Why airports are getting better every year, and where I love to go

Nov 21, 2019

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“If you’ve seen one airport, you’ve seen one airport.”

That’s a saying I heard regularly when covering tales of U.S. terminals. In the old days, airports, from the best to the worst, were pretty utilitarian, offering no-brand newsstands, snack bars featuring hot dogs on rollers and generic restaurants offering bland meals.

But big changes started happening in the early 2000s as airlines consolidated and cut flights from cities. As a result, airports saw their gate and landing fees cut, meaning they had to find ways to cover that lost revenue. It led to a move toward investing in terminals to entice travelers facing longer stays to spend money on food, beverages and retail. If you look at the top five airports by passenger numbers, all of them have done or are doing major construction projects to improve terminals and are overseeing major concessions changes to cover food, beverage and retail to improve the traveler’s experience on the ground.

Take Chicago O’Hare Airport (ORD), which took back the crown as the world’s busiest airport by number of takeoffs and landings per year. Since 2005, Chicago has been overseeing the $8 billion O’Hare Modernization Program, which includes a major overhaul of Terminal 5, where most of the international airlines are. Look for restaurants ranging from celebrity chef Rick Bayless’ Tortas Frontera to Wicker Park Seafood & Sushi Bar. Retailers include Coach and Vosges Haut-Chocolat.

Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport (ATL) is undergoing its own renaissance with the $6 billion ATLNext project, which includes new gates, an expanded security checkpoint, more parking and a new on-site four-star hotel. The airport has also elevated its food-and-beverage and retail programs with the award-winning One Flew South upscale restaurant and luxury brands like Bulgari and the first Sean John clothing store.

(Photo courtesy fo ATLNext)
ATLNext plans to bring major updates to the Hartfield-Jackson airport. (Photo courtesy fo ATLNext)

Los Angeles Airport (LAX) is 10 years into its $14 billion capital improvement program, which is projected to last through 2023. It includes the construction of a new Tom Bradley International Terminal, along with renovations of terminals 1, 2, 5, 6, 7 and 8 and a new Midfield Terminal, scheduled to open in 2020. The airport has brought in local restaurants including Pinkberry, Border Cafe and Trejo’s Tacos, along with retailers including Book Soup and Fred Segal.

Dallas/Fort Worth Airport (DFW) is finishing its $2.3 billion terminal improvement program, which saw upgrades to terminals A, B, C and E, expanded security checkpoints and added parking. That program came with better food and retailers for travelers including Dallas-based Cantina Laredo, the iconic Salt Lick BBQ, a Hugo Boss boutique, and the beauty store Aveda.

The state of New York in 2018 announced a $13 billion investment to transform JFK Airport between now and 2023. The ambitious project started with the opening of the TWA Hotel, in the airport’s original Terminal 5. It also includes better restaurants and retail, along with parking and more aircraft gates.

A rendering of JFK
A rendering of JFK’s planned renovations. (Photo courtesy of NY Gov)

These top five airports are not alone when it comes to creating a better passenger experience. Many among the top 25 are either overseeing construction projects or are bringing in new concessions designed to keep travelers spending money in terminals for as long as possible.

And I’m living proof it’s a strategy that can inspire repeat customers. Growing up as an Air Force brat, I took my first flight — from New York-JFK to London Heathrow (LHR) — when I was 6 and have been traveling ever since. I’ve always had a fascination with airports and started covering the industry in depth for Aviation Daily in 2006. Since then, I’ve visited dozens of airports around the world, and have a keen sense of what works — and what doesn’t — for travelers. I’ve distilled some of that experience for you.

Here are 10 of my favorite airport concessions:

Vino Volo: With 34 locations in North America, this wine bar is great when you need a space to work or relax but don’t have access to a lounge. There are tables and a bar with outlets and knowledgeable employees ready to walk you through a world-class wine list.

(Photo by John Kelly / The Washington Post / Getty Images)
You can find Vino Volo at many different airports and locations. (Photo by John Kelly/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Hammer Made: Every time I fly through Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport (MSP), I stop at the men’s store in Terminal 1 to pick up one of the distinctively designed Italian-styled shirts for my partner.

Daily: If you go for a meal at this restaurant in Newark Airport’s (EWR) Terminal C, please enjoy it — because you’ll probably never see it again. That’s because the menu changes every single day because the chef shops at local food and farmers markets.

(Photo courtesy of OTG)
Daily is a new addition to Terminal C at Newark. (Photo courtesy of OTG)

Cibo Express Gourmet Market: This is not your grandmother’s airport news and gifts shop. These markets sell a wide range of products, such as food, health-conscious snacks, travel accessories, magazines and local artisanal crafts and brands at more than 100 shops in 10 U.S. airports.

One Flew South: The jewel of Hartsfield-Jackson’s Terminal E is this James Beard-nominated restaurant that blends Asian cuisine with upscale Southern cooking. Sample handcrafted cocktails, sushi or Southern dishes with a twist.

Bijoux Terner: Bargain hunters know about this accessories store at Hartsfield-Jackson, Miami (MIA), JFK and Fort Lauderdale (FLL) airports, where everything is $10. I’ve bought necklace-and-earring sets, a rainbow of pashmina-style scarves and tote bags to carry last-minute purchases.

Angel Food Bakery and Donut Bar: I always like trying local outlets of familiar things like doughnuts. This women-owned local favorite has a shop in Terminal 1 at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, where you can watch your treats being made.

(Photo courtesy of Angel Food Bakery and Donut Bar)
The Angel Food Bakery and Donut Bar at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. (Photo courtesy of Angel Food Bakery and Donut Bar)

CareHere: There is nothing worse than getting sick on the road. If you happen to be at Nashville Airport (BNA), this clinic has a doctor, a nurse practitioner or a physician’s assistant available for walk-ins. There’s also a pharmacy and over-the-counter medications.

Nuts on Clark: It may have nuts in the title, but those flying through Chicago know this is the place to buy freshly popped popcorn. I prefer the old-school salted, but it also offers cheddar and caramel — and doesn’t mind doing mixes.

Be Relax Spa: When I broke a nail as I arrived at the airport, this spa, with 52 locations worldwide, was able to do a quick repair. The nail technician recommended a chair massage, which was great, so I now get them every time I go on a long-haul flight.

Featured photo by benedek / Getty Images.

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