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N.Y. Metro Airports Entice With Upscale Shops

September 24, 2002|BARBARA SHEA | NEWSDAY

It was hardly the typical airport impulse buy. An Ohio businessman connecting through LaGuardia Airport recently bought a $1,700 mattress at the Central Terminal's Brookstone outpost after stretching out on the display model.

Two soft leather massage loungers outside the store along the airport concourse usually entice more "tryers" than buyers.

"I think we'll spend the two hours we have to kill right here," said Ed Patterson of Hilton Head, S.C., as he and his wife, Peggi, sank into the $1,300 and $3,200 chairs between flights.

But savvy frequent travelers buy after prices are slashed on the demos, Brookstone sales associate Zanitta Whitworth said.

The store's bestsellers remain travel items such as mini-pillows, luggage locks and compact bags (often bought on a dash back from the boarding gate after a carry-on is ruled too large). Still, Brookstone's product range in its new LaGuardia MarketPlace location exemplifies the expanding shopping options there and at the two other major New York metro area airports--Kennedy International and the recently renamed Newark-Liberty International.

Cavernous glass-and-metal terminal concourses that look like a combination airplane hangar and suburban mall offer spa services, designer food and fashions, museum merchandise, high-end jewelry and live music. The object is to entice increasingly sophisticated travelers, who lately have had more airport "dwell time" on their hands because of earlier check-in requirements, less frequent connecting flights and unpredictable gridlock at security checkpoints since the terrorist attacks.

The global trend toward upgrading airport retailing by providing a mix of trusted local and international brands was a late arrival at New York-area airports because their older terminals often are harder or costlier to redesign. But if they seem continuously under renovation, it's because they are. That's progress, said Carlo Bianchi of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the three airports.

"Once construction stops," he said, "it's like there's no future."

(The most obvious projects are at Kennedy: two new American Airlines terminals, opening in 2003 and 2005, and the long-awaited AirTrain monorail, also scheduled to open in stages--the airport loop by the end of the year; the link to the rail hub in Jamaica, Queens, early in the spring.)

LaGuardia and Kennedy offer business centers where travelers can rent an equipped office cubicle. At all three airports, passengers hunch over laptops in food courts or anywhere there's a seat and a wall outlet or a phone with a data port.

Travelers don't need an airline club membership to enjoy a glass of premium wine or a fresh microbrew, as bright theme cafes replace dingy airport saloons (four in the LaGuardia MarketPlace should be transformed by year's end--one called Newsbreak plans a bar-long stock ticker).

As for food, the metro airport benchmark is celebrity chef Todd English's Figs LaGuardia, offering table service plus a stylish pizza bar around an open oven with roaring fire.

It was a welcome respite for sisters Molly O'Connor and Joan Clough, who stopped for a leisurely lunch of buffalo wings and the signature fig-and-prosciutto pie before going home to Kansas City, Mo., after a recent New York buying trip for their mother's consignment shop.

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