Think your airport is just a place to board planes? Think again. Airports, where the average traveler spends 137 minutes per trip lining up, sitting down, pacing, waiting … and waiting for their plane to start boarding are now becoming destinations in their own right –hubs of shopping, stylish dining, entertainment, exercise, even pampering.

This is called “dwell time,” according to Dolby & Holder consulting group, and passengers, according to these estimates, are wasting 47 percent of it, resulting in some $6 billion in lost revenues for airports.

Some airports are getting wise to ways of entertaining this captive audience. Certainly brand-focused shopping found this to be a winner long ago and even while brick & mortar retail sees dark times ahead, airport retail is seeing sunny skies with no clouds in sight. Micromarket Monitor holds that revenues from U.S. and Canadian airport retailing should rise from about $4.2 billion in 2015 to nearly $10 billion by 2020, marking a compound annual growth rate of nearly 20 percent. Worldwide projections approach $90 billion by 2023, according to Credence Research, especially as more families around the globe join the middle class.

But airports have become much more than alt-malls for travelers. They have turned into destinations in their own right and places to consider for pre-trip fun before flying.

Airport amenities

“Airports are a reflection of their community and you see airports really embracing this,” says Angela Gittens, Director General of Airports Council International based in Montreal. “Incheon works with the Korean Cultural Institute and offers all sorts of programs. Changi in Singapore is well known for a whole series of passenger items – a movie theater, a butterfly garden, special children’s areas – all really memorable. We used to feel it was a success if your flight was uneventful. Now it’s about delighting passengers. Designers are finding ways to install wonder and make travelers feel like being a kid again.”

International airports in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Singapore and soon Istanbul rival small cities in size and offerings with mini-hotels, attractions, and creative amenities, to say nothing of the shopping to be done. The new Istanbul International Airport opens in October as the world’s largest to date at a cost of $12 billion and with a footprint the size of Manhattan. It will have a 451-capsule Yotel amid miles of retail and dining.

Airport Extravagance

Dubai International Airport (DXB) is well known for its shopping opportunities that extend beyond luxury brand clothing to carpets, jewelry, electronics and gold – lots of gold, by the chain or brick, on what is, end-to-end, a golden mile of retail. You buy 24 karat gold by the gram here and pay only the international market price. Of course, bargaining remains an ancient art in these parts, even in the futuristic air terminal. Or you can spend a couple of dirham to enter the ongoing raffle to win a high-end Mercedes or BMW. It changes out each month with each win.

Airport amenities

Dubai airport gold counter

Airport Arts and Culture

Singapore’s Changi International Airport (SIN) is packed with cool discoveries. It features a rooftop pool and Jacuzzi in its transit hotel located in Terminal 1 (open to non-guest passengers as well for a small entrance fee). Changi also offers what is currently the world’s tallest airport slide (four stories) in Terminal 3, near the Butterfly Garden. Find there a lush setting of flowers, maybe 1000 tropical butterflies in a variety of species and an 18-foot grotto waterfall. A new10-story hotel and entertainment complex opens at the airport next year.

Similarly, Incheon International Airport in Seoul (ICN) brings a museum showcasing Korean culture and colorful traditional costumes. Have a peek at the Great Dharani Sutra of Immaculate and Pure, the oldest known wooden slab print in the world, dating back to the eighth century. Part of the Traditional Korean Cultural Experience Zone, the focus is on experiencing Korea even if you are actually not going there. A long layover can be filled with immersing in traditional crafts, such as Hanji, traditional Korean paper, or Dancheong paintwork. Or trying on some traditional Korean clothing for size. More adventurous transient travelers can take a quick day tour of Seoul from the airport and still make their flight with quick city excursions that last one- to five hours.

Incheon is not the only airport to sport its own museum. Amsterdam’s Schiphol International Airport (AMS) offers a mini Rijksmuseum where those on the go or who missed their shot of the famed Rijksmuseum in town, can their fix of Dutch and Nordic art and likely see works by Van Gogh, Brueghel, Jan Steen and Ferdinand Bol, among others. The museum is located in the Schiphol terminal, between piers E and F.

