Memphis International Airport

Amelia Earhart slept at the first airport hotel

Where was the very first airport hotel?

Oakland Airport Inn

Oakland Airport Inn – Courtesy Port of Oakland

My “At the Airport” column on USA TODAY this month explores the history of airport hotels, including the three (so far) hotels I found that claim to be the first airport hotel.

SFO Airport Hilton

The sprawling San Francisco Airport Hilton opened in 1959. Photo courtesy San Francisco International Airport.

In its long “History of Firsts,” Hilton Hotels & Resorts claims to have pioneered the airport hotel concept with the opening of the San Francisco Airport Hilton in 1959.

Their claim is off by at least 30 years.

Aviation historians say that, in fact, the first hotel built at a United States airport opened its doors to the traveling public on July 15, 1929, on the grounds of what is now the North Field of Oakland International Airport.

“The Oakland Airport Inn was adjacent to the dirt runway,” said Ian Wright, Director of Operations at the Oakland Aviation Museum, “And the structure still stands today.”

At opening, Oakland Airport Inn boasted 37 rooms, a restaurant, a barbershop and a ticket office, according to Air & Space Magazine,.  But in 1931, in a article concluding that airport hotels would never catch on with travelers,  Aviation described the hotel as being “almost completely devoid of patrons after a year of operations” because two airlines had shifted flights away from the Oakland airport.

Restaurant that once served the Oakland Airport Inn. Courtesy Port of Oakland

To fill the rooms, the hotel management instead courted pilots and students from the Boeing School of Aeronautics, which operated on the airport’s grounds from 1929 until the early 1940s.

Courtesy Port of Oakland

Courtesy Port of Oakland

Today the building that housed the Oakland Airport Inn is home to the Amelia Earhart Senior Squadron 188, a local unit of the Civil Air Patrol.

That Earhart homage is fitting: Amelia Earhart was a regular guest at the Oakland Airport Inn. And in May 1937 she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, set out from the airport’s North Field for their ill-fated second attempt to fly around the world.

Dearborn Inn

Ford Trimotor plane flies over Dearborn Inn at Ford Airport in 1931. Courtesy The Henry Ford

While guests can no longer check-into a room at the Oakland Airport Inn, they are able to book rooms at the Dearborn Inn, in Dearborn, Michigan (near Detroit).

The hotel opened its doors on July 1, 1931 and along with claiming this to be the world’s first airport hotel, the Michigan Historical Marker out front says Henry Ford built the inn to serve Detroit-bound guests arriving at the Ford Airport, which opened in 1924.

Stout Air Services, run by Edsel Ford’s friend William Stout, began offering flights between Dearborn and Grand Rapids, MI in 1926 and in 1929 was flying daily (except Sunday) to both Chicago and Cleveland using Ford Trimotor aircraft.

Courtesy The Henry Ford

Courtesy The Henry Ford

“The Dearborn Inn was actually the brainchild of Henry Ford’s son, Edsel, and was intended to be the ‘front door’ to the city of Dearborn and to The Ford Motor Company,” said Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford, “Edsel wanted to provide employees, visitors and airline flight crews with nice, comfortable accommodations.”

Noted Detroit architect Alfred Kahn designed the building for a hotel Edsel wanted modeled after the charming New England inns with Colonial-style décor he’d stay in when traveling back and forth between his homes in Detroit and Bar Harbor, Maine.

Dearborn Inn

Cafeteria at the Dearborn Inn – Courtesy The Henry Ford

“The exterior of the hotel is vaguely a Colonial design,” said Sable, “But one feature that’s really cool is that at the tippy top there’s a ‘widow’s walk,’ or observation platform, where guests could go out and watch the planes land at the airport.”

Today the Dearborn Inn operates as a Marriott Hotel featuring modern rooms that are still decorated with Colonial-style furniture and fabrics. The 231-room hotel complex also still offers guests the option to stay on “Pilots Row” – in rooms once used by airline crews – or in one of the five replica Colonial-style homes of Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe and other famous Americans that Henry Ford had built at the inn.

Other ‘early’ airport hotels

Some of today’s travelers may remember a few other early airport hotels that are now also footnotes in history.

Memphis International housed the Skyport Inn from about 1972 until around 2012. The in-terminal hotel had about 30 rooms split between the A and C Mezzanines and was popular with pilots and flight attendants who had early morning flights. Many, if not all, of the rooms may have lacked windows: in an article about the hotel being razed to make way for office space, the Memphis Business Journal noted that each room at the Skyport Inn had its own skylight.

The Airport Mini Hotel that once operated at Honolulu International Airport closed its doors not long at 9/11. But for many years the hotel offered travelers on layovers a space to nap and freshen up for less than $10 an hour. “Apparently the rooms were small, but the bathrooms were decent,” said airport spokeswoman Claudine Kusano.

