United Woos Fliers to Newark With IPads: Globetrotter

For travelers awaiting some of the tardiest departures in the U.S., United Airlines is offering a diversion via shopping and dining orders from an iPad.

New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport, which consistently scores toward the bottom of U.S. on-time rankings, is getting a $120 million upgrade in United’s main terminal. The carrier is rolling out Apple Inc.’s signature tablets and other flourishes, following similar facelifts at New York’s airports, as it competes for loyal business fliers.

As airlines strip out inflight perks while packing more people on planes, United’s efforts show how carriers are trying to set themselves apart on the ground. By 2015, every restaurant and gate seat in United’s Terminal C will have an iPad, letting travelers get flight updates, browse the web, buy food and make retail purchases with a 15-minute delivery guarantee.

“It’s really become an expectation in society today to have these amenities,” said Alan Bender, professor of aeronautics, airline management and economics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “U.S. carriers are catching up to where they should be for their passengers, especially for their business passengers, and most especially for their international business passengers.”

Newark is a gateway for United Continental Holdings Inc.'s flights across the Atlantic and around the globe. For the world’s second-largest airline, any advantage there can be important. New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, a hub for Delta Air Lines Inc. and American Airlines, offers more overseas departures.

‘It’s Nondescript’

Deborah Dulaney, who was passing through Newark en route to Allentown, Pennsylvania, from Dayton, Ohio, for a family visit, came away unimpressed with the 14th-busiest U.S. airport.

“In some airports that are very modern, you’ll see a lot of artwork, a lot of modern sculptures, some interactive things to do,” she said while sitting in Newark’s Terminal C. “This is just nondescript.”

New York City’s airports are particularly important because carriers make a disproportionate amount of profit from business fliers’ frequent, high-fare trips, and New York is the world’s business capital, Bender said in a telephone interview.

For a city that likes to present an image of modernity and stylishness, its airports have earned unflattering reviews from dignitaries including U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who likened LaGuardia International to a facility in a Third World country.

Worst Airports

In 2012, LaGuardia was rated the worst airport in the U.S., with Kennedy and Newark fourth- and fifth-worst, according to a Travel & Leisure survey that ranked the country’s 22 biggest facilities on issues such as delays, concessions and amenities.

That’s starting to change. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey will spend more than $8 billion on the three airports over the next decade. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a $500,000 design contest for renovations at JFK and LaGuardia on Oct. 20. The Newark terminal revamp will add more than 55 dining venues, 10,000 power outlets and 6,000 iPads over the next 18 months.

Airport quality is a bigger part of traveling today than it was in the past. Fliers spend more time in airports before takeoff due to added security since Sept. 11, and face longer waits during connections as airlines schedule more time between flights, said Bender of Embry-Riddle.

Newark ranked 26 out of 29 U.S. facilities in on-time takeoffs, according to the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Productivity, Comfort

United will try to improve the quality of that extended wait by ensuring passengers’ time is well spent and comfortable, said Mary Clark, an airline spokeswoman.

“From our perspective what we’re looking for, and what we look for in all of our hubs, is something that’s going to be a benefit for our customers -- something that’s going to make the time they spend in the airport more productive, more enjoyable, comfortable,” Clark said in a telephone interview.

United’s partner at Newark is OTG Management, which manages more than 200 restaurants and retail outposts in 10 North American airports and has done similar makeovers in two terminals at Kennedy and two at LaGuardia.

Working with Delta Air Lines, OTG installed 1,500 iPads in LaGuardia’s Terminals C and D between 2010-2012, from which travelers can order gourmet sushi or choose from more than 101 wines by the glass. Each restaurant has its own musical playlist, chosen by OTG’s “director of aura.”

‘So Cool’

As Louisiana native Paul Guinn awaited his connecting flight from Newark to Boston last month for a visit with his brother, he recalled seeing iPads for fliers’ use at the Munich airport.

“It was amazing,” Guinn said. “It was so cool.”

For some, the technology has its limits, especially when combined with the food service.

James Fielding was in Newark as he embarked on a honeymoon trip to Asia. He said he’d used an iPad at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport -- another OTG initiative -- in September and disliked being forced to do so.

After attempting to order a quick beer from a bartender at a restaurant, he was told he had to order using the iPad application. “Maybe it’s faster, but it seemed slower when we were there,” Fielding said.

Fielding, who is British and whose wife lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, said other aspects of the Newark renovation would bring the airport up to speed. “Even small airports like Greensboro seem to have free Wi-Fi,” he said.

For travelers hungry for a different kind of distraction, e-purchasing at every seat allows customers to buy magazines, small electronics and neck pillows without moving an inch. At the United terminal, passengers will also be able to buy merchandise from OTG-operated stores and duty free, features that aren’t available at LaGuardia or JFK.

The airlines and the Port Authority expect to see revenue gains, too, as higher consumer spending floats up the ownership chain, OTG Executive Vice President Howard Glaser said.

“Our customer satisfaction rates are among the highest in the country,” he said.

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