We’re declaring the virtual information booth an official trend at airports.
Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport (SDF) rolled out its Virtual Information Booth back in May 2020. The super social distanced system lets travelers connect with a volunteer Airport Ambassador in a remote location via a live video feed.
In July 2020 Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) introduced a pilot virtual assistant program in Terminal 2. That system lets passengers have real-time conversations with customer service agents over a touch-free tablet at the real-world information booth.
Two more U.S. airports now have virtual information booths as well.
The Virtual Information Desk at Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI) is near the Southwest Airlines baggage claim belts 1-5. Passengers can get help from a Pathfinder staff member stationed in a safe, remote location.
During this holiday season, Denver International Airport (DEN) is testing a new Live Agent program. DEN’s program will let passengers interact with a live customer service agent via video, text messaging, and live chat.
At two information (one in the center of the terminal, near arrivals; one in the center of Concourse C) passengers can use iPads to contact a customer service agent for a virtual face-to-face interaction.
The pilot program, in partnership with Recursive Labs, also allows a traveler to use the camera on their smartphone to show the Live Agent where they are in the airport so the agent can help with directions.
San Diego-based Aira offers a paid “OnStar” style subscription service that works with smart glasses and/or smartphone software. The service lets users connect (via a tap or a voice command) to remote live agents who use the cameras on the glasses or a smartphone to see what’s around the user and offer guidance.
Many airports, along with theme parks and museums and other sites, are offering the service as a free amenity to all travelers who might want to use it.
The first airport to offer free Aira to passengers was Memphis International Airport, back in 2017.
Since then, more than two dozen of airports in the United States – and beyond – including London Heathrow, Seattle-Tacoma International, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Houston’s Hobby and Georgy Bush International Airport have decided to offer the service free for travelers as well.
My “At the Airport” column for USATODAY this month is all about the incredibly hard-working people who work at shoeshine stands at airports around the country.
I’d spotted shoeshine stands occasionally at airports, but didn’t realize what an ‘out of time’ and endangered service this can be.
Bottom line: wear some nice shoes to the airport, get them shined and be a generous tipper.
Courtesy El Paso International Airport
“People used to spend time getting ready to travel,” said Hector Diaz, who has managed the five-locations of the Shoe Hospital at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport for 10 years, “Now they just get up and put on gym shoes, sandals or whatever. Some mornings customers are still wearing pajama bottoms when they come in to have their shoes shined. It gets confusing.”
With travel attire so informal, shoeshine services at airports may seem, like payphones, to be on the way out. But in the most recent passenger amenities survey conducted by Airports Council International –North America, the number of airports with shoeshine stands (about 50) exceeds those with business centers and TSA PreCheck enrollment stations.
Time-crunched business travelers are helping to keep most airport shoe shine stands in business, but in many airports it’s a long-held tradition of fast, friendly, inexpensive and, in some cases, complimentary services, that keeps customers coming back.
Wayne Kendrick at work at Louis Armstron New Orleans Int’l Airport – courtesy of the airport
At Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, the two Like New Shoe Shine stands have been run by Wayne Kendrick’s family for about 40 years. Kendrick, who began helping his dad at the airport 33 years ago, now operates the stands at MSY with his brother, charging $7 for a shine, up just $2 from the $5 his dad charged years ago.
“He’s been called ‘the Mayor of the Airport’ on more than one occasion,” said MSY spokeswoman Michelle Wilcut, “Some people drop off their shoes before traveling and pick them up on their return. Wayne has also been known to walk out to the curb to pick up a bag of shoes from customers that are not traveling but need a shine.”
Javier Anchondo has been operating the Los Amigos Shoe Shine at El Paso International Airport for a dozen years, and has been charging $4 for a full shine for shoes or boots since 2005. Anchondo used to have special prices for armed forces members, employees, first responders and others, but that got too complicated so he decided to simplify things by offering the $4 deal to all.
Courtesy Chicago Dept of Aviation
At Chicago O’Hare International Airport the Shoe Hospital not only shines shoes ($6) and boots ($8), it also offers repair services for shoes, luggage, purses, bags, jackets and other leather items and sells accessories such as shoe laces, arch supports and shoe cushions, often to pilots and flights attendants. Passengers can drop off items in need of repair and pick up them up on their return trip or have repaired items mailed home.
“Shining shoes is a dying art,” says Denise Pullen, owner of the Classic Shine Company, “But I’m trying to keep that art in the forefront and bring it to venues – like airports – where it’s a convenience.”
Classic Shine operates at 5 airports, including Dallas/Fort International, Kentucky’s Louisville International; McGhee Tyson, near Knoxville; Northwest Arkansas Region Airport; Greenville- Spartanburg International Airport in South Carolina; and, soon, San Diego International Airport.
The company charges $8 across the board for its service.
“We perform the same steps whether we do shoes or boots, so we’re not going to charge more for one than the other,” said Pullen, “Plus, boot customers are some of our best customers – and our best tippers.”
Photo by Sandy Stevens at Austin-Bergstrom Int’l Airport
In keeping with the “Keep Austin Weird” mantra, passengers at Austin Bergstrom International Airport have asked the staff at the Love Shines shoe shine stand to shine everything from fancy boots to casual Keens.
