Air travel can be stressful, especially with all the potential disruptions to your travel plans. Fortunately, airports know this, so they’re constantly investing in improvements to enhance your time in their facilities. Advanced technologies—like charging stations and facial recognition at boarding—are common, but the world’s busiest and most competitive airports are going above and beyond to cater to their guests.
From expanded dining options to world-class art and entertainment, savvy airports are focusing on the overall passenger experience. The next time you fly, you may find some spectacular amenities at the airport—and it will likely continue.
WHY DO AIRPORTS CARE?
You might think airports don’t care if you enjoy your time there, but that’s far from true. With only one exception, all U.S. commercial airports are publicly held entities owned by the municipalities trying to reel you in for business or leisure. Fewer passengers in an airport results in lost revenue for the local economies.
Additionally, airports charge for each plane that lands at their facility. Fewer passengers means fewer flights, which can be another financial hit for the airport and the region. In cities with multiple airports, competition increases the need for better facilities and passenger amenities.
Airports have a vested interest in passengers arriving early and enjoying the facilities, or happily passing the time during flight delays or layovers. Here’s what some airports are doing to catch your attention and enhance your experience.
Wolfgang Puck in Chicago's O'Hare Airport; Photo by dlewis33/iStock.com
LOCAL FOOD AND DRINKS
Because airports are both your first welcome and your final farewell from a city, it’s increasingly common for them to incorporate as many local touches as possible. These elements can be subtle, like architecture that evokes the region’s natural elements. Some airports take it a step further by offering famous local foods dished up by the best.
Airport terminals still have vending machines and plenty of grab-and-go bites, but you can also sample local culinary favorites, like Bar Sazerac in New Orleans (where the cocktail, potentially the world’s first, was invented), gin in the distillery at London Gatwick, brews at the beer garden in Munich, hot chicken sandwiches at Party Fowl in Nashville, and cult-favorite lobster rolls from Smack Shack in Minneapolis.
You’ll also find celebrity chef restaurants, including Jamie Oliver at London Gatwick, Cat Cora at San Francisco, and Wolfgang Puck at more than a dozen airports worldwide. Together, the local fare and the top-chef cuisines are raising the standard of traditional airport fare.
The rainforest garden tunnel in the ATL Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport; Photo by MelissaMN/stock.adobe.com
The quickest way to jazz up a terminal is with art, which can include permanent collections of local artists and world-famous masters, as well as rotating exhibitions. Atlanta, home to the world’s busiest airport, incorporates evolving exhibits in the terminals, plus special installations that span the entire underground tunnel system that connects all the terminals. There’s plenty of local and world history on display, too. San Francisco is practically a local art museum, complete with maps to the current installations, and Dallas/Fort Worth is similarly packed with area treasures. However, European airports take the cake with priceless collections, like the Rodin sculptures in Paris and the Dutch masterworks rotating through Amsterdam, on loan from the Rijksmuseum.
Pop culture fans will appreciate the Hello Kitty decor and more in Taipei Taoyuan's Terminal 2, where every gate is elaborately designed with a different theme.
The HSBC Rain Vortex, world's largest indoor waterfall at 40m tall, in Changi Airport, Singapore; Photo by happycreator/stock.adobe.com
Feasts for the eyes and tastebuds are great, but the best airports are going all out on total entertainment. In Cape Town, you can spend your layover getting an adrenaline rush on a helicopter tour of the African capital. For a calming experience, San Francisco recently opened a free yoga and meditation studio in Terminal 3.
Doha's Hamad offers a diverse menu of guided experiences for those with long layovers, ranging from city exploration to dune-bashing adventures. You’ll also find a hotel inside the terminal at Hamad and plenty of other relaxation zones, plus a full gym selling day passes. South Korea’s Incheon offers access to 72 holes of golf, a skating rink, and a movie theater. Singapore is home to the crown jewel of airport spectacles. This tiny nation is home to the epic Changi Singapore Airport, where you can explore several natural spaces, including a butterfly garden and a hedge maze, plus a suspended trampoline and walking nets, giant slides, a climbing wall, and a mirror maze. You can also enjoy the world’s tallest indoor waterfall and a re-creation of a 1930s Singapore shopping street, complete with contemporary local vendors selling authentic goods and products.