Waiting for Takeoff: How to make good use of your time at the airport? Here’s our consumer’s guide

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Byline: Katherine Stroup

Stacey Roessel was professionally poked and patted at Pittsburgh International Airport last week, but it wasn’t by security folks. Thoroughly sick of hearing CNN weather updates, Roessel still had an hour to kill before her short flight to Erie, Pa. That was plenty of time, she concluded, for a Pixie Styx Pink manicure at Polished, the new, full-service airport spa, where 20 minutes of pampering costs $25. “It beats hanging out at the gate,” says the 25-year-old Roessel, a technology consultant who passes through Pittsburgh twice a week. For Roessel, it was a little bit of heaven during a hellishly boring wait.

Since September 11, fewer travelers are taking to the skies, but those who do are spending a lot more time schlepping around the cavernous concourses. In true entrepreneurial fashion, airport businesses are working to capitalize on their captive audiences. Restaurants, bookstores, lounges, boutiques, kid spots–all have begun trying to take advantage of the new reality at American airports. The best of the best are now downright homey, with places to unwind, eat a decent meal at reasonable prices and even curl up with a DVD. You may not have to think about these amenities every trip–on lucky days, travelers may still be able to breeze through from check-in to boarding with nary a hassle–but sooner or later, you’re going to hear those dreaded words over the loudspeaker, “Ladies and gentlemen, sorry about today’s delay…”

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Let’s get one thing straight: airports still aren’t fun. There are too many lines, too few seats and, yes, some extraordinarily bad lighting. But while you would never choose to spend time there–nobody will ever think of JFK International as a destination resort–it’s inevitable, all the more so as heightened security procedures take hold. Passengers currently waste an average of 109 minutes wandering around the airport before boarding a flight, according to Airport Interviewing and Research, an independent firm. That’s up about 10 percent since the terrorist attacks, and it may get worse if traffic returns to pre-9-11 levels. Most airports report that, on average, only 15 minutes of that “dwell time” (as industry jargon has it) is spent clearing the security checkpoint. (For example, Atlanta Hartsfield, the nation’s busiest airport, finds lines average 10 to 12 minutes.)

Yet many airports and airlines still instruct passengers to arrive two hours early for domestic flights. So once you’ve made it through the metal detector, and had your shoes inspected, what should you do with the downtime? Here’s our guide to improved airport services. Go ahead, make yourself at home:

Feed Me!

It’s no secret that Americans like to eat. And when faced with a stretch of unstructured leisure time, food immediately becomes a satisfying way to stave off boredom. The fact that airlines have severely cut back on meals since 9-11 means even more splurging on Whoppers (39 grams of fat) and Cinnabons (34 grams). While traffic at Minneapolis-St. Paul International was down 8 percent last year, those who did fly spent $2.5 million more on food and beverages, suggesting the airlines made up for the missing passengers in weight, at least.

Don’t be duped into thinking you have to dine with Ronald McDonald. In the past few years, most airports brought in upscale eateries–and now there’s finally time to enjoy them. San Francisco International features a dozen local restaurants like Harry Denton’s (of Starlight Lounge fame) and vegetarians in Newark can find plenty on the Garden State Diner’s expansive menu. Even LAX, notorious for its terrible food, has the Encounter Restaurant, a Jetsons-looking spaceship-on-legs decorated by Disney’s Imagineers with mod fabrics and psychedelic lighting.

Travelers facing long foodless flights can also snatch up boxed meals, like those available from Philadelphia International’s “Take Out for Take Off” program or LaGuardia’s Figs on the Fly, a takeout version on Todd English’s well-known restaurant chain in Boston, New York City and elsewhere.

Shopping Spree

The best part about airport shopping used to be checking out the tacky, oversize souvenirs. But gift shops are leaning away from that kind of merchandise, because it doesn’t fit in carry-on luggage, the rules for which are being enforced. You can still hunt for local oddities, like Orlando Airport’s Fudge-a-Gators that somehow never melt or the gallon jug of famous mustard served at the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium.

For “real” shopping, Pittsburgh International sets the standard. It’s “a mall with airplanes parked outside,” quips Michael Taylor, director of travel services for J.D. Power and Associates. And there’s no sales tax on clothes in Pennsylvania, making buying even more rewarding at the Airmall’s 62 stores, including a Gap, a Nine West and a Victoria’s Secret. “Who would ever have thought ladies’ lingerie would sell in an airport?” Taylor asks. Then again, the Mile High Club has to shop somewhere.

Child’s Play

The highlight of every child’s air adventure used to be visiting the cockpit for those gold pilot wings, but locked doors and steel bars have put an end to that tradition. Since kids must stay in their seats, it’s parents’ responsibility to show their offspring a good–and, they hope, exhausting–time before boarding the plane. That’s easily accomplished in the Portland, Ore., airport, where children get two distinctly different play experiences: they can pilot a Boeing-built plane replica or load boxes on a Columbia River barge lookalike. Boston’s Logan Airport has a magnetic poetry wall and baggage-claim slide. JFK includes a Lego play area.

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It’s a well-known fact among parents that animated films act as a sedative for kids. InMotion Pictures made a business out of it at airports. It now rents DVDs and, for the laptop-less, portable DVD players at 16 major airports nationwide. “People seem to be renting more than one movie,” says Barney Freedman, the company’s cofounder. “They realize they need one while they’re waiting at the gate and another for the flight.” A five-inch screen costs $12 a day (the seven-inch runs $15), and can either be dropped off at the destination airport or put in a prepaid mailer. The kiosks stock almost 200 titles including Walt Disney’s complete animated canon.

Sound Mind, Sound Body

Children aren’t the only ones needing diversion. Grown-ups willing to walk past the airport bar can unwind through exercise, the Chicago O’Hare Hilton, linked to the airport by underground moving sidewalks, offers access to its well-equipped 10,000-square-foot gym for just $10. There’s a lap pool, steam room and sauna. And 24 Hour Fitness at Las Vegas’s McCarran Airport caters to the unprepared exercisers, offering a $15-a-day fitness pack that comes with a pair of sneakers (you have to return them) and a fetching T shirt-shorts-socks ensemble.

The more sedentary sort can seek inner peace, or at least outer calm, in meditation rooms at such airports as Washington-Dulles, Sea-Tac and Charlotte. (More of these rooms appear all the time as airport chapels become secularized.) There’s the occasional nondenominational-prayer service, but these comfy Zen lounges are also the perfect place to paint your nails, take a snooze or finish some trashy airport fiction. Any silent activity is considered OK.

Of course we’d all like to go back to the good old days, when boarding a flight was about as complicated as getting on a bus. The process now involves not just a calculation of how long it’ll take to park, check in and get through security, but what to do if everything goes smoothly and you’re stuck with part of an afternoon to waste. Las Vegas International has the solution. “Everyone has to plan for the worst,” says Hilarie Grey, the airport’s spokeswoman, “but then they fly through security and wind up with time on their hands. That’s when I tell them to go play the slots.” Those machines brought in an extra half a million last year. The American spirit endures.