Last updated: 06:00 PM ET, Wed October 05 2016

Can Airlines Help Improve the American Airport Experience?

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | October 05, 2016

Can Airlines Help Improve the American Airport Experience?

 Photo: LaGuardia has been one of the many U.S. Airports to come under fire for lacking in modern enhancements. (Photo courtesy of Thinkstock.) 

Criticism about the state of America’s airports has been particularly loud lately, with Donald Trump recently saying that the country's largest hubs looked like they belonged in the "third world." (Joe Biden had a similar comment about New York LaGuardia two years ago.) 

Major renovation projects are underway, but it could be years before fliers notice any improvements. Is there anything that can improve airports in the meantime?

Will the renovations really help?

LaGuardia has a $4 billion upgrade in the works and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has said that it has money in the budget for further improvements at JFK and Newark as well. O’Hare will get “up to $3.5 billion” from the city of Chicago to perform renovations. 

These fixes will take time and a number of critics are already suggesting that the expensive projects are more political than practical, and they won’t solve all the problems that currently plague these airports. 

Hope for the short term

Airlines and third party airport service companies have stepped in to make their own improvements. Once profits started flowing, major US carriers, along with one of their main airport partners, OTG, started showing a willingness to invest in their hub airports by making upgrades meant to improve the flier experience. 

All three legacy carriers have partnered with airport service firm OTG to renovate their airside spaces. The projects include new seating areas with free-to-use iPads, new dining and drinking options, and the ability to pay for purchases with airline miles.

These upgrades are more-or-less cosmetic. They will not make flights arrive on time and they obviously won’t help improve security checkpoint wait times or ground transportation options. (There are charging stations right at the table in many of these iPad equipped spaces; that is certainly the most practical upgrade that comes from this trend.) 

In fact, on some level the new seating areas and dining options are a reward for fliers after they put up with what both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have called “third world” conditions at some major airports. The new airside features are already open or will soon open at Newark, Philadelphia, Houston, and Minneapolis Saint Paul. The Newark upgrade, which was reportedly funded by OTG, cost approximately $120 million in all.

Trying to jumpstart security improvements

Airlines are also trying to improve the situation on the landside. Delta funded the installation of the first-of-its-kind smart security lane at Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson. The $1 million project, which allowed five people to prep for screening at the same time (instead of one) reportedly decreased checkpoint wait times by 30 percent. 
Delta has plans to expand the lanes to its other hubs, while American and United also jumped on board with airports like O’Hare, LAX and Newark slated to get the new lanes. 

Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson, meanwhile, will be using its own money to add more of the new lanes. The airport will be installing 20 new smart lanes at a total cost of around $9 million. This project will cost more than the collective total of around $10 million that the three airlines are spending to install the “test” smart lanes at their hubs. 

How much will third parties pay for?

This begs the question: if an airport does not install the additional smart gates after a successful test run, will airlines step in with the money to make the upgrades themselves? Perhaps, but overall airlines are actually spending less for airport usage than they did before. 

According to the director of the Airports Council International, Angela Gittens, “airport charges to airlines are a lower percentage of airline costs than they were two decades ago.” So, while the improvements are certainly welcome, they are not necessarily an indication of a strengthening partnership between airlines and airports. 

Not just for premium class fliers

However, as long as profits continue to flow, airlines will have a willingness to improve the airport experience for their customers. The good news is that some of these improvements are focused on the common areas of airports instead of only in premium class lounges (which airlines are also spending to improve). It is promising for economy class fliers that carriers have found a partner in OTG that is willing to develop main terminal areas in a way that can improve the experience (at least a little bit) for all fliers.  

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