Monday, October 25, 2010

A Passenger’s Airport Wish List


AIRLINES have taken a lot of heat over bad customer service, but as I was waiting for a flight at La Guardia Airport this summer, I realized that the stress of flying sometimes starts at the terminal curb.

It took more than half an hour to get through security, and once I got to the overcrowded gate — after a stop in a less-than-clean bathroom — the cacophony of competing announcements, a blaring television and a passenger’s music player blasting without headphones was deafening, especially at 9 a.m.

But when I landed at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, the highest-ranking large airport in this year’s J. D. Power & Associates North America customer satisfaction survey, it was as though I had arrived in another country. The main terminal, finished in 2002, is spacious and full of light, with plenty of comfortable seats at each gate and a wide choice of restaurants.

Stuart Greif, vice president of the global travel practice at J. D. Power, said the contrast between the two airports illustrates the widening spread between the best and worst domestic airports. That’s partly because airports like La Guardia are showing their age, but it also indicates that some airports are taking the time and expense to focus on passengers’ needs.

“It’s about getting the basics right,” said Mr. Greif, who mentioned adequate seating, speedy baggage claim, clear signs and smooth traffic flow as some things airports can do to improve the passenger experience. Besides “Turn down the volume!” here are a few suggestions (post your own at if you’re inspired to chime in).

Don’t Keep Us in the Dark

One thing that mystifies me is why airports and airlines don’t work together to provide information on ticket confirmations or check-in reminders about services available at airports. Why not tell passengers headed to, say, Minneapolis, that there’s a new Surdyk’s wine bar at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, or Indianapolis-bound travelers that there is free Wi-Fi at the airport there? (Check out for a directory of airports that offer free Internet access, organized by state.)

Right now, passengers have to seek out an airport’s Web site to find these highlights, which is worth doing, even just to view terminal maps or get updates about construction that might affect traffic in the area. lets you look up an airport to see information about flight delays, which is often more accurate than the data airlines share.

It goes without saying that passengers would appreciate more timely flight updates throughout the airport, but Mr. Greif had another good suggestion: posting estimates in baggage claim areas about how long it will take before each flight’s luggage appears.

“When you set expectations and you explain reasons, satisfaction tends to improve,” he said. Yet travelers tend to live in the opposite of our TMI world: we get too little information.

Spruce Up the Bathrooms!

One of my pet peeves is the bathroom automation trend, which would be fine if the sensors actually worked when you waved your hands wildly to get a trickle of water or a squirt of soap — but they often don’t. As Jerry Seinfeld joked in a monologue I found on YouTube: “What is the story on the sinks in airport bathrooms, that they will not give us a twist-it-on, twist-it-off human-style faucet? Is that too risky for the general population?”

Curtis Fentress, an architect who has designed many of the world’s top-rated airports, shared an anecdote about the purse of a government official falling into the sink and activating the faucet during the 1995 opening celebration for Denver International Airport, which he designed. He said that automation technology is improving, adding that his company — which recently designed the new terminal at Raleigh-Durham International Airport — spends a lot of time thinking about bathroom usability, lobbying for bigger stalls that can accommodate luggage, as well as shelves in the stalls and near the sinks.

“The last thing you want to do when you go in a public bathroom is to set your purse or briefcase down while you wash your hands because the floor often has water all over it,” he said, mentioning the placement of paper towel dispensers and trash receptacles as other details that affect bathroom cleanliness. (In that respect, passengers are partly to blame for the sorry state of airport restrooms these days. No wonder they’re taking the paper towels away.)

Let Us Rest

For the new Terminal B at San Jose International Airport, Mr. Fentress said his company designed chairs with electrical outlets, so passengers don’t have to jockey for scarce outlets along the walls to charge a laptop or a phone.

But Foy Allen Edelman, a cookbook author from Raleigh, N.C., had another suggestion: how about installing reclining chairs that have a compartment underneath where you can stash a small carry-on bag?

