"Montreal (airport) has a smoked meat place ... that if I'm booking travel and I need to go back on the East Coast, sometimes I'll say, 'Can you get me to Montreal for an hour layover so I can have a smoked beef sandwich?' " said Wil Marchant, 40, who works for a financial services firm in Winnipeg.
The transformation is paying off.
Concessions revenue from food, beverage, retail and services at U.S. airports hit $1.5 billion in 2011, up 12 percent from the year before, according to Airports Council International-North America, which represents the vast majority of governing bodies that own and operate commercial airports.
The new business model has helped airports like San Francisco International, which finished a major refurbishment of Terminal 2 in April 2011 with the firm Gensler. The design is sleek, super modern and playful, with children and adults spinning in comfy swivel chairs around coffee tables placed at every gate. Check-in desks — imposingly high at some airports — were lowered to look more like hotel concierge desks.
"What we were aiming for is a four- or five-star hotel experience for passengers in the terminal building," said airport Director John L. Martin.
The average spent per passenger at the terminal is now about $14. That's 22 percent more than domestic travelers spend at the airport's other terminals.
At O'Hare, where once there was little more than hot dogs and souvenir shops, domestic terminals are now dotted with restaurants led by celebrity chefs like Rick Bayless, piano bars, and a tranquil aeroponic herb garden — a mini forest of green on a quiet mezzanine level.
"It's pretty amazing. ... I didn't expect that to be here," said grad student David Janesko, 30, reading a book in a comfy lounge chair beside the garden on his way to see family in Pittsburgh.
But airport bliss doesn't come cheap, and its price can be a little jarring for passengers.
Back at the Ice Bar — which offers 23 different vodkas and four different kinds of ice (crushed, cubes or sphere) — blues musician and actor Cedric "Catfish" Turner was lamenting that his Jack Daniels on the rocks cost $11. But he needed it, he said, to ease a headache from a long layover.
"I could have stolen a bottle," he said with a laugh, his guitar propped next to his bar stool. "I'm a bluesman. Come on, you don't treat a bluesman like that."
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