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The best airport amenities of 2021

Dec. 30, 2021
6 min read
Shot Bar at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport
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2021 was a challenging year for travel, with airlines and airports only recently welcoming back passengers at close to pre-pandemic numbers. Airports everywhere continue to focus on keeping terminals sanitized and travelers safe.

But during 2021 many airports were able to offer some fresh amenities as well. Here is a round-up of some of the best ones we spotted. Feel free to drop us a note about any we’ve missed.

Shot Bar at SEA

In March, many airport bars were still closed, or only open for limited occupancy. That’s when celebrity chef Kathy Casey, operator of several food and beverage locations at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), set up a pop-up counter serving liquor shots. Named, appropriately enough, Shot Bar, and billed as the first shot bar concept in a U.S. airport, the bar served liquor shots in tiny red Solo cups to walk-up customers. The concept is set to return to SEA this summer.

Wellness Wednesdays at PHL

(Photo courtesy of Philadelphia International Airport)

In October, Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) began handing out free yoga mats to passengers on what have been dubbed Wellness Wednesdays.

PHL had originally purchased 1,500 mats to give to passengers who had to stay in the airport overnight due to weather, cancellations or delays, says Leah Douglas, PHL's director of guest experience, "but now airlines proactively reschedule flights prior to weather incidents, and this lessens the number of passengers who experience overnight stays at PHL.”

Douglas and her team decided to repurpose the mats and, so far, have handed out about 700 free yoga mats to travelers. “Passengers are loving the giveaway and we have definitely met our goal to surprise and delight them,” says Douglas.

Reservation times for airport screening

(Photo courtesy of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport)

Everyone hates standing in long airport security checkpoint lines. Now, travelers who don’t have TSA PreCheck or Clear to expedite the process can make a reservation to go through the security checkpoint at a handful of U.S. airports. SEA began testing its checkpoint reservation system, called SEA Spot Saver, in May, making it a permanent amenity in September. Now similar programs are offered at Newark (EWR), Los Angeles (LAX), Dallas (DFW) and several other airports.

Related: There’s a new way to get through TSA screening faster. But do you need it?

Food delivered by robots

(Photo by Harriet Baskas)

During the pandemic, many airports rolled out mobile apps to allow passengers to order food and retail items for contactless pickup or delivery at the gate. In February, the mobile ordering service At Your Gate began pairing its human delivery teams with cargo-carrying "Gita" robots that have since been spotted in more than half a dozen airports.

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Recently, fully autonomous robots from Ottonomy, called Ottobots, began operating at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG), delivering food, beverages and retail items from the Tripadvisor store.

Related: A firsthand look at robot mobile food ordering and gate delivery

PDX airport comic

(Image courtesy of the Port of Seattle)

During 2021, Portland International Airport (PDX) got very creative with finding ways to let passengers know about all the terminal construction underway, the detours to be endured and the great design that would soon emerge. To help tell the story, PDX had Oregon-based artist Aki Ruiz and writer JD Shadel create a comic.

Visitor Toll Pass at MCO

(Photo courtesy of Central Florida Expressway)

The Visitor Toll Pass program at Orlando International Airport (MCO) was technically born in 2019. But it was paused during the pandemic, totally revamped and reborn in a much better form in June 2021. The program helps Orlando visitors avoid having to rent toll payment transponders from rental car agencies that levy exorbitant fees. Instead, visitors use an app to reserve a loaner toll pass that is dispensed at an airport kiosk and only charges in-state, electronic pass toll rates.

Related: Hate rental car ‘convenience’ fees for tolls? Orlando has an answer

Bonus activities

Airports around the country also did a great job this year of celebrating their communities and having some fun.

