Why Airport Terminals Are Getting Nicer While Airplanes Are Getting More Uncomfortable

You might enjoy your layover more than your destination.

By Brenda SalinasMay 4, 2015 9:31 am

American Airlines recently unveiled its 787-8 Dreamliner. It carries 226 passengers, 198 of them in coach – and industry insiders have said if you’re not in first class, that airplane is uncomfortable for long trips. But the silver lining is that might be that when you get to the airport, you might almost mistake it for a shopping mall.

Self-described “aviation geek” Blain Nickeson, got to fly on the 787-8 Dreamliner a few weeks ago on a United flight from Houston to Dallas. Nickeson says while he was impressed with the plane’s big windows and mood lighting, he still felt cramped.

“I’m 6’1 so I’m much more uncomfortable in a coach seat than one of my friends who is, you know, 5’2,” he says.

When an airline buys a new plane, it customizes the interior. On Nickeson’s plane, that meant nine seats in every row in coach and a mechanism he hadn’t seen before.

“Your seat will recline, but when you do it the bottom cushion will actually slide forward,” Nickeson says. “So you’re actually reclining into your own space and not into the person behind you.”

So it might be safe to say the Dreamliner isn’t really a dream for your everyday traveler. But then again, is any airplane? A recent study found that perceptions of air travel in the U.S. are getting worse. Complaints about late departures, mishandled baggage and passengers feeling like sardines stuck in a flying tin can are at an all-time high.

For many fliers, the most enjoyable part of traveling lies somewhere between putting their shoes back on after security and just before their flight is called.

“Once you get past security and you’re able to calm down, airports have really focused on the non-aviation revenue streams, so I think you’re seeing more nicer restaurants,” Nickeson says. “I did see something in Houston’s airport, there’s a big deli-type of area where you can get all types of hot and cold foods to go.”

Airports all around Texas are trying to cash in. Houston-based CultureMap – a company better known for local news coverage – has announced it’s taking over Hudson News Stands to provide local concierge service. Alexander Muse is their co-founder.

“CultureMap won’t just sell magazines, they’ll have concierge services to make sure you make the most of your visit,” Muse says.

Even though airlines make billions of dollars in fees, they still lose billions every year. That’s not good for their landlords – the airports.

Mark Sixel says as far as airport amenities, CultureMap is right on trend. He’s a consultant for airports and airlines.

“A lot of people go through the airport and they spend more time in the airport experiencing the local scene than they do actually in the city,” Sixel says. “So a lot of airports are bringing local brands and local restaurants into their terminals and allowing travelers to experience the community through the airport.”

Sixel says we fly coach because most of us spend as little money as possible on getting from point A to point B.

“In order to pay the bills in an environment where most of the fees used to come from airlines themselves, it makes more sense to collect less fees from the airlines and put in the type of infrastructure that people will actually spend money on as they’re coming through the terminals,” Sixel says. “So these restaurants and shops and stores actually turn into profit centers for the airport themselves.”

But while we’re waiting for our flight, we’re much more likely to make smaller impulse buys – a smoothie, a gadget, even apparel. Those small purchases, multiplied millions of times, really add up.