“If you could go to a place that’s quiet and where you could lock up your valuables and rest, I would pay for that,” she said.

While airline lounges generally offer day passes to nonmembers for around $50, they usually close at night, and it does seem that a reasonably priced place to nap is something many travelers would pay for. If you do get stuck, offers useful tips on where to snooze, and shows photos of free reclining chairs at airports in places like Singapore and Seoul that put United States airport seating to shame.

Make It Local

Another common complaint is that many airports feel generic, full of chain restaurants and retail outlets, rather than local establishments selling or serving regional specialties.

“It’s as though they’re all up in the air attached to each other,” Ms. Edelman said. “They’re disconnected from the community.”

Some airports are making more of an effort to introduce local cuisine, like San Francisco International Airport, which has outposts of local favorites including Just Desserts, Boudin Bakery and Firewood Café. But it takes some research to find information on the best places to eat, which is worth doing before you land. Yelp and both offer consumer reviews of airports that often include restaurant picks, and the business travel writer Joe Brancatelli recently offered a round-up of the best airport dining options in the United States on that includes tips on where to find local fare.

Mr. Fentress mentioned that Vancouver International Airport has what strikes me as a brilliant idea: a bar in the baggage claim area, which might entice more friends and family to agree to the airport pick-up chore.

“You can sit there and have a beverage and wait for your friend,” he said. “Why that doesn’t catch on more in the U.S., I don’t know.”

Reposted by, A version of this article appeared in print on October 24, 2010, on page TR3 of the New York edition.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Should There Be Rules for Using Airport Outlets?

Should There Be Rules for Using Airport Outlets?


Over on the Bucks blog, Jennifer Saranow Schultz writes about the complicated ethics of using electrical outlets in airports.

Some airports are better equipped than others, Ms. Schultz writes, but “with demand for airport outlets outstripping supply, I wonder what kind of ethical rules, if any, should govern outlet use.”

What are appropriate rules for using airport outlets? Share your opinion.

Clear Safety Bags is always looking for travel information that will make traveling easier.


Monday, October 4, 2010

Reinventing the Suitcase by Adding the Wheel.

MANY thousands of years ago, there were two important inventions, the wheel and the sack. As a traveler, I can’t help wondering why it took so long to put rollers on that sack to create wheeled luggage.

“It was one of my best ideas,” Bernard D. Sadow said the other day. Mr. Sadow, who owned a Massachusetts company that made luggage and coats, is credited with inventing rolling luggage 40 years ago this month.

First, the background. Mr. Sadow, now 85, had his eureka moment in 1970 as he lugged two heavy suitcases through an airport while returning from a family vacation in Aruba. Waiting at customs, he said, he observed a worker effortlessly rolling a heavy machine on a wheeled skid.

“I said to my wife, ‘You know, that’s what we need for luggage,’ ” Mr. Sadow recalled. When he got back to work, he took casters off a wardrobe trunk and mounted them on a big travel suitcase. “I put a strap on the front and pulled it, and it worked,” he said.

This invention, for which he holds United States patent No. 3,653,474, “Rolling Luggage,” did not take off immediately, though.

“People do not accept change well,” Mr. Sadow said, recalling the many months he spent rolling his prototype bag on sales calls to department stores in New York and elsewhere. Finally, though, Macy’s ordered some, and the market grew quickly as Macy’s ads began promoting “the Luggage That Glides.”

The patent, which Mr. Sadow applied for in 1970 and received in 1972, noted that people were dealing with luggage in a new way, as airplanes decisively replaced trains as the common mode of long-distance travel.

The patent stated, “Whereas formerly, luggage would be handled by porters and be loaded or unloaded at points convenient to the street, the large terminals of today, particularly air terminals, have increased the difficulty of baggage-handling.” It added, “Baggage-handling has become perhaps the biggest single difficulty encountered by an air passenger.”

Until Mr. Sadow’s invention, the major recent innovation in luggage toting had been small, fold-up wheeled carts that travelers strapped suitcases to and pulled behind them. By the late 1960s, travel gear shops were selling lots of these as more Americans began flying, especially internationally.