“I’ve heard a band give them a shout out from the airport music stage,” said AUS airport spokesman Jim Halbrook, “The singer had gotten his shoes shined there and was very happy with the quality.”
Another singer happy with the way his shoes and boots look after visiting an airport shoe shine stand is Lyle Lovett, who penned an essay for the Houston Chronicle about his deep appreciation for the shoe shine stand in Terminal C at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport.
Although he says he’s capable of caring for his own footwear, “Even on days I wish I didn’t have to fly, I look forward to getting to the airport early enough to get a shine. There’s just something extra-good about a professional shine, something important,” Lovett writes.
And it’s not just the excellent shoe shine that Lovett likes. As the shine men and women are improving his boots, Lovett says he enjoys their stories and always benefits “from the pride they take in their work.”
Free shines; tips accepted
Over the past twenty years Marvin Earle and his team have shined shoes for hundreds of celebrities at shoe shine stands located in many of the terminals at Los Angeles International Airport. But whether or not the person in his chair is a celebrity, “I try to build a relationship with my customers. I talk, I listen, and I stay away from politics,” said Earle, “It’s about showing class and providing 100 percent customer service.”
As his company name “Marvin’s Complimentary Shoe Shine,” implies, Earle’s team does not charge a set price for shoe shine services, for shoe laces, for glued-back-on heels, or for the reconditioning magic they perform on purses, belts and bags. Instead, they make their money from tips. And while Earle said sometimes people distracted by their cell phones don’t leave a tip, most customers tip an average of $7.
Rick Evans has owned the Shine on the Go shoe shine stand at Missouri’s Kansas City International Airport for eight years and is especially proud of his shoe shine chair, which was made for him by the wood shop teacher from a local high school.
Evans adopted a “no set price,” policy about two years ago and declares it a positive move for his customers and for the bottom line of his business. “The policy creates repeat customers,” said Evans, “They like the idea that they get to set their price and most people are very fair.”
Courtesy Denver Int’l Airport
The shoe shiners at Executive Shine staff stands in all three concourses at Denver International Airport work on an average of 400 to 600 pairs of shoes, boots, and occasional sneakers – as well as belts and bags – every day. Here too, customers get to decide what they’ll pay for the work performed and “It’s not uncommon to see a small line of passengers waiting for a shoe shine,” according to Denver airport spokeswoman Daria Serna.
“Passengers today are just as likely as they were 40 years ago to want to look their best when they arrive at their destination,” said Serna “As long as this service continues to be in demand, we expect the airport shoe shine to continue to thrive.”
September, when all the college kids and summer tourists clear out, might be a good time to go.
And if you do, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines has what may be a fun – free – travel gadget for you.
For travelers going to Amsterdam in September, KLM has created a “Care Tag,” which it describes as a smart audio luggage tag with a built-in offline GPS module and a speaker that automatically provides verbal tips (recorded by KLM crew members) on how to travel in the city.
KLM says the tips include alerts on busy intersections with a lot of cyclists, where and how to lock your bike, and when you should watch out for pickpockets, where to taste local food for free, where to see great street art, or where to rent a bike or boat.
How do you get a tag? KLM says passengers traveling to Amsterdam in September will be able to order their tag on line for free. The first batch of Care Tags will speak English, but Care Tags that speak Chinese, Portuguese, German and Russian will be available later this year.
I’m checking to see if just a speaker on the tags or if you can plug in a set of headphones.
And, while the Lost and Found pup was cute – but not real – KLM reps say the Care Tag is real thing.
To mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, last month the Open Doors Organization (ODO) released the findings of a new study looking at the impact the disability travel market has on the industry and the broader economy.
A follow up to similar studies the group conducted in 2002 and 2005, this year’s study found that in the past two years alone, more than 26 million adults with disabilities traveled for pleasure and/or business, taking 73 million trips and spending $17.3 billion annually (up from $13.6 billion in 2002) on those trips.
ODO points out that “[s]ince these individuals typically travel with one or more other adults, the economic impact is actually double, or $34.6 billion.”
The number of travelers in this group and the money they spend on travel is large – and, as the population ages – surely getting larger. Yet the study, conducted for ODO by Mandala Research, found that while there have been some improvements, unnecessary barriers still exist.
For example, among adults with disabilities who have traveled by air, 72 percent said they encountered major obstacles with airlines and 65 percent with airports, down from 84 percent and 82 percent in 2005, respectively.
“When we carried out our first nationwide study in 2002, the goal was to wake up the travel industry to the importance of this mostly under-served market segment and give them hard numbers on which to base investment decisions,” said ODO director Eric Lipp.
“Now 13 years later, our economic impact is no longer a secret, especially in air travel. At large airports like Miami and Minneapolis/St. Paul, airlines now must provide more than 1 million wheelchair assists per year. And as the Baby Boomers continue to age, you can be sure our market will keep growing for years to come,” he said.
The ODO report goes beyond airports and airlines to explore travel patterns, spending levels and the physical, customer-service and communication obstacles encountered by people with disabilities in hotels and restaurants and on cruises and ground transportation, including ride-share services.