(Image courtesy of Denver International Airport)

More than 80 dogs — and one cat — serve on the Canine Airport Therapy Squad (also known as CATS) at Denver International Airport (DEN). And many highly trained dogs also serve on the airport’s K-9 bomb-sniffing team. So, on April 1, when DEN announced that a llama named Matilda would soon start working alongside official K-9s in luggage-checking procedures, it seemed plausible. DEN noted that “llamas are social and gentle animals. Their noses are 6 times more powerful than dogs’ and they can learn tasks after little repetition – making them perfect to check luggage.”

The airport later noted that April 1 is April Fools’ Day.

On April 15, many airports marked World Art Day by showing off pieces from their permanent art collection.

In May, during a Red Bull “Terminal Takeover,” a crew of skateboarders from five different cities held a competitive skate jam in the old, unused Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY) terminal.

(Photo by Jonathan Mehring)

And on May 4, many airports shared “May the 4th be with you” messages on Star Wars Day.

Featured image by (Photo courtesy of Port of Seattle/SEA Airport)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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5XEarn 5X Membership Rewards® Points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year.
5XEarn 5X Membership Rewards® Points on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel.
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 80,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership.

    Earn 80,000 Points
  • Annual Fee

    $695
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

Sometimes it's worth a large investment to reap the benefits of a great credit card. That's exactly the case with the Amex Platinum card. In exchange for the annual fee, you'll unlock access to the Amex Membership Rewards program that let you access airline and hotel transfer partners, along with new lifestyle and travel credits. This card is also incredibly rewarding for travel purchases, helping you rack up a ton of Membership Rewards points for your next award trip.

Pros

  • The current welcome offer on this card is quite lucrative. TPG values it at $1,600.
  • This card comes with a long list of benefits, including access to Centurion Lounges, complimentary elite status with Hilton and Marriott, at least $500 in assorted annual statement credits and so much more. (Enrollment required for select benefits.)
  • The Amex Platinum comes with access to a premium concierge service that can help you with everything from booking hard-to-get reservations to finding destination guides to help you plan out your next getaway.

Cons

  • The high annual fee is only worth it if you’re taking full advantage of the card’s benefits. Seldom travelers may not get enough value to warrant the cost.
  • Outside of the current welcome bonus, you’re only earning higher rewards on specific airfare and hotel purchases, so it’s not a great card for other spending categories.
  • The annual airline fee statement credit can be complicated to take advantage of compared to the broader travel credits offered by competing premium cards.
  • Earn 80,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership. Apply and select your preferred metal Card design: classic Platinum Card®, Platinum x Kehinde Wiley, or Platinum x Julie Mehretu.
  • Earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year and earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel.
  • Get $200 back in statement credits each year on prepaid Fine Hotels + Resorts® or The Hotel Collection bookings, which requires a minimum two-night stay, through American Express Travel when you pay with your Platinum Card®.
  • $240 Digital Entertainment Credit: Get up to $20 back each month on eligible purchases made with your Platinum Card® on one or more of the following: Audible, Disney+, The Disney Bundle, ESPN+, Hulu, Peacock, SiriusXM, and The New York Times. Enrollment required.
  • $155 Walmart+ Credit: Cover the cost of a $12.95 monthly Walmart+ membership with a statement credit after you pay for Walmart+ each month with your Platinum Card. Cost includes $12.95 plus applicable local sales tax. Plus Ups are excluded.
  • American Express has expanded The Centurion® Network to include 40+ Centurion Lounge and Studio locations worldwide. There are even more places your Platinum Card® can get you complimentary entry and exclusive perks.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year in baggage fees and more at one select qualifying airline.
  • $200 Uber Cash: Enjoy Uber VIP status and up to $200 in Uber savings on rides or eats orders in the US annually. Uber Cash and Uber VIP status is available to Basic Card Member only.
  • Get up to $300 back per calendar year on the Equinox+ digital fitness app, or eligible Equinox club memberships when you pay with your Platinum Card. Enrollment required. Learn more.
  • Breeze through security with CLEAR® lanes available at 100+ airports, stadiums, and entertainment venues and get up to $189 back per calendar year on your membership when you use your Card. Learn more.
  • $695 annual fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees