Layover

Touring Austin – and Austin Bergstrom Int’l Airport

I joined Delta Air Lines for the inaugural of its direct flight between Seattle and Austin and had one day on the ground to explore the city and the airport.

Base camp was the Intercontinental Stephen F. Austin, downtown on Congress Avenue. The hotel is within walking distance of a food cart corner where we fueled up for the day at the silver trailer named My Name is Joe.

The menu includes hearty starts such as Texas Rancher Oats (oatmeal, tomato sauce, poached egg, queso fresco, black beans and avocado) and the proceeds help provide jobs and treatment program funding for service industry workers recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.

Next, we set out on a portion of the 10-mile ride and hike trail around Austin’s Lady Bird Lake. Transportation – and excellent guides – provided by Rocket Electrics , which offers both organized and custom tours throughout the city on fun and surprisingly easy-to-ride electric bikes.

Then, it was off to Austin Bergstrom International Airport for a tour.

Upgrades galore are underway at AUS airport, with new shops, restaurants, baggage claim and gate areas under construction.

One work-around airport officials are especially pleased about are the four temporary jet bridges -or “elevated walkways,” as the airport calls them –  that have been set up to keep things moving smoothly at one end of the terminal while a new addition is built. The longest temporary jet bridge is 720 feet and AUS’s Derick Hackett believes it is currently the longest temporary jet bridge in the United States.

Record-setting or not, the bridge is so long that the airport has created a marathon-inspired set of posters to encourage passengers on their journey from one end to the other.

We also stopped by for a tour of the newly-opened Bark and Zoom pet hotel and valet parking center right next to the airport, where dogs and cats can be pampered while their people are away. In addition to the upgraded suites where pups can watch cable TV all day (CNN was playing when we toured, but programming is usually Animal Planet), we got to see the guitar-shaped pool pups gets to play in.

Notice the “No Diving” sign….

Love the layover: Iceland

[My story about Iceland tourism first appeared on NBC News)

You’re not imagining it if it seems like everyone you know is either planning a trip to Iceland – or just got back.

The Nordic island nation – population 350,000 – has seen tourism numbers explode from under 500,000 in 2010 to 1.7 million in 2016, with more than 2.4 million tourists expected to visit this year.

Iceland’s stunning glaciers, waterfalls, volcanoes, lava fields, geothermal pools and geysers have always been there, of course. But it took global news coverage of the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, cameo TV and film roles for Iceland’s scenery and some quirky tourism campaigns to really grab the world’s attention.

“At first it was crisis communications,” said Inga Hlin Palsdottir, Director of Visit Iceland and Creative Industries at Promote Iceland, “Our tourism industry was having difficult times after the 2008 recession and in 2010 things were just beginning to pick up. Then the volcano starting erupting right before the peak summer tourism season.”

Iceland’s tourism industry and the government banded together to try to save the summer season, eking out a tiny 0.1 increase that year. They continued to work together, with a focusing on raising Iceland’s profile as a year-round destination and getting tourists to venture outside of Reykjavik.

“Before Airbnb was even booming, we had locals invite tourists to their homes. Then we asked tourists to rename Iceland, because the country really doesn’t have that much ice,” said Palsdottir, “Now we have the Iceland Academy,” which is a series of short, offbeat videos on everything from “How to Eat Like an Icelander,” to the essential “How to Avoid Hot Tub Awkwardness.”

Now music fans want to see where Björk, Of Monsters of Men and Sigur Rós came from. TV and film aficionados want to see for themselves the Icelandic scenery that appears in hits such as HBO’s fantasy series ‘Game of Thrones,’ and the movie ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,’

And going somewhere where there’s a great chance of seeing the Northern Lights is on the bucket list of almost every traveler.

Foreign and local tour operators have greatly expanded schedules and itineraries throughout Iceland and the inventory of hotel rooms and vacation rentals have grown.

Courtesy Promote Iceland

Helping to fuel in the influx of visitors from North America is the increase in air service to Iceland, especially by Wow Air and Icelandair, two Reykjavik-based airlines that route their flights through Iceland and offer passengers the option of an Iceland stopover for no additional airfare charge.

Wow Air flies to Iceland from ten North American cities, while Icelandair serves 13 U.S. airports (Philadelphia services starts May 30; Tampa services kicks off September 7) and five in Canada.