Slide at Changi

Airport Escapes

If you can’t fly away when you want, you can skate away at Munich International Airport (MUC). A seasonal ice rink sees the action between Terminals 1 and 2. The months of November and December are rife with Christmas markets, and if you cannot get to the Christmas markets they come to you — at the airport. The rink becomes a winter wonderland of snow-flecked pine trees and some 40 stands offering seasonal refreshments and stocking stuffer trinkets. Bring skates or rent them. The ice is free.

At Vancouver International Airport (YVR), an aquarium awaits. A 30,000-gallon aquarium brings thousands of sea creatures that will keep anyone mesmerized between flight segments: wolf eels, starfish, hundreds of sea urchins, and 10 species of rockfish, sculpins, jellyfish and 2,550 anemones – mostly collected from north Pacific waters. Find it on level 3 of the International Terminal.

Closer to home, U.S. airports are adding unusual amenities that will put them on the map. San Francisco International Airport (SFO) offers a 24/7 yoga studio in Terminal 2 to practice warrior poses between flights. There is also a meditation room for quiet moments and a therapy pig available for those who have a fear of flying. For less quiet moments there is the SFO Museum’s Video Arts Center where travelers can watch shorts from contemporary artists and filmmakers. As the gallery is located in a pre-security area on the departures level of International Terminal, it’s open to non-flyers as well with daily operating hours of 5:00 am to midnight.

Portland International Airport in Oregon (PDX) lets travelers get their hands dirty at a bike assembly station. As Portland is a one of the most bike-friendly cities in the U.S., the station is a convenience for travelers who want to assemble or disassemble their bikes before checking into a flight or heading out to the city. The airport also offers a bike/walking path for the energetic and restless. If they slow down enough they might get to taste the vodka, rum or aquavit at the House Spirits Distillery, known mostly for its crafted American single malt whiskey. It’s the only distiller with an airport tasting room. Cocktail flights are $15, whiskey flights, $20. Movie buffs may opt for the Hollywood Theatre that has a free 17-seat “microcinema” on Concourse C. Also find there a Dragontree Spa with treatments ranging from 25-minutes to nearly two hours for some preflight pampering.

Airport Amusement

Meanwhile, General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee (MKE) keeps a ping pong table available for hyperactive passengers. At Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (ORD) find a brachiosaurus skeleton. On loan from Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, it measures four stories high and 72 feet in length – around half the length of a larger Boeing 737 airplane but just as tall. At Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI) travelers can get a cardio workout in before the long sit at Roam Fitness next to gate D1. It’s currently the only post-security fitness facility offering a gym, workout gear and shower facilities. A day pass is $25.

Airport Indulgences

Those seeking preflight pampering are in luck. Plenty of airports feature a spa where feet can soak, nails can be buffed, and all the stress of getting to the gate can be rubbed out. From Taiwan to Thailand to Dubai to Las Vegas, there are a range of spas that usually offer treatments from the surrounding region. Perhaps the most intriguing of these is “the hot spring nearest the sky.” An onsen or natural geothermal pools for soaking is found in the bathhouse at New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido, Japan (CTS). Afterwards you can rest in a private room and likely miss your flight, or relax in a room full of loungers with departure screens blinking in your face.

Finally, for those who want to indulge their taste buds instead, a little caviar will take you far, even to 35,000 feet.

opened a Petrossian caviar bar in the newly redone terminal. Try a chilled flute of Tattinger’s or choose from 20 types of vodkas. And you cantake it with you. Purchase a “caviar in the air” picnic pack with a caviar selection and choice, blinis, and crème fraiche packed in an insulated carry-on Petrossian pouch. Tins start at $74.


This article by Lark Gould first appeared in her column, Travel2020, by Multibriefs.