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The flight is delayed again -- ah, that feels good

September 30, 2007|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

Ricky Yngsdal flies at least twice a month, but lately he has been spending more time in airports than on planes because of the soaring pace of flight delays, cancellations and missed connections.

So how does he cope?

"I eat and shop at the airport," said the Glendale resident and shipping manager for General Mills Inc.

Other passengers are getting manicures, pedicures, massages, haircuts and even "revitalizing" aromatherapy, a way of relaxing by breathing in botanical oil scents.

In this year of record-setting air travel delays, many passengers are resigned to getting stuck at the gate longer and more often. And they're getting a little desperate to find different ways to whittle away their time.

The average passenger now spends 108 minutes at the airport, more than double the amount of so-called dwell-time passengers in 2000 spent waiting, according to Airport Interviewing & Research Inc., a market research firm.

There is money to be made in having captive consumers with nowhere to go. So fancy restaurants and upscale retailers are setting up kitchens and shops next to slot machines and "oxygen" lounges.

"The sheer number of people at airports is growing exponentially and the time they're spending at the airport is growing," said Ira Weinstein, president of Airport Interviewing & Research. "I know of no concessionaire that has gone into the airport and has not done well."

Brooks Brothers is opening a store at Sacramento International Airport, and Gucci and Sephora now vie for affluent frequent fliers at San Francisco International. At Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, Le Bodega Winery has wine consultants help passengers discern the difference between Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

"Once you get coffee, newspaper and a bite to eat, there is still 30 minutes left, so why not get a manicure?" said Karen Janson, a co-founder of 10 Minute Manicure, which opened its first nail salon last year and now has stores in nine airports. It has plans for six more by next spring, including salons at New York's John F. Kennedy and Washington's Dulles international airports. The 10-minute manicures cost $15.

Susan Maroko, a staff representative for the United Steel Workers union and a frequent traveler, is a big fan of 10 Minute Manicure after recently getting her nails done while waiting for a flight out of Hartford, Conn., that had been delayed about an hour and a half.

"I had quite a bit of time and my friend said, 'Why don't you do it?' " said Maroko, a San Fernando Valley native who lives in New Buffalo, Mich. "It's a great thing for travelers," she said, adding, "I was actually about to say 'women,' but I saw men there too."

Many airports are now more like shopping malls than the typical terminals of a decade ago, when cafeterias, newsstands and gift stores were the only distractions for lingering passengers.

At Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport, passengers can feed quarters into more than 1,300 slot machines as they wait to board a plane. There are slot machines at baggage claim too -- for arriving passengers who can't wait to hit the casinos.

The slots are big moneymakers for McCarran, generating $40 million in annual revenue. It's enough to help keep airport fees lower for airlines.

"They're strategically placed, at the departure gates and at baggage claim," McCarran spokesman Chris Jones said.

Some airports are better than others at offering passengers an array of stores, restaurants and other amenities.

Los Angeles International is considered one of the worst, mainly because of its design: several separate terminals.

Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is considered one of the best, with a huge shopping area and a bevy of eateries beyond security screeners. Passengers can rent DVD players and movies. Children can burn off steam in two play areas, each stocked with a mock airplane and an air traffic control tower. Frequent fliers suggest picking up an airport guide to get your bearings.

The airport also has a guarantee that food and beverages served by its concessions won't cost more than similar offerings in town. It's the latest among airports to respond to complaints that airport fare is more expensive than food sold elsewhere.

But author Peter Greenberg, travel editor for NBC's "Today" show, says many airports still overcharge for food and Internet connections.

"The good news is that there is more than just mystery hot dogs," said Greenberg, who hops on airplanes two or three times a week. "But the bad news is that you're still going to be paying a premium."

For the best guide to major airports, check out Harriet Baskas' column at Expedia.com, www.expedia.com/daily/ airports.

The author of "Stuck at Airports" takes you on a hand-held tour of 83 facilities -- most of them in the U.S.

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