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Now on concourse 1: a health club, clinic and an aquarium

Airports, hoping to make a good first impression, are pampering visitors with comfort services.

February 15, 2004|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

My passage through Singapore's tidy Changi Airport in September was swift and uneventful.

Boy, did I miss out.

Had I lingered, I could have gotten a foot massage, soaked in a private spa, grazed a buffet, strolled by an orchid garden and lounged in a simulated jungle, among other activities.

"It seems like you don't even need a hotel," said reader Lee Botsford of Del Mar, Calif., who later wrote an e-mail alerting me to Changi's charms.

Once drab way stations that tested the endurance -- and stomachs -- of their captive audiences, many airports are turning into cities, with fancy restaurants and shops, health clubs, medical clinics, museums, children's play areas and live entertainment.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 25, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Travel writer -- In the Travel Insider column in the Feb. 15 Travel section, the name of the author of "Stuck at the Airport" was incorrectly given as Helen Baskas. It is Harriet Baskas.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 29, 2004 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Travel book -- In the Feb. 15 Travel section, the name of the author of "Stuck at the Airport" was incorrectly given as Helen Baskas. It is Harriet Baskas.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 29, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Travel writer -- In the Travel Insider column in the Feb. 15 Travel section, the name of the author of "Stuck at the Airport" was incorrectly given as Helen Baskas. It is Harriet Baskas.

The problem can be finding these services.

"Airports are kind of slow in the marketing department," said Pauline Armbrust, publisher of Florida-based Airport Revenue News, a monthly trade magazine.

Signage can be scarce, leaving passengers clueless about what's where, she added.

So it's worthwhile to visit airports' websites for guidance before you fly. For a list, visit Airports Council International on the Internet, www.airports.org. (Click on "About ACI," then "airport members.")

Some Internet travel sellers such as Expedia, www.expedia.com, and Orbitz, www.orbitz.com, also give tips on airport services. Helen Baskas' "Stuck at the Airport: A Traveler's Survival Guide" (Fireside, $13) can come in handy, although much has changed since the book came out in 2001. (Baskas posts updated reviews on Expedia.)

Why so many services? Airports make money off them through concession fees and leases. The more pleasant your experience, the more likely you'll visit again -- as opposed to using another airport nearby or, perhaps, driving to your destination, officials think. Airports also can be great marketing tools for tourist bureaus.

"It's the city's first chance to make a good impression," Baskas said.

When you land at Orlando International Airport, for instance, with its lush foliage, aquarium and gift shops from Kennedy Space Center and the big Florida theme parks, "you really feel like you've arrived in Orlando," she said.

"If you have a kid who is young enough, you can tell him he's been to Disney World," Baskas joked. Or just do your souvenir shopping in the terminal.

When airports began going glam in the 1990s, they added upscale restaurants and retailers such as Brooks Brothers and Brookstone to satisfy affluent travelers, Armbrust said.

"Now they're looking to offer more comfort kinds of services," she said, such as massages and spas, to soothe passengers stressed by the security gantlet and the hectic pace of life.

Among the more unusual airport amenities:

* Lounges and gyms: Rainforest by SATS (which stands for "Singapore Airport Terminal Services") maintains a 7,300-square-foot tropical-themed area with a gym, spas, private showers, Slumberettes (beds, separated by partitions, for napping) and a jungle-themed lounge with waterfalls and fiberglass giraffes, tigers and birds.

"It's a very green place," said Sheryl Li, guest relations agent. For about $17, which includes a buffet, hot shower and Internet access, you can spend four hours in the lounge; other services cost extra.

Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport has a 24 Hour Fitness gym with locker rooms, steam room, sauna and a full range of workout equipment. A day pass costs $15.

At Detroit's Michigan-Metro Airport, $18 buys you 15 minutes in the "oxygen lounge" at the Ora Oxygen spa, where you can sniff oxygen through tubes, for its purported revitalizing effects, and receive aromatherapy.

* Medical clinics: Typically these are satellites of local hospitals and mainly serve airport staff, but they may be open to others too.

San Francisco's airport claims to offer the most complete travel and wilderness medical program in the Bay Area, including immunizations. Anyone can use the services of the SFO Medical Clinic, for a fee.

The UIC Medical Center at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport treats "everyone from the nauseous traveler to someone who has dropped a suitcase on their foot," said manager Diana Gutierrez.

It's located past security checkpoints and is open only to staff and passengers. Flu shots, $20 each, are popular with business travelers.

* Museums: Art and culture are often integrated into airport design, but some go a step beyond.

SFO has an aquarium, an Aviation Library & Museum and a full schedule of rotating exhibits. Recent ones include "Louis Comfort Tiffany and Art Nouveau Glass" and "Ties That Bind: Three Generations of Quilters."

Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, known for its collection of Dutch masters, opened a branch at Schiphol airport in 2002; admission is free.

Its rotating exhibit, through April 18, is on Van Gogh.

* Entertainment: At Austin's airport, the Muzak is local music from the Texas city known for its cutting-edge scene, Baskas said. The airport also stages regular live performances.

In a gambling mood? Many travelers are familiar with the ding-ding of the busy slot machines at Las Vegas' airport. At Amsterdam's Schiphol, visitors can play blackjack at the casino, which also offers live jazz on weekends.

* Pampered pets: Talk about stressful travel: What's a pet to do when nature calls at the airport?

Many, it seems, make unauthorized forays into landscaping. But at Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport, they can lounge at the new Bone Yard pet park outside Terminal 4.

Besides 2,400 square feet for roaming, there are water faucets, a cat-litter area and a gravel area for doggie restroom breaks. The park is free.

Jane Engle welcomes comments and suggestions but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or e-mail jane.engle@latimes.com.

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