Miss airports? How about airport shopping?

Airport retailers hope returning passengers are ready to shop

(This is a slightly different version of a story we wrote for NBC News)

Airline passenger traffic is still running far below pre-pandemic numbers. But U.S. airlines and airports are getting ready for what promises to be a busy, near-normal summer.

Vaccinated travelers will be flying to more places – perhaps even Europe. And more people in airport terminals means more customers for airport shops and restaurants still reeling from pandemic traumas.   

“During the pandemic, many restaurants and stores had to be closed, while others were drastically scaled back to minimal hours,” says Rob Wigington, executive director of Airport Restaurant and Retail Association. With the return of travelers, many airport concessions are reopening. But ARRA projects these businesses will show a loss of at least $3.4 billion between summer 2020 and the end of 2021.

When they do return to airports, passengers will notice changes in retail operations ranging from shops permanently or temporarily shuttered to stores with reduced hours and limited stock.

At Denver International Airport, which reports seeing a major return to traffic, “Our retail program is doing very well, and concessions are fully open,” says airport spokeswoman Alex Renteria, although many shops are currently operating with reduced hours.

While many local brands are maintaining their presence at Oregon’s Portland International Airport (PDX), the airport lost iconic, long-time local tenants Powell’s Books and Real Mother Goose art and craft gallery during the pandemic. Now “concessionaires continue to adjust their operating hours so that they are open with the majority of the outbound flights,” says airport spokeswoman Kama Simonds.

After all but shutting down all concessions in the first phase of the pandemic, Philadelphia International Airport came up with a strategic plan for how and when to reopen its 185 retail, food, and beverage outlets. 40% of those concessions are local and minority-owned businesses, says PHL chief revenue office Jim Tyrell, “And if we closed them, they’d have a harder time coming back.” So, as travel demand began to pick up, PHL focused on opening those businesses first.

Today 85 of the airport’s 185 concessions are open. Although many are operating with reduced hours due to worker shortages (a national challenge) and limited airline schedules. “But we have not lost a single operator since the pandemic started,” says Tyrell.

Another upside, “We’re noticing that at PHL travelers who are shopping are buying high ticket, luxury items, including jewelry, high end handbags, sunglasses, and wallets. Things we wouldn’t expect pandemic passenger to buy,” says Tyrell. “It’s like you have people who have decided to travel and now they are all in. We hope that trend continues.”

A big challenge for Duty-Free Shops

At Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) no local retail shops have permanently closed, says airport spokesman Heath Montgomery. The schedule of international flights is still down, so only one duty-free shop, the main one in the Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT) is open. There, “sales are mirroring the slow rebound of international passengers. And the tasting area is still temporarily closed,” says Montgomery.

While 3Sixty Duty Free recently celebrated the grand reopening and expansion of its retail store in Terminal 4 at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) and announced plans to open additional outlets, “In general it has been a very difficult time for duty-free operators,” says Michael Payne President and CEO of the International Association of Airport Duty Free Stores, with sales down by as much as 80%.

In the few U.S. airports where duty free shops are open, there is uncertainty for travelers. “They’re flying for the first time in a year. They are in a rush to get to the gate. And they are more careful when shopping. Some things that they would touch, feel, taste, or try on, such as clothing, spirits, and cosmetics, they cannot do. And that changes the buying practice,” says Payne. Business travelers, a traditionally good source of revenue for duty free, are not flying yet either. “But I think things will eventually settle down and should get back to something normal.”

Bob Wigington of the Airport Restaurant and Retail Association agrees, “The industry will be in recovery mode for a long time, but with the continued help of our airport partners, and resumption of business and international travel, we will get to the other side of this unprecedented crisis”

Airport Amenity of the Week

Here at Stuck at The Airport, we’re always on the look-out for new, useful and cool airport amenities.

