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As the consumer experience of flying has perhaps become more basic for most of us in recent years, with ‘no-frills’ airlines and even scheduled airlines limiting perks to keep prices down, airports have blossomed into more than utilitarian transportation hubs. They now feel like odes to the consumption of goods and services, with a plethora of shopping and dining options and more recently fitness, sleep and tranquillity zones on offer. Globally, US$385 billion worth of airport projects are in progress, led by China and the Middle East, according to estimates by research body the CAPA Centre for Aviation.
The biggest annual survey of airport passengers, the World Airport Survey, better known as the Passenger Choice Awards, from Skytrax, with 13 million completed surveys, offers ample proof. Voted the world’s best airport for the third year running in the latest edition of this barometer of air passenger satisfaction is Singapore’s Changi Airport, which was also voted best airport for leisure amenities.
“Have you flown through the Kuala Lumpur airport?” said business traveller, Sharon M. Schweitzer, to the New York Times. “When you get to that airport you have this experience of going into a rain-forest-like setting. The Singapore airport is another example. They have a butterfly garden, a sunflower garden, an area where children can paint; they have movie theaters”. As major airports worldwide rush to brand themselves as luxury entities rather than mere transportation hubs, it is a natural step to ranking them in terms of starts, like hotels. Munich Airport, for instance, boasts that it has become “Europe’s first five-star airport”, perhaps as it’s the only European airport to make Skytrax’s top five.
Brands are intensifying their bid to entice the millions of consumers ‘stuck’ in transit with a growing choice of goods and services. The current renovation of Departure Lounge 2 at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport will see it divided into seven “theme worlds”, including “Fashion & Lifestyle” & an “XpresSpa”.
In its global 2014 Traveller Experience Survey report, consumer transaction technologies company NCR Corporation stresses that airports now derive up to half of their revenue from non-aero retail and concessions. Digital interactive mapping helps by animating an airport’s retail, dining and entertainment options, with brands offering real-time deals for nearby concessions.
Not all welcome ‘airport malls’. Ralph Nader, consumer activist and a former US presidential candidate, complains that passengers must now struggle to find even basic airport information through a blizzard of commercialism, colour, merchandise and signs.
This sounds like an oxymoron, however more airports have been meeting the craving of health-conscious consumers for a tranquil space they can unwind in and to help them calm flight-related anxiety.
A temporary yoga room at Heathrow in London proved so popular last year that it was made permanent, and its operator is looking to open one in Hong Kong. The yoga room at San Francisco’s International Airport is a dimly lit space with hardwood floors, mats and cushions that has been praised for its soothing atmosphere. “This [wellness services trend] is a tacit recognition by airports that travel can be stressful, and they want to do what they can to help travelers reduce that stress,” believes Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst. “Yoga’s probably a lot healthier than trying to quell the stress at an airport bar”.
Some airports have adapted interfaith chapels to meet the passenger craving for stillness. Many top-ranked airports also offer sleeping pods, cocoons for napping or relaxing in or reclining chairs that can be rented by the hour.
Meanwhile, passengers are enjoying more on-the-go pampering, and filling ‘deadtime’ with self- treating. While spa chains in airports aren’t new, consumer interest in new on-the-go grooming options such as gate-side manicure stations is intensifying. In summer 2014, Philadelphia International Airport became the first in the USA to offer passengers free use of 30 low impact exercise bikes in the terminal.