“Who doesn’t love a two-for-one deal?” said Pauline Frommer, Editorial Director of Frommer’s guidebooks and Frommers.com, “Most travelers are jazzed by the idea of getting to see an additional destination on their way to Europe – and one that hugely popular right now.”

Icelandair, celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, has been promoting its stopover option since perhaps the early 1950s or mid-60s, said airline spokesman Michael Raucheisen, “We’ve always encouraged passengers to come experience Iceland for a few days, fall in love with it and come back for a full trip. And that model has worked well over the years.”

For passengers who don’t choose to stopover, Icelandair has two planes offering flyers a taste – or a tease – of the Iceland experience.

The carrier’s northern lights-themed plane was introduced in 2015 and earlier this month the airline launched a glacier-themed plane (named for Iceland’s Vatnajokull glacier) that has images of the glacier hand-painted on the exterior and, inside, ice-blue lighting and headrests, cups, napkins, lavatory décor and even airsickness bags with a glacier motif.

Airports add pet potties & play areas; dump pay phones, banks

Modern-day airports no longer concentrate solely on being gateways to help passengers get from here to there.

That’s still their key role, of course. But today the focus is also on making the airport experience efficient and enjoyable for travelers – and profitable for the airports – through an ever-improving mix of dining and shopping options and an evolving mix of amenities.

“Whether engaging with passengers through an animal therapy program to instill a sense of calm in a busy terminal or providing ample electrical charging stations for mobile devices, airports are committed to not only meeting passengers’ expectations but exceeding them.” said Kevin Burke, president and CEO of Airports Council International – North America.

A recent survey by the airport membership organization identified the top 10 airport amenities in North America, the top amenities airports are adding and several amenities many airports say they will likely be eliminating in the next few years.

According to ACI-NA’s Passenger Amenities Survey, the top 10 most commonly offered airport amenities and services are:

  1. ATM Services
  2. Gift Shops / News Stands
  3. Airport Websites
  4. Electrical Charging Stations
  5. Restaurants and Bars
  6. Lost and Found
  7. Parking / Taxi and Limousine Services
  8. Free Wi-Fi
  9. Pre-Security Pet Relief Facilities
  10. Food and Beverage Vending Machines

No surprises there, but among the amenities on the rise are some designed to make traveling with kids – and pets – a bit easier:

  1. Nursing mothers’ rooms and pods
  2. Post-security pet relief facilities
  3. Children’s play areas
  4. Airfield observation areas
  5. Adult changing and washroom facilities.

In part to make way for these new amenities, airports say that over the next three to five years they’ll be phasing out and, in some cases, eliminating a few other amenities.

So get ready to say goodbye to smoking rooms, payphones and bank branches at airports.

ATMs are plentiful at many airports, but staffed bank branches are already quite rare.

One holdout is Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where there is a branch of Wings Financial.

“The local bank has a built-in customer base, as they began as a credit union for airline and airport employees,” said airport spokeswoman Melissa Scovronski, “So we don’t expect to eliminate that service.”

Smoking lounges still exist at just a handful of major U.S. airports, including Washington Dulles International Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, but in 2016, Salt Lake City International Airport closed all its smoking rooms and by the end 2018 the last remaining smoking lounge at Denver International Airport will end its contract.

And those once ubiquitous banks of pay phones at airports are being replaced with charging stations or making way for other services.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport removed the last of its payphones in 2016.

With the rise of cell phones, “Folks simply don’t use pay phones,” said SEA spokesman Brian DeRoy, “And there are hardly any companies now that want to have the financial burden of taking on a pay phone contract for a very limited number of users.”

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport has also ditched all its payphones, but provides a courtesy phone for free local calls next to the information desk on the baggage claim level.

“Our information desk staff can also make calls for passengers when needed, such as when cell phones batteries are dead,” said AUS spokesman Derick Hackett.

The number of payphones is being steadily reduced, but not yet eliminated, at airports in Dallas/Fort Worth, Minneapolis and Chicago, where there are now 503 payphones at O’Hare International (down from 650 five years ago) and 174 payphones at Midway International (down from 180).

