I’ve been on a lot of airplanes in my life, as the million-miler badge from Delta on my battered satchel will attest, and that means I have been in a lot of airports. But when I had a lay-over in Minneapolis several weeks ago, I got to see the future and, I am here to tell you, there is the most eye-opening experience a frequent flier will ever witness at Gate D-2 in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport.
I was reminded of my adventure of finding an oasis in the teeming desert of endless corridors and worn-out waiting rooms when it was announced this week that the Chattanooga Airport Authority is saying a bitter goodbye to the company that has operated the restaurant and concessions business at Lovell Field. Air Host, a Memphis based company that has become a huge disappointment, will be gone by the end of September and will be replaced by Tailwind Concessions.
To buy out the Air Host contract will cost the Airport Authority almost a half-million dollars but the Tailwind group, based in Wilmington, N.C., promises to pay back the buyout with increased sales. We hope this will mean (much) better food, beverages, newspapers and magazines, along with other services that airports in all but Third World countries routinely deliver.
True, the Chattanooga airport lost its sparkle several years ago and parking is a huge mess. Most of the time it resembles a ghost town but not long ago I found it was cheaper to fly from Chattanooga to Minnesota than from Atlanta or Nashville. It was a wonderful experience with far less hassle and the airplane was packed, lending credence that other travelers are also discovering the better pricing from Lovell Field.
On the way back home, the Delta flight from Minneapolis to Atlanta originated from the most unbelievable waiting area I have ever seen. You enter the main gate area through what appears to be a beautiful bazaar of food, beverages and anything a traveler could possibly want. There are huge, well-kept hot and cold food tables where you serve yourself in containers in a way similar to Whole Foods. You dish up whatever you want – the big Styrofoam container is weighed at $9.99 a pound if memory serves me right – and the selections are astounding.
There is regular yogurt, Greek yogurt, and mounds of fresh fruit. Along one wall are all kinds of gourmet coffees, a cooler with every bottle of preppy iced-tea and fruit drinks that are hard to pronounce, and 18 or so varieties of water. That’s right, just water. The whole concept is so upscale, fresh, and high tech it is invigorating There are made-to-order gourmet sandwiches, creative salads and packages of hard-boiled eggs, fresh grapes, and things you have never seen outside a grocery store.
Forget TSA inspectors making you pour out any liquids. This is at the gate, far from where you take off your shoes, and with airlines now charging for food and drink, you can load your satchel with everything from peanut M&Ms to two cold bottles of Gatorade. I’m telling you, it is fantastic, but the real kicker is when you arrive at the ticket counter itself.
They had very few of the old side-by-side row seats. Instead there was this huge restaurant-type seating area and at each seat was a fixed iPad. There was room for food or a newspaper but the iPad offered free personal Internet to each person in the waiting area. It flashed a menu from the restaurant next door with the promise whatever you ordered would be delivered within 15 minutes or be absolutely free. You could check your email or watch the news or play a game.
I would estimate 70 percent of the passengers were savvy enough to be enthralled rather than sit terribly bored waiting for the flight to be called but, for the record, the flight attendant still gave the laborious speech of how to put on a seat belt. In a car they’ll give you a citation but they still give lessons on our modern jets – go figure.
Yes, it was a little pricey – have you noticed that everything good and fresh and jazzy is today? But it was no more than you would pay at any airport where modern-day highjacking has moved from the cockpit to airport lounges and cafes in recent years. Moreover, it was great fun to be in a throng of waiting-room strangers who all seemed happy and content.
I am the first to recognize that Chattanooga can’t play in the same league as Minneapolis, where over 33 million passengers were seen last year, but as we strive to make the Chattanooga airport sustainable, the waiting area should certainly be more than rows of benches with a counter holding three very-tired muffins and vending machines that offer Diet Coke for $2.50 per pop.
Tailwind Concessions will take over in a temporary way Oct. 1 and a modern, updated build-out will be ready by February of 2014. If they need any ideas, go to Gate D-2 in Minneapolis. It is the future of air travel and evermore a sight to see.