Transportation

Alaska Airlines & Uber giving Seattle a lift to the airport

ALASKA UBER

Yes, it’s a promotion. And, no, you don’t need to be holding a ticket on an Alaska Airlines flight in order to take advantage of the offer:

If you’re heading to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on today or tomorrow, Dec 23 or 24, you may be able to get a free ride to the airport courtesy of Alaska Airlines and on-demand car service Uber.

During the two-day promotion, Alaska Airlines will pay for one ride, up to $50 (if the ride is more than that, you pay the difference), to shuttle travelers to the airport in a Uber town car.

Here are the details from Alaska Airlines:

Travelers can request a ride through the Uber application, which is available
for Android and iOS devices at www.uber.com/go. After entering their credit
card information, travelers can request a ride to Sea-Tac Airport from their
current location. During the two-day special, Uber rides will be charged to
Alaska Airlines and, as is customary for Uber riders,no tipping or cash is
necessary.

The offer is valid “while supplies last,” so if you’re heading that way – sign up right away.

The best airport amenities of 2013

In the sky, hassles abound as airlines squeeze in more seats on their planes and tack on more fees for checking baggage, changing flight plans and using other services.

On the ground, it’s a rosier story.

Airports are steadily upgrading their facilities and adding amenities that offer passengers more enjoyable experiences that can make the time spent waiting for a flight the best part of the trip.

As we close out 2013, here are some of the best of airport amenities rolled out this past year.

Automated passport kiosks

Automate passport kiosk at ORD

You can’t really enjoy your time at an airport unless you can get into the airport, and this year we’ve seen wait times at customs significantly reduced at a handful of North American airports that have installed automated passport kiosks.

U.S. citizens can use these machines – for free – to scan their passports, answer customs declarations questions and cut short the time they need to spend in conversation with a customs officer.

The first machines were installed in May at Vancouver International Airport. In August, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport became the first U.S. airport to roll out the kiosks. Since then, the wait-reducing machines have been introduced at New York JFK International Airport (Terminal 4), Miami International Airport, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, Montreal-Trudeau International Airport and, on Dec. 4, at Toronto Pearson International Airport.

TSA Pre-check expands

TSA PreCheck Enrollment Center at IND Airport - courtesy TSA

At the end of 2012, the Transportation Security Administration’s Pre-check program offering expedited airport security screening was available at 35 airports for eligible passengers on five airlines (Alaska, American, Delta, United and U.S. Airways) and members of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Trusted Traveler program.

Today, the Pre-check program is available at 102 airports and the number of participating airlines has expanded to nine: Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, United, US Airways and Virgin America.

Beginning Dec. 20, active members of the U.S. Armed Forces (including the Coast Guard, Reserves and National Guard) who use their Department of Defense ID number when making a reservation may use the Pre-check lanes as well.

And last week, TSA launched a program offering eligible travelers five years of Pre-check membership for $85. Applications may be started online, but must be completed in person at the enrollment center now open at Indianapolis International Airport, at one of the centers TSA will open in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles by the end of 2013, or at one of the more than 300 centers planned for the future.

Lounge-like checkpoints

 

DFW CALMING CHECKPOINT - courtesy Security Point Media

Thanks to a three-month pilot program that began in October, Charlotte Douglas International Airport and Dallas/Fort Worth Airport each have a security checkpoint that could (almost) double for a relaxing hotel lobby.

A joint project between Security Point Media and Marriott’s SpringHill Suites, the checkpoints have stylish décor, soothing wall art, colored lights and relaxing music as well as “re-composure” areas with comfortable leather couches and – a brilliant touch – mirrors.

Response to what’s been dubbed “The Next Level Experience” has been so positive that talks are underway to continue these installations at these two airports and possibly expand the concept to other airports in 2014.

Improved airport transportation

BWI MARC TRAIN - courtesy BWI

Getting to and from the airport can be part of the hassle of any trip, but during 2013 a few airports smoothed out some transit options.

Boston Logan International Airport says there is now “no scheduled end date” for a pilot program introduced in 2012 offering free Silver Line bus rides between the airport and the city center.

San Francisco International Airport, which took legal action last summer against car and ride-sharing programs it claimed were operating illegally at the airport, now has an agreement with the car-sharing company Relay Rides. This should pave the way for other non-traditional transportation companies to negotiate deals at SFO and other airports grappling with this issue.

And, just in time for holiday travel, the Maryland Transit Administration added weekend MARC commuter rail service between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, with stops at Baltimore/Washington Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Airport service plazas

Denver Airprt_Dunkin Donuts

Facilities offering a wide variety of truly helpful services for passengers – and for those picking folks up – popped up this year outside two airports.

In September, Denver International Airport opened its a super-sized, 253-space cellphone lot called “Final Approach” adjacent to a fueling station. The lot’s building has a children’s play area with iPads built into tabletops, lounge seating, indoor restrooms, free Wi-Fi (which reaches the parking lot), flight display boards and four restaurants, including a Dunkin’ Donuts with a 24-hour drive-through which, airport officials report, is selling about 7,200 donuts each day.

In October, the Service Plaza opened near Indianapolis International Airport. In additional to a fueling station, automated green car wash, automobile detailing and quick lube services, there are two restaurants, a Circle K convenience store, flight display monitors and restrooms.