And this week’s Airport Amenity of the Week can be found at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

In a reflection of the times, the LAS airport now hosts a pair of PPE vending machines that dispense some of today’s most-wanted travel supplies, including gloves and hand sanitizer.

 LAS is the first to install these machines, which are located in T1 ticketing and near the T3 TSA checkpoint.

What’s in the machine? Hand sanitizer ($4.25-$6.50). 10-pack of alcohol wipes ($5.25) Tissues ($3.50) Reusable cloth mask ($14.50) 3-pack disposable masks ($7.50) KN95 mask ($8.25) 4-pack disposable gloves ($4.50).

The Las Vegas airport has many other airport amenities we love, including slot machines, an aviation museum, a baggage claim liquor store and some great art.

LAS is also home to vending machines that sell everything from Sprinkles cupcakes and Lego kits to souvenirs made by local artists, collected by the folks at SouveNEAR.

Lego vending machine at the airport in Las Vegas

A new vending machine at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas is a cool treat for Lego fans or anyone needing a fun last-minute gift.

Located post-security, just beyond the A/B gates, the vending has been in place for just a few weeks and is the first Lego vending machine in an airport.

Stock will surely change over time, but right now the set choices include Star Wars, Frozen, Duplo and others.

LAS airport has some other fun vending machines scattered about, including a Kylie Jenner cosmetics machine (in the D & E Gates), Sprinkles cupcake machines (in the C, D and E Gates) and a SouveNear machine filled with art and gifts made by local artists (in the C Gate area).

Gifts for your favorite traveler

Fun and useful items for you or someone on the go

Courtesy Airportag

Pack light. Avoid jet lag. Stay safe; but choose adventure.

These are the oft-repeated mantras of frequent travelers and buying gifts for them is often a challenge.  

To get you started on your holiday shopping, we gathered some gear, gadgets and great ideas for gifts to help travelers stay on course and find new adventures this holiday season.

Our list posted first on CNBC.

Help track great ideas on the go

Courtesy Field Notes

Smartphones and tablets are great for taking pictures and notes, but what about keeping track of feelings, impressions, sketches, perfect one-liners, overheard snippets of odd conversations and great ideas that arrive out of the blue when you’re on the road?

That’s why frequent travelers usually carry some sort of pocket notebook and why new and cool ones are great gifts.

In addition to classic and themed planners and notebooks (many of which can be personalized), Moleskine has city-specific notebooks, passion journals and a line of limited-edition pop culture notebooks celebrating David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and others.

Inspired by the promotional memo books seed, tractor and agricultural companies would give away to farmers, the modern-day Field Notes line of small notebooks are loved by detail geeks and hipsters alike. Give a Field Notes e-gift card, a limited edition set celebrating National Parks, Space expeditions or the band Wilco, or a year-long subscription ($110) that delivers four quarterly mailings with the two-sets of the newest limited editions design and bonus surprises.

Daily travel inspiration

Books that inspire and inform travel or offer historical or political context for a planned trip are always great gifts, as are calendars that can serve as daily reminders of favorite destinations and those places still on “want to go” lists.

Two books to consider for frequent travelers: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders; 2nd edition (Workman; $37.50) by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras and Ella Morton, is filled with (even more) odd, entertaining and must-see spots around the world. Airline Maps: A Century of Art and Design, by Mark Ovenden and Maxwell Roberts (Penguin Books: $30), offers a richly illustrated and detailed story of the development of airline flight maps over a century.

E-calendars are useful, but for marking the days until the next trip, travel-themed calendars are far more fun. Look for the 2020 wall or page-a-day versions ($14.00 to $16.99) of “1000 Places to See Before You Die,” “Atlas Obscura,” and “Rick Steves’ Europe.”

Delight those devoted to travel

Many airlines, hotels and cruise lines offer plastic, paper or virtual gift cards and certificates that can be used towards booking flights, adventures and stays. The cards are super-convenient but be sure to check for restrictions and any expiration rules if you go this route for gifts.

