airport transportation

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


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


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.


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.

PHX Sky Train begins running April 8th

One day before Free Cone Day (Ben & Jerry’s annual complimentary scoop celebration), Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) will be having its own party.

PHX Sky Train

April 8th is opening day for the PHX Sky Train, which will offer travelers free rides between Terminal 4 (which serves 80% of Sky Harbor’s passengers), the East Economy parking lot and the METRO light rail at 44th Street and Washington.

Trains will arrive and depart every three to four minutes.

The electrically-powered, automated train will operate year-round, 24-hours a day and PHX has added some thoughtful amenities to the PHX Sky Train stations, including boarding pass kiosks and pet parks.

Early Bag Check, available at East Economy parking since December, will also open at the 44th Street Station on April 8 and allow travelers flying Southwest or US Airways to check their bags at the station for no additional cost.

Boston Logan Airport extends free ride program

Good news for budget-conscious travelers planning on taking public transit into town from Boston Logan International Airport.

The airport has decided to extend through September a program that provides free Silver Line express bus service from the airport to Boston’s South Station, which is the connecting point for the MBTA’s Red Line rapid transit system.

As I reported in June (How to get a free public transit ride from the airport), the airport originally planned to test the free-ride program for 90 days to see if it could heighten awareness of public transit options to and from the airport, reduce strain on maxed-out parking structures and improve the flow of traffic out in front of the terminals.

Evidently the program is going well.

PHX Sky Train flies over an active taxiway

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is building an automated, electrically-powered train. Phase One will transport travelers between the METRO light rail, East Economy Parking and Terminal 4, Sky Harbor’s busiest.

The PHX Sky Train should begin operating in early 2013 and riding on it will certainly be quite thrilling because, as you can see above, one portion of the train line includes the only bridge in the world to be constructed over an active airport taxiway. This one is more than 100 feet tall and large enough for a Boeing 747 to pass below.

Tidbits for Travelers: New link to SEA and new dining and discounts at MSP

Great news for travelers heading to or from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) this holiday season:  The Airport Station of Sound Transit’s Link light rail system  between downtown and the airport will open at 10 a.m. on December 19, 2009.


That means that instead of getting shuttled by bus between the airport and a light rail stop a mile or so away, passengers can now hop on and off the light rail right at the airport.

Well…not right at the airport: the airport station is in the airport garage and passengers must walk about a quarter mile to the terminal.  But at $2.75 from downtown vs. a $25 or $30 cab ride, it’s a great deal.  So travelers will probably be skipping along that walkway and not even notice the distance.

SANTA fruit label

Also, just in time for holiday travel, there are two new food offerings in the Lindbergh Terminal at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP). There’s now an Arby’s in the main food court and, more impressive, on Concourse F there’s a spinoff of Ike’s Food & Cocktails, a downtown Minneapolis favorite that’s already a hit in airport with a white-tablecloth branch in the airport mall.

Even better: MSP’s Jingle, Jingle Savings Days Coupon Book has discounts for these new spots and dozens of other shops and restaurants throughout the airport. Get a copy here.