Great food and drink

IHOP

Interesting places to eat and drink continue to show up at airports and this year fresh additions ranged from the Shake Shack at JFK’s T4 and the first airport IHOP – which opened at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport – to Root Down at Denver International Airport, which operates with a decidedly “field to fork” flair.

The food-trucks-at-airports concept also expanded this year, with San Francisco, Sacramento, Tucson, Austin and Long Beach airports following the lead of Tampa International, which first invited food trucks to visit that airport around this time last year.

Great ideas

And then there are some interesting one-off ideas that we may see adopted by other airports during the next year.

Since February, Denver International Airport has had collection containers at four security checkpoints seeking donations of loose change for Denver’s Road Home, an organization that helps the homeless. Parking meter-style collection stations are inside the airport and so far this year, more than $69,000 has been raised.

In August, Vermont’s Burlington International installed a free-standing, pod-shaped Mamava Lactation Station to offer nursing and breastfeeding mothers a clean, comfortable and private space, post-security, to take care of business.

Burlington_MAMAVA ON SITE

And this year, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport not only made room for an automated kiosk that taught air travelers a simplified, life-saving CPR method called Hands-Only, this holiday season DFW is offering what could be a face-saving service for last-minute shoppers: free shipping for last-minute gifts purchased in the terminals.

(My round-up of the Best Airport Amenities in 2013 first appeared as my December 2013 At the Airport column on USA Today Travel.)

 

Have you encountered any great airport amenities this year? Please share your favorites below.

America’s Cup artifacts at SFO Museum

SFO SAILING TWO

Skipper Harold Vanderbilt and crew on deck of Enterprise 1930. photograph from the Edwin Levick Collection; Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, Virginia. Courtesy SFO Museum

A new exhibition featuring artifacts and historic imagery from the first sixteen campaigns of the America’s Cup contest is now at the SFO Museum at San Francisco International Airport, coinciding with the city’s hosting of the thirty-fourth contest for the America’s Cup.

SFO SAILING ONE

The exhibit offers a historical view of the first eighty-six years of the international sailing competition with great images, ship’s wheels, life rings, crew sweaters, navigational equipment and other artifacts.

Find America’s Cup: Sailing for International Sport’s Greatest Trophy pre-security in the International Terminal Main Hall Departures Lobby at San Francisco International Airport through February 2014.

Can’t make it to SFO but interested in the exhibition? Lucky you: many of the images are included in the on-line exhibition.

In New Orleans: vending machines in cabs

New Orleans_Taxi Vending Touch Screen

 

There’s no need to go thirsty in New Orleans.

Bars sell drinks in to-go cups so you can have your beer or a cocktail on the street. And now there are vending machines in some city cabs to ensure that parched passengers can sip soda in the back seats.

“You make a choice from a screen, swipe a credit or debit card and, for 99 cents, a cold soda pops out from a slot in the shelf behind the passenger seat,” said Simon Garber, the owner of New Orleans Carriage Cab and Yellow-Checker Cab. “It almost places the can in your hand.”

Garber told NBC News that it was his teenage son who first suggested the idea and, after several years of tinkering with the concept and the machinery, Garber figured out a way to install a vending unit in a cab trunk that can deliver cold soda to the back seat. About 40 of his city cabs have started testing the units.

We took a morning “ride-along” — by cellphone — with cab driver Kirk Lee and Kelly Robin, the first thirsty passenger of the day.

Robin, a server in a French Quarter restaurant, ordered a Dr. Pepper from the five choices on the screen during her short trip to work.

New orleans cab customer

 

“Cool, cold and convenient,” she said, popping the top on the can that she watched appear from a rectangular metal slot in the shelf behind the seat. “This is going to be a very nice customer service.”

Her driver agreed. “People come to New Orleans to have a good time and do something different than normal. Having this novelty in the cabs, especially on the ride in from the airport, is a great way to start,” said Lee.

He thinks cab drivers might come to appreciate the unusual amenity as much as the passengers.

“I can see building up the fact that we’re the only taxi company offering this service, and on a hot day buying my customer a soda,” said Lee. “Or let them use my swipe card and offer to just add the cost of a soda to their bill. It will be part of an enhanced cab experience and I think it will increase tips.”

New Orleans Dr. Pepper Pops Out of Dispenser

It will also help reinforce the city’s reputation as a hospitable place to visit, said Mark Romig, president and CEO of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation. “It really adds to the visitor experience, especially when you consider that 50 percent of our visitors arrive by plane,” and that most tourists take cabs into the city, a ride that typically takes between 20 and 30 minutes.

While the in-cab vending machines only sell sodas right now, “just think where this can go,” said Romig. “Other companies will likely embrace this technology. I think it’s an idea that will catch on.”

If it does, Garber is ready. He plans to install vending machines that will sell soda and, someday maybe cologne, small umbrellas and other items, in all 250 of his New Orleans cabs and, soon, in the hundreds of cabs he owns in New York City and Chicago, too.

“It’s something to improve our service, make the ride more enjoyable and our cab company more memorable,” said Garber. “And, of course, encourage people to choose our cabs over others.”

(My story about vending machines in New Orleans cabs first appeared on NBC News Travel)