When all that stands between you and your flight home is a three-plus-hour delay, where you get stuck becomes very important
I'm stuck in Detroit's Metro Airport. The air-conditioning vent of the plane that was supposed to whisk me home to Boston is spewing hot air, which is worrisome. Even more worrisome is the fact that I've got several hours to kill in the airport while the thing's being fixed.
It's not a pretty sight. The building is old. The corridors are narrow. The gates are cramped. Outside of the airline membership lounges (which cost $100 to $500 apiece a year for typically no more than a comfortable couch and a free beverage), there's no place for a road warrior to get work done comfortably. There are electrical outlets along the corridor walls, but to use them you have to plunk yourself down in the middle of foot traffic. There are no tables or flat surfaces on which to set your laptop or, God forbid, spread out materials. And the phones? Forget it.
The only phone with a data jack, which I need to send and retrieve E-mail, is on a pole in the middle of a waiting area. There's no shelf, so I have to plug one end of the data cord into the phone, the other into my laptop, and crouch down--balancing the computer on my lap. There are three other phones around this pole, each with a business traveler going through similar contortions. One balances her laptop like a food tray on her left hand while she stands at the phone. Another squeezes his computer bag up against the bottom of the phone to create a flat surface on which to rest his laptop. The fourth gives up entirely: he's carting around a suit bag, a computer bag, and a laptop and can't figure out a way to balance everything and key in data at the same time.
Detroit Metro is a dismal place for the road warrior. But unfortunately, it's not alone. Rare is the airport that's designed for the business traveler on the go, the guy with deadlines to meet whose world doesn't stop because the tarmac is too slick or too frosty. On-time arrival rates for the major airlines range from just 72% to 85%, so all too often we're left all booted up with nowhere to go. You'd think that with close to 280 million business customers a year, the folks in charge could do better.
Well, some of them have. After weeks of extensive research and totally subjective analysis, I've come up with a list of the three best airports to get stuck in in America. My methodology was straightforward: I recollected my travels. I asked around. I posted E-mail messages on newsgroups and bulletin boards soliciting suggestions (see Resources). Then I went on a tour of the airports my sources said were the best.
Now, each traveler has his or her own criteria for what makes a way station workable. Mine are relatively simple--a telephone with a data jack, a table or a workstation on which to place my laptop and take notes while using the phone and the data jack, and a newsstand. While there are other features that make the wait more bearable (a good cup of coffee, a bookstore, an ATM), those are the essentials. To narrow the list, I added two less personal criteria: the airport had to be in a city that's a hot spot for business activity, and the facilities for business travelers had to have been in place for at least a year so I knew they had staying power. Herewith, in ascending order (from my third favorite to first), is the dope:
Seattle-Tacoma (SEA-TAC) International Airport, on the C concourse (SEA by C1, to seasoned travelers on the Internet). Here, Horizon Air and U.S. West have set up a so-called Business Center: eight workstation cubicles, each with a desk, a data jack, an outlet, and a tabletop pay phone that you can use to make toll-free, credit-card, or phone-card calls. The cubicles have a ruglike finish, which nicely complements their overall plastic feel, and they're situated in a way that allows you to watch arriving and departing flights through the plate-glass windows--a nice touch. The data jack and the phone work flawlessly. There are a couple of newsstands nearby, as well as a few restaurants and snack bars, a fax machine that doubles as a copy machine (75¢ a page/copy), a fee-for-service neck-and-back-massage area (this is Seattle, after all), and a Starbucks coffee stand, which isn't really necessary because Horizon is offering free cups of Starbucks coffee near gate C2, my point of departure.
As far as I can tell, no one checks which airline you're on when you use the Business Center or drink the free coffee, both of which I do with reckless abandon. There's no ATM in the C concourse; for that you have to go out to the main terminal. Otherwise, everything's here for you to build your own little temporary office space, which I also do with reckless abandon. If you tire of the workstations, the C area has pay phones you can plug your computer into, but as with Detroit, there's no place to sit down or set your computer when you use those phones.
New York's LaGuardia Airport, Marine Air Terminal (the Delta Shuttle waiting area; LGA/Marine by 6). Ironically, my second-favorite airport to get stuck in is one in which I've never been stuck for more than an hour because the flights leave so frequently. Bigger and cushier than Seattle's C1 accommodations, the Delta waiting area has ample seating on soft quasi-leather chairs and couches, plus numerous end tables that have tabletop pay phones (like Seattle's) with data jacks installed. There are no workstations here, but there's plenty of room on the side tables or soft couches to spread out work. There's a small bar where you can get free coffee and juice from 5:30 to 10:30 a.m. and buy snacks and sandwiches until 10:30 p.m. A closed-off area, called the Frequent Flyer Club, has more chairs and pay phones with data jacks, as well as a conference room you can reserve. The club, which also serves coffee gratis, from 6 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., is free to all Delta Shuttle passengers. The newsstands are outside the waiting area, but there are dozens of newspapers and magazines for the taking on shelves right near the gates--another feature that pushes LaGuardia ahead of Seattle for me.
Portland International Airport (PDX by D7). As good as they are, the facilities in Seattle and New York pale in comparison to those in Portland, Oreg. Granted, that's partly because PDX is a smaller airport, which makes it much easier to take advantage of offerings not directly associated with your gate. But it's also because of the place's commitment to the business traveler: its work areas are a permanent fixture of the airport, not a service provided by an airline, like Horizon/U.S. West in Seattle and Delta in LaGuardia.
The airport's central concourse, which is accessible from every gate, is a bonanza of great shops, eateries, Coffee People stands, and a Powell's bookstore, which offers a wonderful selection of new and used titles. Most of the shops and food stands open at 6 a.m. and close at 9 p.m., with the exception of the Red Lion, the main restaurant/lounge, which, along with the Service Center near D7, appears to stay open forever.
The Service Center has 14 workstations, fashioned out of blond wood, each equipped with a desk, a chair, a pay phone (like those at Seattle and LaGuardia), a data jack, and outlets. The center also houses a small postal station, a fax machine ($1.50 a page), a copy machine (10¢ a copy), and a Bank of America ATM ($1.50 service charge for any withdrawals you make that aren't from a Bank of America account). As in Seattle, you can sit at a desk and watch incoming and departing flights through the window.
What PDX also has is charm--well, as much charm as a place where people go so that they can leave can have. Mostly this comes from the folks who work there. The security guards at the check-in points are friendly, the janitors are not just efficient but musical (one ambles through the wide corridors singing the uplifting "Come to Jamaica"), and the staff at Powell's is more than accommodating. Late in the evening, as I'm walking by the bookstore for, oh, the seventh time, one of the clerks flags me down. "Didn't you say your wife works with little kids? We just got a shipment of Beanie Babies." The stuffed animals sell for $5 each (they're $9.95 at my source back home), and Portland has no sales tax. I buy six.
My six-hour layover at PDX has easily become a workday worth writing home about (as you can see). If only I'd been able to find a Congo the Gorilla Beanie Baby, it'd have been the most excellent of adventures.
Jeffrey L. Seglin is an executive editor at Inc. magazine. Send him your airport stories (you know you have them) at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are just under 500 major airports in the United States. Some, like Portland International Airport, have their own Web sites. Others, like the new $400-million-plus main terminal at National Airport, in Washington, D.C., have made ambitious efforts to accommodate the nation's nearly 280 million business travelers. (It remains to be seen how popular National's 60 work cubicles, which were just set up in July, will be.) So how do you know what's true and what's hype? Internet newsgroups--in particular, alt.travel and rec.travel.air--are a great place to get travel advice from seasoned veterans.