Road Warrior

Can you hear me now? Airports clear away old staples to make way for newer amenities

Harriet Baskas, Special to CNBC
Payphones in O'Hare International Airport, circa 1963.
Source: Chicago Dept of Aviation

Airports, mostly seen as gateways that ferry passengers to distant cities and far-flung countries, have grown beyond their original mandate.

Although long-distance travel is still their primary role, airports have recently moved to make traveling more efficient and enjoyable for travelers — and more profitable for the airports themselves. In recent years, an ever-expanding and impressive mix of dining and shopping amenities greet fliers at major travel hubs.

A recent survey by airport membership association Airports Council International - North America identified the top 10 airport amenities on the continent — including top-of-the-line new features airports intend to add in the next few years. Along with amenities like ATMs, free internet access and more vending machines, the ACI's list also included pet relief facilities, children play areas and rooms for nursing mothers.

"Whether engaging with passengers through an animal therapy program to instill a sense of calm in a busy terminal, or providing ample electrical charging stations for mobile devices, airports are committed to not only meeting passengers' expectations but exceeding them," said Kevin Burke, the ACI-NA's president and CEO.

According to the ACI-NA survey, airports are adding more nursing rooms for mothers.
Source: Pittsburgh International Airport

In part to make way for these new amenities, airports told the ACI-NA that over the next three to five years, they plan to phase out or eliminate lesser attractions — so travelers will need to bid goodbye to airport smoking rooms, payphones and bank branches.

'Built-in customer base'

Although cash machines are plentiful at many airports, staffed bank branches are already quite rare. Yet one notable holdout is Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where a branch of the Wings Financial Credit Union thrives.

"The local bank has a built-in customer base, as they began as a credit union for airline and airport employees," said airport spokeswoman Melissa Scovronski, "So we don't expect to eliminate that service."

Smoking lounges still exist at just a handful of major U.S. airports, including Washington Dulles International Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. However, several are already moving to square themselves with years of anti-smoking public policy: Salt Lake City International Airport closed all its smoking rooms last year, and by the end of 2018, Denver International will shutter its last remaining smoking lounge.

Smoking lounges at many U.S. airports are being snuffed out.
Source: Denver International Airport

Separately, those once ubiquitous banks of payphones at airports are being replaced with charging stations, or making way for other services. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) removed the last of its payphones in 2016.

The number of payphones is being steadily reduced, but not yet eliminated, at airports in Dallas/Fort Worth, Minneapolis and Chicago, where there are now 503 payphones at O'Hare International (down from 650 five years ago) and 174 payphones at Midway International (down from 180).

"The payphones taken off line were removed because of low usage, requests from the airlines due to construction in their gate areas and repurposing of space for revenue producing ventures," said Gregg Cunningham of the Chicago Department of Aviation. Some will remain "because they are still a necessary means of communication for some customers," he added.

With the rise of cellphones, "folks simply don't use payphones," said SEA spokesman Brian DeRoy, "and there are hardly any companies now that want to have the financial burden of taking on a payphone contract for a very limited number of users."

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) in Texas has also ditched all its payphones, but provides a courtesy phone for free local calls on its baggage claim level.

"Our information desk staff can also make calls for passengers when needed, such as when cellphones batteries are dead," said AUS spokesman Derick Hackett.

There are exceptions, however. At Reno-Tahoe International Airport (RNO) in Nevada, free local or toll-free calls can be made from any courtesy phone in the airport. And thanks to a deal dating back to 2012, Denver International Airport still has about 200 payphones that provide unlimited free national domestic calls, as well as international calls that are free for the first 10 minutes.

"In 2008, AT&T ended their payphone contract at the airport, at same time they pulled out of shopping malls and other public buildings due to decreases in revenue," said RNO airport spokeswoman Heidi Jared, "But the airport authority knew an option was needed to fill that void since not all travelers have a cellphone."

—Harriet Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas. Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.