“The payphones taken off line were removed because of low usage, requests from the airlines due to construction in their gate areas and repurposing of space for revenue producing ventures,” said Gregg Cunningham of the Chicago Department of Aviation, but some will remain “because they are still a necessary means of communication for some customers.”

At Reno-Tahoe International Airport, free local or toll free calls can be made from any courtesy phone in the airport.

“In 2008, AT&T ended their payphone contract at the airport, at same time they pulled out of shopping malls and other public buildings due to decreases in revenue,” said RNO airport spokeswoman Heidi Jared, “But the airport authority knew an option was needed to fill that void since not all travelers have a cell phone.”

And, totally bucking the no-payphone trend, thanks to a deal dating back to 2012, Denver International Airport still has about 200 payphones in the terminal and on the concourses that provide unlimited free national domestic calls and international calls that are free for the first 10 minutes.

(A slightly different of this story about airport amenities appeared on CNBC)

Airport gateways to National Parks

Knoxville_

Courtesy Knoxville McGhee Tyson Airport

The National Park Service turns 100 in August, but festivities marking the milestone are already underway in parks, historic sites and, yes, airports.

Here – and in my recent At the Airport column on USA TODAY – are some airports where you can begin enjoying and learning about some of the nation’s most impressive national parks as soon as you get off the plane.

Fresno airport tree

Forest-themed amenities such a giant sequoia tree in the lobby are the first clue that Fresno Yosemite International Airport is near Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park, and Kings Canyon National Park and a good starting point for the Majestic Mountain Loop , which gets you to all three parks in three days.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, is just 30 minutes away from McGhee Tyson Airport (TYS) in Knoxville.  And airport spokesman Jim Evan notes that eight other National Parks and recreation areas are near Knoxville as well and previewed in the baggage claim installation featured in the video below.

To find the only commercial airport IN a National Park, head for Jackson Hole Airport in Wyoming, which is part of Grand Teton National Park — and one of the gateway airports for Yellowstone National Park.

1_Wyoming's Jackson Hole Airport is the only commercial airport entirely in in a national park.

The location in the park is reflected in the airport’s extensive public art collection, amenities that include a Grand Teton Park book shop, and the recently expanded terminal building itself, which won an award from the American Institute of Architects in 2014 for being a “regionally-inspired solution” that “embraces the culture of the area in every way.”

Maybe that’s why last year a moose was spotted hanging around just outside the baggage claim door.

4_This moose stopped by Jackson Hole Airport in October 2015. Photo courtesy Philip Bollman

In Kalispell, Mont., Glacier Park International Airport (FCA) is less than a 30-minute car ride from the western gate of Glacier National Park and has rock formations along the entrance roadway and roundabout that pay homage to the Going-to-the-Sun Road, the 50-mile, paved two-lane highway that spans the width of the park and crosses the Continental Divide.

5_Photos of Glacier National Park on permanent display at Glacier Park Interntional Airport_courtesy Flathead Municipal Airport Authority

Inside the terminal, there is a 100-photo collection of park images as well as numerous native animal mounts, including a mountain lion that can be spotted over the restrooms and a mountain goat on a ledge in bag claim, “looking just like you’d see him hanging out on a cliff in the park,” says airport manager Cindi Martin.

7_Taxiderm Mountain Goat hanging around Glacier National Park International Airport_Flathead Municipal Airport Authority

Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN), in Belgrade, Mont., is about 90 miles from both the north and west entrances of the park.

A store inside the terminal sells park entrance passes, provides park information and offers an interactive map showing recent wildlife sightings, road closures and weather in the park. Exhibits in the terminal highlight park wildlife (including how to spot tracks and safely view animals) and the park’s hydrothermal features, which include geysers, fumaroles, hot springs and mud pots.

9_Exhibits at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport educate travelers about wildlfie they might see in Yellowstone Park_courtesy of the airport.

10_The orignal sign at Yellowstone Airport still welcomes passengers

With the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park just two miles away (and Old Faithful Geyser 33 miles away), Yellowstone Airport (WYS) claims the title of “Yellowstone National Park’s Local Airport.”

“There’s no more convenient way to get to the park than to come here,” said airport manager Jeff Kadlec.

With a smokejumper base on property and an in-terminal restaurant with bison burgers, Rocky Mountain oysters and a very-popular-with-the-locals lobster bisque on the menu, the airport itself is also somewhat of an attraction.