And while we now know that th sprawling Hilton that operated at San Francisco Airport from 1959 until the late 1990s was not the world’s first airport hotel (by a longshot), we do know that a night club at the hotel called Tiger A-Go-Go was quite popular with passengers, airline crew and employees.

So popular, it seems, that in 1965, the pop duo Buzz & Bucky released a single about the lounge titled (what else but) Tiger-A-Go-Go (click on the link to give it a listen) which spent four weeks on the Billboard charts.

What are your favorite airport hotels?

Souvenir Sunday – Elvis at Memphis Int’l Airport

It’s Souvenir Sunday, the day we take a look at unusual and inexpensive items you can buy at airports.

This week’s souvenirs come from Memphis International Airport, where Ron Rundus – the Stuck at the Airport webmaster – discovered the Elvis shop, where it’s Elvis, Elvis, Elvis all the time – and where “Elvis” often performs at the airport’s Sun Studio Café.

Do you spend time shopping when you’re stuck at the airport? If you find something fun, inexpensive and “of” the city or region, please take a photo and send it along.

If your souvenirs are featured on StuckatTheAirport.com, I’ll send you a special airport-related souvenir.

Music line-up at Nashville Int’l Airport (BNA)

Yesterday I wrote about the Memphis Symphony Orchestra ensembles scheduled to play at Memphis International Airport.

animated-notes

Keeping the beat, today I want to draw your attention to the music line-up at Nashville International Airport (BNA).  Free live music performances are offered year-round on stages near the A/B meeter-greeter area, in the Concourse C food court (beyond security), and on the Baggage Claim Level.

BNA Carissia and Tom Photo


Carrissia & Company peforms today at noon.  Here’s a link to the the two dozen other live performances scheduled during November, ranging from solo singer/songwriters to groups performing jazz, Big Band, country, and Rhythm & Blues.

Hear the Memphis Symphony Orchestra at Memphis Int’l Airport

No time – or money – to go hear a Memphis Symphony Orchestra concert?

No worries: show up at the Memphis International Airport on certain Friday afternoons from now through May 2010 and you’ll be treated to one-hour long performances by Memphis Symphony Orchestra ensembles.

Memphis Symphony Orchestra

The next performance is Friday, November 13th from 12:45 p.m. – 1:45 p.m.

One ensemble will perform near the Blue Note Café; another will perform across from the Food Court in Concourse B.

For more information and the dates of future performances of Memphis Symphony Orchestra ensembles at Memphis International Airport, click here.

Smoking at airports. Good or bad?

If, like President Barack Obama, you haven’t quite kicked the smoking habit yet, you might be on the look-out for airports where you can grab a smoke indoors without having to trek out to the curb. Or perhaps you’d like to know where all the non-smoking airports are so that you can breathe free when you travel.

Either way – you may be interested in my “At the Airport” column: Where to smoke at U.S. airports that posted on USATODAY.com today.

Here’s a sneak peek:

cigarette-and-matchbox1

These days, you can shop, eat, drink, and get an internet connection at pretty much every U.S. airport. At many airports, you can also get a massage, a manicure, a haircut, a pint of micro-brewed beer or a glass of fine wine. But to the dismay of some, and the delight of others, there are fewer and fewer airports where you can smoke a cigarette without being forced to exit security and stand outside on the curb.

That’s as it should be, says Bronson Frick of the non-profit Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights group: “Smoke-free air is now the norm in most airports and people expect it.” But to frequent travelers like Rebecca Argenti, it’s a pain in the butt: “I respect non-smokers and I don’t think it’s right or fair for them to be subjected to my cigarette smoke. However, I do wish airports would designate an ‘outside’ smoking area, past security but near the departure gates, so that persons who wish to smoke don’t have to go all the way to the front of the terminal in order to go outside and smoke.”

Argenti would have appreciated the post-security outdoor patios that Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) used to have in two of its terminals. But an amendment to the anti-smoking laws in California a few years back forced the airport to close the patios and the enclosed smoking area at the Tom Bradley International Terminal. However, there are still more than a dozen U.S. airports that have post-security smoking spots. Argenti and others just need to sniff them out.

Airports with smoking lounges

The nation’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, has two smoking lounges on every concourse except Concourse E, where smoking is permitted in Sojourner’s Restaurant. Smoking is also permitted in the Budweiser Brewhouse on Concourse A and in the Georgia Juke Joint on Concourse D. As part of a recent $67 million airport renovation project, five of the six lounges have been upgraded with new ventilation systems, new seating, new windows and new flooring. Airport spokesperson Al Snedeker says the specially-ventilated lounges now even have doors.

At Washington Dulles International Airport, smoking is permitted in four smoking lounges beyond the main terminal, including two lounges in Concourse B, one in Concourse C and one in Concourse D. For hungry smokers, Max & Erma’s Restaurant, by Gate B72, delivers food to a few tables in the adjacent airport smoking lounge.

Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport maintains smoking lounges in Terminals 1, 2 and 3 and in Concourses A and B. The airport also allows smoking inside four restaurants that have specially-ventilated smoking areas: Max & Erma’s, Wolfgang Puck, Outback and Sam Adams. According to airport spokesperson Barb Schempf, the airport has received both positive and negative comments from travelers about the smoking lounges, but there are currently no plans to make a change. “We feel it’s a customer service amenity, especially for passengers coming in on international flights.”

There are five post-security smoking lounges at Salt Lake City International Airport and, over at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, seven smoking lounges that airport spokesperson Jeff Lea says are all well used. “We’re offering a place where smokers can smoke and are making sure their smoke does not impact those that choose not to.”

In Florida, the bustling Miami International Airport has one outdoor smoking enclosure, located post-security on Concourse D, while Tampa International Airport has a series of caged outdoor patios (“Observation Decks”) at Airsides A, C, E and F complete with benches, ashtrays and electric lighters. At Orlando Sanford International Airport, there are two smoking areas, both in the international departure area. One is open to all departing passengers, while the other is available only to travelers with access to the Royal Palm Lounge. No smoking is allowed inside Pensacola Gulf Coast Regional Airport, but there is an enclosed, vented smoking room in front of the terminal.

At Charlotte Douglas International Airport, no smoking is allowed anywhere inside the airport, but for some reason that doesn’t include the airline club rooms which, according to the airport website, “are considered non-public areas.” Similarly, Denver International Airport is technically a no-smoking airport, but there are four lounges were smoking is permitted with purchase: the Aviator’s Club (Jeppesen Terminal and Concourse B), Mesa Verde (Concourse A), and Smokin’ Bear (Concourse C).

“Prior to providing a place for smokers to go,” says Detroit Metropolitan Airport spokesperson Brian Lassaline, “our Public Safety Division was frequently responding to door alarms. Customers arriving on international flights connecting to domestic flights, many of whom cannot read English, would push the bars on emergency exit doors on the concourses, thinking they could go ‘outside’ for a smoke.” Lassaline says some desperate smokers would also light up in the family restrooms, but now that there are three airports bars where people can smoke, this is no longer a problem.

Memphis International Airport offers one post-security spot where passengers can smoke. For now. A law prohibiting smoking in enclosed public places in Tennessee went into effect October 1, 2007, but airport officials have been trying to get exemptions for two airport restaurants, the pre-security Maggie O’Shea’s and the post-security Blue Note Café. Maggie O’Shea’s went no-smoking on January 1, 2009, but Hugh Atkins, director of General Environmental Health for the Tennessee Department of Health says if the Blue Note Café doesn’t follow-suit, his agency will start levying daily fines.

No smoking: Good for health but bad for the bottom line

Until the passage of the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act in November 2006, McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas had smoking areas in many post-security bars and in a string of ventilated lounges outfitted with banks of slot machines. Now that the airport is entirely smoke-free, says Randall H. Walker, the Clark County Director of Aviation, “We’ve found that many travelers now try to sneak a smoke, often in companion care restrooms or other areas where smoking is off limits.” Walker says the smoking ban is also having a negative impact on the airport’s bottom line. The airport’s slot machine revenue, which can total more than $40 million a year, has decreased since the smoking ban took effect. Walker attributes that to the fact that “many smokers are now lingering outside prior to their flight rather than playing the slot machines in the former smoking lounges located near the gates.”

There are other problems caused when travelers to go outside to smoke. At Charleston International Airport (CHS), it’s dirt. Public affairs director Becky Beaman says “many smokers just don’t respect non-smokers’ rights. They will walk right up to the door and take that last drag. We provide ash cans and benches on the front curb in the smoking areas so that smokers can be comfortable, but many smokers just throw their butts down and stamp them out which creates a nasty, stinky mess!”

To smoke or not to smoke: you’ll need to do some homework

Smoking lounges exist at some other U.S. airports, including Gulfport Biloxi International Airport and Greensboro’s Piedmont Triad International Airport, and there other airports where smoking may be permitted in airline club lounges or other “non-public places,” so if you want to smoke when you touch down, it’s a good idea to check the website of any airport you intend to visit. Better yet, call ahead. In researching this column, I discovered several officially smoke-free airports that had an unofficial smoking area on-site. And because city and state laws are constantly changing, don’t assume an airport that once allowed smoking will continue to do so. Also, while the list of 100% Smokefree U.S. airports put together by Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights was recently updated, I could find no comprehensive online list of airports where smoking is allowed.

Then again, you could always follow the lead of Danny Tolentino, an operations coordinator from South Carolina. Tolentino has memorized the best spots to smoke at many of the country’s busiest airports and says that Atlanta is pretty good and “at DFW it’s pretty easy to run outside for a smoke. There are plenty of exits and entrances and it doesn’t take long to go through security.” Tolentino knows where to smoke, but no longer needs this information. “I am smoke-free (as of Jan. 1, 2009) so I won’t have to worry about it anymore (hopefully).”

Have I missed any places? Let me know.