If you’ve ever spent time at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport, you’ll likely remember the haunting chime that goes off overhead every ten minutes preceding an announcement, like some hollow wail of a notification ghost. It’s a sound you may now associate with stress, long lines, confusion. Fortunately for everyone flying in and out of Europe’s second largest airport, things are changing for the better, and not just because of new efforts made by the Paris Aéroport authority.
Cue Air France, the airline responsible for bringing baguettes on board and keeping the free wine flowing since 1933. This year, the French airline finished construction on its more than 34,000-square-foot business class lounge, almost 6,000 of those square feet dedicated to wellness. What that means for you, the frequent flyer, is nap rooms, saunas, free facials, and more de-stressing pre-flight amenities. By the time you board your flight, your Pavlovian response to that Charles de Gaulle notification chime might be to relax rather than recoil. Maybe.
“We aim to create peaceful havens that allow for some relaxation during their journey,” said Air France CEO, Anne Rigail. “Air France invests 20 million euros each year to continue the move upmarket of its lounges, and some of this investment is going to two important US lounges over the next year.”
Is this move a sign of the times? Are airports no longer fit to be a circle in Dante’s hell? Are they good now? “[Airports are getting] much better, municipal airport authorities around the world are realizing that keeping travelers occupied and entertained is worth the effort,” said Andrew Zimmern, four-time James Beard Award-winning TV personality, chef, executive producer and host of Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods and The Zimmern List who takes about a hundred flights a year. “It’s a simple metric.”
Health and wellness is more important to business and leisure travelers today. “Many airport gates look like bus terminals and spending time at the gate is neither comfortable nor entertaining," said Christian Mischler, co-founder of GuestReady and partner at the Swiss Founders Fund who takes about 80 flights a year. “I would love if there was a gym available to the public, particularly at intercontinental hubs where sometimes you need to wait two or three hours for a connecting flight.” The hotel industry has been making tweaks to satisfy demands from a new generation of travelers like Mischler, so, too could airports and airlines.
Major Asian airports are in on it—dialing up the amenities and prioritizing user experience. There’s Singapore’s Changi, regularly voted the world’s best airport with its gardens (orchid, butterfly, sunflower), swimming pools, and 24-hour paid lounges with gyms, massage therapy, showers, and nail care services. “Changi airport has free 24-hour movie theaters—this seems like such an easy thing to do,” said Zimmern. “Why others don’t do it is beyond me. You have a captive audience. Entertain them!” Both of Tokyo’s major airports offer wellness touches like Narita’s nail salon or Haneda’s massage services. At Seoul’s Incheon International Airport, travelers passing through can hit the gym, nap zones, laundry facilities, cultural centers, and the Spa On Air, the ultra-relaxing jjimjilbang—a spa with saunas and soaking tubs.
Scandinavia is ahead of the curve as well. In Oslo, Norway, the SAS domestic lounge features a gym that business travelers have been changing their schedules for, opting for longer layovers so they can get a workout in before their connecting flights. The SAS international and domestic lounges serve fresh baked bread, local cheeses, and possibly the world’s best butter (from Røros, Norway). “It’s very many guests to feed, I’ll tell you,” said Marit Anita Storm Røsaasen, the Quality Coordinator Lounge for SAS Norway. “Lounges are one of the products that keep people coming back. We see an increase in volume, even from month to month.”
Progress is being made at American airports. But not with the same gusto. Sure, the employees at Minneapolis MSP go out of their way to show you genuine kindness, but you can still find gates where you feel like you've descended into an old, dingy shopping mall with low ceilings.
Portland is an outlier. The airport bleeds Portland pride, selling handmade food, drink, and gifts from Oregon in every corner. There are shrines to local products, like towering displays of Jacobsen Salt Co. salts and Olympia Provisions charcuterie. Grab a bottle of Willamette Valley pinot noir to pair with that salami.
In San Francisco at SFO, there are complimentary touches to offset some of the doldrums of standard airport woes. For no money at all, you can take advantage of two yoga rooms, a Reflection Room for quiet meditation, and play areas for children. It also features the Wag Brigade to relieve stress for passengers through animal contact. “The San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) brought animals certified through their Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) Program to roam the terminals,” said Grier McCurdy Mathews, marketing manager for San Francisco International Airport. "While mostly comprised of canines, the team also includes LiLou, a Juliana-breed pig.”
If you’re willing to pay for it, more comfort is attainable. You can pay by the day for airport lounges where faster WiFi and a cheese-stocked salad bar are on standby. But most of the perks are going to business and first class fliers. At LAX, the Qantas first class lounge is opulently furnished with American Oak walls, Carrara marble, Tai Ping wool carpets from Hong Kong. Those traveling in first on Emirates now have access to Hydra-active Sleepwear—pajamas made with skin-moisturizing shea butter and argan oil that get released with movement.
But despite all these increasingly-available luxury experiences at airports and on planes, simple basics are still some of the most appreciated amenities for heavy travelers. Free WiFi, USB charging outlets, fast-moving customer service, and sufficient signage are essentials that count for weary road warriors—and they’re not uniformly available. “Airports aren’t getting worse, they’re just getting overwhelmed with the rapid increase of travelers,” said Mischler. “Particularly in Asia, more and more connections are being offered and more people travel more frequently.”
Are airports good now? “Good” might be a stretch. The industry appears to be moving in the right direction. So maybe today’s frequent fliers are stuck squatting next to electrical outlets behind a trash can. But tomorrow’s might be more likely to lounge around, sipping spa water in a Charles De Gaulle nap room. If they can afford it, that is.