler Doug Rouner fiddled with a laptop while waiting for a Delta Air Lines flight home.

"Usually, when I'm at the airport, I don't do a lot of work," said Rouner, a representative for an Atlanta-area chemical company. "When I do, I like to find somewhere quiet where I can use the phone. Usually, airports are too noisy. The announcements interrupt conversations. Cell phone signals can vary--they come and go inside airports."

On the whole, Rouner pronounced O'Hare and Midway "a lot more user-friendly" than they were when he started hitting the road in 1986.

"Midway, from where it's been to what it is now, is a huge improvement," he said. "But I do wish the airports had better restaurants. To me, the food is all pretty much the same."

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