Air travel may have gotten (even) more irritating during 2012. But on the ground, the scene at many airports has gotten mellower, healthier and a bit more connected.
It wasn't all that long ago that free Wi-Fi and plentiful power outlets at an airport were newsworthy additions. But in a recent 2012 ACI-NA Passenger Services Survey, 88 percent of airports reported having electrical charging stations for passengers. And 90 percent of the airports surveyed said they now offer travelers free Wi-Fi.
That list includes Los Angeles International Airport and BWI-Thurgood Marshall Airport, which are among the larger U.S. airports that began offering complimentary Wi-Fi this year. (Read more: Want Free Airport Wi-Fi? LAX Says Yes With a Hitch)
ACI-NA's survey of U.S. and Canadian airports also found that almost half have children's playrooms, 86 percent offer major local art displays, and that live music is a regular feature at 34 airports.
Massage and/or spa services, as well as hair and nail salons, are common sights now at airports as well. But during 2012 some new amenities were rolled out designed to make airport dwell time even more productive. Here are few you may have missed.
During 2012, San Francisco International Airport began playing music at the security checkpoints in the international terminal, installed a trio of free bicycle assembly stations and expanded the locations of the handy water hydration stations that allow a passenger to empty a water bottle before security, take it through and refill it for free on the post-security side.
But the most novel amenity introduced by SFO this year was the first-of-its-kind airport Yoga Room (located post-security in Terminal 2), designed as "a space devoted to contemplation and self-reflection." (Read more: Delayed: San Francisco International Airport Options)
Dallas-Fort Worth airport followed suit four months later with a yoga 'studio' equipped with yoga mats and hand sanitizer located behind a partial privacy screen near one end of the new Terminal D walking path (Gate D40).
Return of Landlines
Remember landlines? In November, Denver International Airport installed more than two hundred landline phones throughout the terminal and the concourses offering passengers unlimited free domestic phone calls. International calls are free for the first ten minutes and, much like the "free" Wi-Fi service offered in many airports, the service is ad-supported: callers must listen to or watch a short ad before being connected. (Read more: Phone Home: Denver Airport Offers Free Global Calls)
Booze to Go
Also in November, Las Vegas, McCarran International Airport, already home to amenities such as smoking lounges, an aviation museum and more than 1,600 gaming machines, became the first airport in the country to have a packaged liquor store in the baggage claim area. On the shelves at the Liquor Library: beer, wine, spirits, cigars, cigarettes, small packaged snacks, mixers, travel cups and glasses. In-store tasting events seem to be very popular. (Read more: Las Vegas' McCarran Airport Offers Liquor to Go)
Fast-food outlets at airports remain popular, but the number of healthy dining options for passengers continues to expand. Chicago's O'Hare International Airport introduced a Farmer's Market Kiosk this year, selling healthy take-away food items, including fruits and vegetables, as well as packaged herbs that are being grown inside the airport at the aeroponic garden, which opened in 2011. Herbs from the garden are being used by many airport restaurants and honey from O'Hare's on-airport apiary (the nation's first) is being sold at the airport as well.
Dan Stratman, the former Air Force captain behind the AirportLife app, is pleased that there are healthier dining options such as Shoyu, a modern Japanese restaurant and sushi bar, among the dozen or so new restaurants and markets rolled out recently in Delta's Concourse G at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Many of those restaurants are associated with local and national name-brand chefs, a trend that Gate Guru's Zachary Einzig was tracking during 2012. "Popular new places include Lemonade at LAX, Lorena Garcia Tapas Bar at ATL, Bad Daddy's Burger Bar at CLT airport, and the Food Network Kitchen at Fort Lauderdale International Airport," he said.
Airport loyalty programs gained momentum this year, most notably the Thanks Again program that gives travelers points and miles for money spent at restaurants, shops and parking garages at airports. The program began in 2009 (at Anchorage Airport) but took off significantly in 2012.
As of mid-December, the program has presence in 170 airports and facility-wide participation in 40 airports. Marc Ellis, Thanks Again co-founder and CEO, is pleased that the most recent airport to join the program is Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, which is located about 35 miles from the company's headquarters in Tyrone, Georgia.
Joe Brancatelli, editor of the business travel newsletter Joe Sent Me, thinks the best innovation this year is TSA's PreCheck program. "As much as it is easy to criticize TSA and the pace at which it implements change, the spreading of PreCheck to dozens of airports is a game changer for frequent travelers," he said. The program, which initially rolled out in October, 2011, is now at 33 airports, with Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport the most recent airport to join the program, on December 4. The TSA website offers a full list of airports with TSA PreCheck.
In May 2012, the TSA also extended to passengers age 75 and older, the modified screening procedures the agency put in place for children age 12 and under the year before. The program does not require older passengers to remove their shoes or light jackets at the checkpoints and allows them an additional pass-through (or "do-over") through the screening machines to resolve any anomalies detected.
Looking forward to 2013, Brancatelli would like to see "more public-access lounges where travelers can go during disruptions or delays—or just to wait and work before flights." And Raymond Kollau of Airlinetrends.com hopes to see more U.S. airports following the lead of European and Canadian airports that have introduced amenities such as libraries, book-swapping programs and wireless charging for gadgets.
I'm holding out for the opportunity to use my airport dwell time to take short classes in cooking, packing, dancing or Spanish and would like to see a vending machine installed at my home airport's parking garage and/or light-rail station that will sell me a quart of fresh milk when I'm heading home from a long trip.