But Mr. Sadow’s suitcase was ultimately supplanted by a more popular innovation — the now ubiquitous Rollaboard and its imitators.

The Rollaboard was invented in 1987 by Robert Plath, a Northwest Airlines 747 pilot and avid home workshop tinkerer, who affixed two wheels and a long handle to suitcases that rolled upright, rather than being towed flat like Mr. Sadow’s four-wheeled models.

Mr. Plath initially sold his Rollaboards to fellow flight crew members. But when travelers in airports saw flight attendants striding briskly through airports with their Rollaboards in tow, a whole new market was created. Within a few years Mr. Plath had left flying to start Travelpro International, now a major luggage company. Other luggage makers quickly imitated the Rollaboard.

“Travelpro really popularized the telescoping handle with the two wheels, after Plath got the flight attendants to start carrying them,” Richard Krulik, the chief executive of U.S. Luggage, whose subsidiary Briggs & Riley Travelware markets luggage. Mr. Sadow is the former owner of U.S. Luggage.

So why did it take so long for wheeled luggage to emerge? Mr. Sadow recalled the strong resistance he met on those early sales calls, when he was frequently told that men would not accept suitcases with wheels. “It was a very macho thing,” he said.

But it was also a time of huge change in the culture of travel, as a growing number of people flew, airports became bigger and far more women began traveling alone, especially on business trips. It had taken a long time, but common sense and the quest for convenience prevailed. The suitcase acquired wheels; travelers no longer routinely needed porters and bellhops.

So here’s a toast to the inventors, and especially to Mr. Sadow on the 40th anniversary of his rolling luggage. But let’s also give three cheers to the flight attendants — the early adopters who showed the rest of us how to carry a suitcase sensibly.

Now if only someone could find a sensible way to stow that bag on an airplane.


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Travel Alerts vs Travel Warnings

Travel Alerts

Travel Alerts are issued for short-term events we think you should know about when planning travel to a country. Examples of reasons for issuing a Travel Alert might include an election season that is bound to have many strikes, demonstrations, disturbances; a health alert like an outbreak of H1N1; or evidence of an elevated risk of terrorist attacks. When these short-term events are over, we cancel the Travel Alert.

Travel Warnings

Travel Warning are issued when they want you to consider very carefully whether you should go to a country at all. Examples of reasons for issuing a Travel Warning might include unstable government, civil war, or ongoing intense crime or violence, or frequent terrorist attacks. We want you to know the risks of traveling to these places and to strongly consider not going to them at all. Travel Warnings remain in place until the situation changes; some have been in effect for years.

Travel Alerts for Europe


The State Department alerts U.S. citizens to the potential for terrorist attacks in Europe. Current information suggests that al-Qa’ida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks. European governments have taken action to guard against a terrorist attack and some have spoken publicly about the heightened threat conditions.

Terrorists may elect to use a variety of means and weapons and target both official and private interests. U.S. citizens are reminded of the potential for terrorists to attack public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure. Terrorists have targeted and attacked subway and rail systems, as well as aviation and maritime services. U.S. citizens should take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling.

We continue to work closely with our European allies on the threat from international terrorism, including al-Qa’ida. Information is routinely shared between the U.S. and our key partners in order to disrupt terrorist plotting, identify and take action against potential operatives, and strengthen our defenses against potential threats.

We recommend U.S. citizens register their travel plans with the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy through the State Department's travel registration website. Travelers may obtain up-to-date information on security conditions by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll-free in the U.S. and Canada, or on a regular toll line at 1-202-501-4444 from elsewhere in the world.

For information on general crime and security issues, U.S. citizens should also consult the Department of State's Country-Specific Information as well as the Worldwide Caution, which can be found on the Bureau of Consular Affairs website. For further information on safety tips while traveling abroad, U.S. citizens should also consult the following website:

This Travel Alert expires on January 31, 2011.