CHICAGO -- Getting stranded at an airport once meant enduring hours of boredom in a kind of travel purgatory with nothing to eat but fast food.
But these days, it can seem more like passing through the gates of Shangri-la to find spas, yoga studios, luxury shopping and restaurant menus crafted by celebrity chefs in terminals with calming, sleek design.
Stung by airline bankruptcies and mergers, more North American airports are hunting for alternative revenue streams by hiring top design firms to transform once chaotic and dreary way stations into places of Zen-like tranquillity and luxury where people actually want to get stuck -- and spend money.
"It's classy, it's very classy... It makes you feel good about the layover," said Marty Rapp, 70, who was getting rosy-cheeked with the help of a large glass of merlot under ice-crystal chandeliers at Chicago-O'Hare's Ice Bar, whose white and softly reflective decor gives the feeling of being secluded in an igloo -- where everyone is drinking and merry.
Airport redesign has been accelerating in the past 10 years, fuelled by a U.S. airline industry beset by bankruptcies and consolidation that is less able to shoulder as much of the operating costs for city-owned airports through landing fees and gate rental. More revenue from better retail and dining helps make up the shortfall.
At the same time, travellers are becoming savvier and want more than just to get from A to B. The airport has become almost a destination in its own right, a place worthy of stopping off for a while for a little shopping or pampering.
"There's the ability to go swimming at some airports, there's the ability to actually perfect your golf swing at some airports, there is the ability to -- it's not just getting a quick massage on your shoulders -- it's almost really going to a spa in some cases," said Bill Hooper, an architect at global design firm Gensler, which has transformed airport terminals.
The U.S. and Canada still lag behind Europe and Asia when it comes to the number of airports that are architectural gems and the array of unique offerings.
Stockholm's Arlanda Airport has a wedding package where couples can tie the knot in the control-tower balcony. And Seoul's Incheon International Airport is building a six-level terminal that will include a soaring glass-paneled ceiling giving passengers the feeling they are passing through a terrarium-like wonderland, complete with babbling brook, tropical plants and butterflies.
But North American airports are catching up. Space-age-looking redevelopment at Denver International Airport, slated to be finished by 2015, includes a Westin hotel and conference centre with a rooftop pool and views of the Rockies. With an outdoor plaza for events and a fast new rail line, the airport hopes to be seen as an extension of downtown, about 40 kilometres away.
Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport opened a nearly 1.6-kilometre-long walking path over mosaic floor art inside Terminal D in April. There are two optional cardio step courses leading up 55-foot high staircases, and the path ends at a free yoga studio, where barefoot travellers with a view of taxiing aircraft can stretch behind light-diffusing screens.
In a sense, airports have taken some of the members-only airline club lounge experience and opened it up for all.
"They're actually trying to create the same sort of sanctuary concept for the more casual traveller," Hooper said.
Business travellers in particular are catching on and actually choosing which airport they want to spend their layover in based on the offerings.
"Montreal (airport) has a smoked meat place ... and if I'm booking travel and I need to go back on the East Coast, sometimes I'll say, 'Can you get me to Montreal for an hour layover so I can have a smoked beef sandwich?' " said Wil Marchant, 40, who works for a financial services firm in Winnipeg.
The transformation is paying off.
Concessions revenue from food, beverage, retail and services at U.S. airports hit $1.5 billion in 2011, up 12 per cent from the year before.
-- The Associated Press