Airports

My ‘staycation’ at SEA Airport

It’s not crazy to hang out at the airport if you’re not flying.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) is my home base airport and I’m happy to spend extra time there before, and sometimes after, a flight.

SEA recently joined the list of airports offering visitor passes to non-flying visitors. And so I signed up to find out what it is like to spend a day at the airport just hanging out with no flight to catch.

Signing up was easy: SEA’s Visitor Pass page walks applicants through the process. And once I got my email notice of approval, I had no trouble using my pass, with my ID, to get through the airport checkpoint.

First on my agenda was taking a quick tour of some of my favorite works of art at SEA airport.

There’s art throughout the airport – even in some bathrooms. And SEA’s art collection includes work by noted local, regional and national artists including Trimpin, Frank Stella, Louise Nevelson and Robert Rauschenberg.

On travel days, there’s not much time to stop and appreciate the art. But the visitor pass gave me time to look around.

Detail from Trimpin”s “On Matter, Monkeys and the King” kinetic artwork

Detail from Robert Rauschenberg’s “Star Quarters”

After the art tour, I did some shopping. I didn’t have to worry about squeezing my purchases into my carry-on and that made it easier – maybe too easy – to make purchases.

Then it was time for lunch

Lots of fresh dining options are opening at SEA airport and it was nice to be able to look around and try someplace new.

Learning a new skill at the airport

SEA recently installed a Hands-Only CPR training kiosk in the Central Terminal. And so I used the final part of my visit to get trained in a skill that might someday help me save a life.

Randy Krause, the Fire Chief for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, was nice enough to come by and supervise my session. But the kiosk is designed as a do-it-yourself experience.

The machine gives instructions; users practice on a dummy torso, and the machine lets you know how you did.

I need some practice, and I need to be stronger. So next time I go to the airport I won’t be shy about trying it again.

Bottom line: applying for a SEA Visitor Pass and voluntarily spending much of a day hanging around the airport was a totally fun – and educational – way to spend a rainy day.

And SEA isn’t the only airport to offer this program. Pittsburgh International Airport, Tampa International Airport, Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and Detroit Metropolitan Airport now do it too.

Airports going off the grid

Should airports go off the grid? Pittsburgh Int’l Airport – and others – think so.

Aerial view of Pittsburgh International Airport. Courtesy PIT Airport

Remember that 11-hour power outage at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in December 2017?

The blackout canceled hundreds of flights, stranded thousands of passengers and cost Delta Airlines alone an estimated $50 million in lost business?

Since then power outages linked to everything from equipment failures, faulty wires and an explosion at an electric power station have disrupted operations at numerous airports.

The list includes Washington’s Reagan National Airport, Los Angeles International Airport, New York’s LaGuardia Airport, John Wayne Airport in Orange County, CA, Philadelphia International Airport and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

And just last Saturday, power at the New Orleans International Airport went out – twice – due to high winds associated with Tropical Storm Olga.

In addition to flight cancelations and delays, a celebratory open house for the new $1 billion terminal opening November 6 had to be postponed by a few hours.

Microgrids to the rescue?

During power outages at airports, generators and other forms of back-up power usually kick-in to power essential emergency lighting. But boarding, deplaning, airfield activity and the business of the airport often come to a standstill.

That’s just one reason Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) recently declared its intention to become the first major U.S. airport to create a self-sufficient energy system – or microgrid – using only energy sources (solar and natural gas) from its own property.

“After watching what happened in Atlanta and Los Angeles, I think every airport CEO across the country, and probably around the world, wondered if they were ready and prepared,” said PIT Airport CEO Christina Cassotis.

“Here the answer is yes, but we’d like to make sure we can continue to operate in any circumstance,” she said,

To that end, Pittsburgh International Airport plans to have its microgrid in place by 2021 to power the entire airport, including the airfield, the on-site Hyatt hotel, and a Sunoco station.

Power for PIT’s microgrid will be generated through the airport’s onsite natural gas wells and almost 8000 solar panels covering eight acres of the airport land. A connection to the traditional electrical grid will remain, but only as an option for emergency or backup power when needed.

“It has everything to do with resiliency and redundancy,” said Cassotis, “We wanted to make sure we could do everything with the assets we have to enhance the safety of the traveling public and ensure continued operations. As a bonus, we get to lower the cost of energy.”

Many military facilities, college campuses, hospital complexes, industrial parks, and other large institutions already have some sort of microgrid in place to ensure uninterrupted power.

In general, these systems are connected to existing grids but can disconnect and operate on their own with power from batteries, diesel-powered generators or, ideally, solar or another source of renewable power, said Craig Schiller, a Manager specializing in aviation at the global energy non-profit Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI).

Detroit Metro Airport (DTW) already has a microgrid in place. Airports in Los Angeles, Denver, San Diego, Boston, Orange County, CA and elsewhere are now exploring and creating microgrids as well.