Find special gifts for aviation geeks and travelers devoted to certain airlines on airline company store websites. Southwest Airlines may no longer serve peanuts, but it does sell a retro-style lunchbox with the airline’s peanut-pack image on the outside and two 10-oz bags of peanuts (honey-roasted and lightly salted) inside; ($29.00). And fans of the new custom-designed uniforms fashion Seattle designer Luly Yang created for Alaska Airlines can purchase Yang-designed socks, sunglasses, scarves, shoes and handbags and weekend bags online at the Alaska Airlines Company Store.    

Courtesy Airportag

Over at the Airportag aviation and travel gift shop, the choices range from travel bags and bedding to fashion, gear, gadgets, art and housewares that all have airport, airline and travel-related themes. Bonus: much of the gear is customizable.

Travel-sized gifting

Need to fill some stockings? Travel-sized versions of lotions, potions, snack-foods, personal care items and first-aid staples can do the trick. And a box or bag filled with a dozen or more hand-picked travel items makes a great gift.

Travel PAKT creates customized kits of travel-sized toiletries with an eye to sustainable sources, natural ingredients and recyclable or compostable packaging. carries more than 2500 travel-sized items as well as pre-made sets, including an Eco-Traveler gift set, an Avid Traveler Essentials Gift Set ($65.48; 60 items) a Business Traveler Kit ($24. 24; 15 items) and a Carry-On Caddy for men ($16.72) or women ($16.10).

Interesting eating

Courtesy Traveling Spoon

Finding a great restaurant on the road is a treat, but a variety of dining-with-locals programs connects hungry travelers with amateur chefs. “These programs follow the Airbnb model of connecting travelers with locals worldwide,” says Seattle-based travel writer and Carol Pucci, “Not with a room but with a shared meal in a private home.”

Eatwith, Traveling Spoon, and (by December 15) Meal Sharing are among the programs offering gift certificates that will send your favorite traveler on a tasty new adventure.  

Gifts that do good

You feel good giving a gift. The recipient feels good getting a gift. But it doesn’t have to end there.

The World Wildlife Fund offers symbolic species adoption kits ($55 and up) that include a plush version of one of 100 animals (search by popularity or threat level: extinct, endangered or near threatened) as well as a photo, adoption certificate and a species information card. Gift a ‘virtual’ adoption of animals ranging from African Elephants and Hammerhead Sharks to honeybees and zebras and more of your funds go to saving animals travelers may get to see in the wild.

Gifts for Good helps companies and corporate gift-buyers find and create gifts that give back in some way to a wide variety of social causes. Travel-related gifts include everything from socks adorned with world maps ($14.95) to stainless steel water bottles ($25) and upcycled backpacks made from old vinyl billboards ($68). Some, but not all, items on this site have minimum orders.

Travel Tidbits from an airport near you

Earlier this week, we told you about a new Prince-themed store that opened recently at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Here are some more new shops to look for at the airports in Sacaremento and Las Vegas.

The folks at SouveNEAR, who place vending machines filled with work made by local artists at airports, are expanding their network.

Created to be “an indie craft fair in a box,” SouveNEAR fills these vending machines with an eclectic collection of art prints and originals, T-shirts and apparel, handmade jewelry, gourmet food items and other travel-sized mementos. Prices range from $5.00-$50.00. 

Right now they’ve got their art-filled machines in multiple locations at Kansas City International Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport, Oakland International Airport and Cincinatti-Northern Kentucky International Airport.

In September you’ll be able to shop for local art from SouveNEAR machines in Sacramento International Airport (SMF) an in Las Vegas at McCarran International Airport (LAS).

Sacramento International Airport also has a new shop called The Well in Terminal A selling locally-sourced gifts in a “hydration-focused” environment.

In addition to selling gifts and gourmet foods from Northern Califorinia, the shop has a self-serve water bar and stocks a variety of reusable drinking bottles.