So are the airport’s original wooden sign, great mountain views and occasional wildlife visitors.

12_'This guy was standing right outside the terminal doors one night when I was trying to leave work,' said Yellowstone Airport's Jeff Kadlec.

In Las Vegas, McCarran International Airport serves as an aviation gateway to many of the national wonders of the southwest, including Zion National Park and Arches National Park in Utah, and, of course, Grand Canyon National Park.

Some of these and other nearby natural wonders are featured in LAS art installations, most notably Peter Lik’s floor-to-ceiling photos in Terminal 3.

13_'Blaze of Beauty' by  Peter Lik at McCarran Intl Airport in Las Vegas

As part of the current national “Find Your Park” campaign, posters throughout Miami International note the airport’s status as a gateway to Big Cypress Preserve and Biscayne and Everglades national parks.

And on July 30, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is kicking off a six-month exhibition in the Terminal 4 Gallery introducing airport visitors to historic and ancient sites, geology and recreational opportunities in Arizona’s 22 national parks and sites.

17_ At PHX_Sportyak boat use during complete traverse of the Grand Canyon, August 5-31, 1963, with 3 other identical boats. Courtesy Grand Canyon Nat Park

On display will be historic and ancient objects and images from each park’s collection, including Native American pottery and baskets, trade beads, a fossil of petrified wood from a tree over 200 million years old and a Sportyak boat used for a complete traverse of the Grand Canyon in 1963.

And for aviation buffs who would rather skip the airport and go straight to a park, the National Park Service has put together a handy list of parks with connections to aviation “firsts.”

The Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina is on the list of course (first successful sustained flight of a power aircraft and first dedicated airport for airplanes), as is the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park in Ohio (first figure 8, first airborne engine restart, first cargo flight, first airborne engine restart and the first — and only — time the Wright Brothers flew together).

But also on the list is Grand Canyon National Park (first use of an airplane in search and rescue), Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (first airplane to land in a volcano) and many others.

I know I’ve missed some favorites – so feel free to add yours below.

Which airports are tops in customer service?

IND AIRPORT CARD

Many modern-day airports mix transportation nodes with hospitality centers, focus on customer experience and offer fine dining outlets, luxury shopping outlets and full-service spas.

Which airports do it best? Each year, Airports Council International — the trade association of the world’s airports — conducts extensive passenger surveys to find out.

Here’s the story I wrote for CNBC.com on the results:

For its 2015 Airport Service Quality Award rankings, ACI surveyed more than 550,000 travelers worldwide about their traveling experiences. They ranked airports on everything from check-in and security to on-site amenities and food, beverage and retail options.

“Airports have evolved into complex, customer-focused businesses in their own right that in many cases are in competition with each other for passenger traffic,” said Angela Gittens, director general at ACI World.

“From duty-free and restaurants to ambiance, cleanliness, courtesy of staff, amenities, efficiency and more, air travelers are expecting big things from the airports through which they travel,” she added.

For the fourth year in a row, Indianapolis International landed in the first-place slot for airports in North America. The hub, which serves more than 7 million passengers a year, rolls out the red carpet for fliers who enter its gates. It has an extensive art program, many branches of local eateries, an apiary, a giant solar farm and a roaming robot that answers customer questions in real time.

“When you combine a beautiful facility with a generous dose of Hoosier hospitality, great things happen,” said Angela Cain, director of public affairs at Indianapolis’ Airport Authority.

“We are grateful to the hard-working Indianapolis Airport Authority staff, as well as our many business partners, for the customer service excellence they provide every day to our travelers,” she added. “We wouldn’t win this award, for the fifth time in six years, without them.”

Tied for second place among North American airports for 2015 were Grand Rapids’ Gerald R. Ford International Airport, Tampa, Dallas Love Field, Jacksonville and Ottawa.

Third-place for North American airports also resulted in a tie, for Austin, Detroit, Sacramento, San Antonio, and Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airports.

“These awards are particularly meaningful, because they are based on real-time feedback from our customers, while they are traveling,” said Thomas Naughton, CEO of Wayne County Airport Authority, which operates the Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

See the full list of ACI Airport Quality Service Awards for 2015 here.