To help move the process along, early next year RMI will publish an airport microgrid toolkit funded by a $450,000 grant from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Transportation Research Board.

Microgrids can give airports greater control over the energy they need and use and, in many cases, save airports money on energy costs, said RMI’s Schiller, “But the bottom line is maximizing an airport’s ability to meet its function.”

TWA Hotel is a microgrid island


Most microgrids are designed to connect to existing power grids.

But the 512-room TWA Hotel and conference center opened in May 2019 in the landmark Eero Saarinen-designed TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport’s Terminal 5 is an “islanded microgrid” operating independently of New York City’s electric grid.

The hotel has its own 9,000-square-foot microgrid/cogeneration power plant on the roof, fueled by natural gas.

The plant generates all the electricity for the hotel campus and harvests waste heat from engines for hot water and other uses. A battery storage system helps with peak loads and backup.

“Think of it as a Tesla on the hotel’s roof,” said Tyler Morse, chief executive of MCR/Morse Development.


“The entire city and the airport could be down, but the hotel would still be operating, with people having cocktails at the bar,” said Mike Byrnes, Senior Vice President for Veolia North America, which has operators on duty 24/7 to operate and maintain the hotel’s microgrid.

Beyond ensuring that cocktails can continue to be served during a blackout, the TWA Hotel’s power plant will also contribute to the business’s bottom line.

Hotel developer Morse said the Con Edison electric bills would have cost $5 million per year. “The $15 million we spent to build the plant will be paid back in three years,” said Morse, “And we’ll be saving $4 million annually.”

Which should be enough to buy everyone a round of drinks, or three, in the lobby bars in the next New York City blackout.

(My story about Airport Microgrids first appeared on CNBC in a slightly different version.)

Travel Tidbits from Miami International Airport

There seems to be a lot going on at Miami International Airport.

Some lucky passengers were treated to a pop-up tango performance:

A new exhibit, titled Imprinted, featuring 16 images by Argentine photographer Marina Font, is on display at MIA’s  gates D-22 and D-25, through February 18, 2020.

Marina Font – Dos Mundos

Font photographs objects that evoke a particular place or personal history to explore ideas about identity, gender, territory, language and memory

suitcase photo
Marina Font – untitled suitcase series

And MIA recently showed off its new $324-million state-of-the-art, fully automated baggage handling system.

The system can screen and transport more than 7,000 bags an hour, which doubles the speed and efficiency of baggage screening and delivery for flights in MIA’s Central and South terminals.

Now you can get an Illuminati Shake at Denver Airport

You may have heard about some of the conspiracy theories surrounding Denver International Airport (DEN).

DEN officials acknowledge that ever since the airport was built, there have been rumors of underground tunnels leading to secret meeting facilities for the world’s elite, a curse connected to the airport’s blue horse sculpture and an in-house colony of lizard people.

There’s also been talk of the airport’s connection to the Illuminati, a secret organization said to be controlling world events.

Whether you believe the stories or not, you can now order a booze-filled Illuminati Shake at the new branch of Little Man Ice Cream at Denver International Airport on Concourse C.

Denver-based Little Man is known for home-made ice cream, sorbet, vegan flavors and their iconic ice cream “Sammie’s.”

The new airport location offers several boozy options, such as Strawberry Margarita Freeze, Whiskey Apple Pie and Oreo Java Spiced Rum.

As a nod to DEN conspiracy theories, Little Man has created the Illuminati Shake for the airport menu.

It’s made with vanilla ice-cream, Absinthe and Maraschino.

Even better – DEN’s Little Man hours are 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.  

So you can order that Illuminati shake for breakfast.

Because one “conspiracy theory” about airports is true: you can eat anything you want in an airport at any time.

Travelers not getting more airport satisfaction

A new study out today finds that travelers are getting weary of battling the detours and delays caused by expansion projects at many airports.

According to the J.D. Power 2019 North America Airport Satisfaction Study, released today, overall passenger satisfaction with North American airports has risen only a single point (on a 1,000-point scale) year over year, following several years of steady improvement.

Satisfaction stagnates, but there’s hope

According to the report, the overall customer satisfaction score this year for North American airports is 762, up 1 point from 2018. The issue? Lower-than-average facility access scores, with larger numbers of travelers citing construction-related delays getting into and out of the airport.

But there’s hope. Airports that offer travelers relatively new facilities and improved security checkpoint experiences show up in this year’s study at the top of the list. And many airport construction projects around the country will soon be completed.

Take a look at the rankings:

In the mega category, Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport ranks highest with a score of 786, followed by Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport at 779 and Las Vegas McCarran International Airport and Orlando International Airport tied for third at 777. 

In the large category, Portland (Or.) International Airport ranks highest with a score of 833, followed by Dallas Love Field at 826 and Tampa International Airport at 822. 

And in the medium category, Indianapolis International Airport ranks highest a score of 833, followed by Jacksonville International Airport at 831 and Buffalo Niagara International Airport at 829.