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Amid holiday scramble at airports, travelers can still find plenty of zen

To entice wary fliers, airports offer smoother security screening, better entertainment options and stress-releasing yoga classes and therapy dogs.
The 25-foot-tall water feature in Terminal B at New York’s LaGuardia Airport rotates in a holiday-themed show.
The 25-foot-tall water feature in Terminal B at New York’s LaGuardia Airport rotates in a holiday-themed show.LaGuardia Gateway Partners

While the concerning uptick in omicron cases is causing some travelers to cancel or reconsider their holiday travel plans, many are sticking with their itineraries and heading to the airport.

It will be the first time many have visited an airport in two years. Despite the surge in Covid cases, the Transportation Security Administration hasn't seen a drop-off in passengers it screens since concerns about the omicron variant of the coronavirus grew last week, and it expects to screen a near-pre-pandemic number of passengers. AAA predicts that 6.4 million travelers will fly this holiday season, a 184 percent increases from last year.

To entice wary travelers back to the terminals, airports have invested in smoother security processes, improved experiences and entertainment options and stress-releasing yoga and roaming therapy dogs. Some travelers may prefer to just get from point A to point B without straying off course, while others may appreciate some of the new amenities.

Security checkpoint reservations

Travelers who haven’t paid for expedited access to security lanes with TSA PreCheck or CLEAR memberships may still be able to skip the long lines. A handful of airports now host free programs that allow travelers to reserve time slots to go through security checkpoints during the busiest hours. Look for the SEA Spot Saver Program at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the LAX Fast Lane at Los Angeles International Airport, the Fast Pass Pilot Program at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport’s Virtual Lane and Orlando International Airport’s Reservation Lane, operated by CLEAR.   

Gate passes

A handful of airports offer free gate passes to non-ticketed visitors who want to meet arriving passengers, see people off at the gate or spend baggage-free time dining, shopping or plane spotting in terminals. Pass seekers apply online before their visits and, if they are approved by the TSA, go through standard security screening. Airports offering gate passes include Seattle-Tacoma International, Detroit Metropolitan, Louis Armstrong New Orleans International; Bishop International in Flint, Michigan, and John Wayne in Santa Ana, California.

Holiday entertainment  

Many airports have brought back free live concerts, performances and other forms of entertainment just in time for the holiday season. For example, Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport set up a bright red mailbox to collect letters to Santa and promises personalized responses to anyone who includes their addresses, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport has a robust holiday performance series under way, and the 25-foot-tall water feature in Terminal B at New York’s LaGuardia Airport rotates in a holiday-themed show with its signature program celebrating New York City.

Movies and games

At Dallas Fort Worth, there’s a new, free interactive gaming experience at Gate D-18 featuring a 40-foot-long media wall with touchless tracking sensor.

The free 22-seat Hollywood Theatre Microcinema at Portland International Airport in Oregon shows short films by Pacific Northwest filmmakers. The free Video Arts gallery in the International Terminal at San Francisco International Airport has reopened, as well, showing four new films a month every 20 minutes or less in the gallery and online. Free short films are also screened at the See 18 Film Screen Room (by Gate C18) at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Free books and short stories

Reading is a great way to pass the time when traveling, and a handful of airports offer passengers free reading material.

There are two free Little Libraries at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston and three inside Hobby Airport. Philadelphia International Airport has a book exchange corner in Terminal A West and a machine that dispenses short stories between terminals D and E. Oakland International Airport in California, Pittsburgh International Airport and Dane County Regional Airport in Madison, Wisconsin, have short story dispensers, too. And at San Jose International Airport in California, anyone can use the Pop-Up Library to download and access e-books from the San Jose Public Library for free.

Free airport museums

The Mitchell Gallery of Flight at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport offers free exhibitions.Courtesy Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport

In addition to permanent and changing art and history exhibits, airports in San Francisco; Miami; Phoenix; Albany, New York; and many other cities have free on-site museums and professional museum programs. For example, McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas is home to the Howard W. Cannon Aviation Museum, with its main exhibit up above baggage claim. Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport recently reopened the Mitchell Gallery of Flight, a free aviation museum open 24/7 in the pre-security area.

More free airport amenities

Look around and you’ll find plenty of other free things to do at airports this season.

San Francisco's Wag Brigade is ready for pats or hugs this holiday season.Courtesy San Francisco International Airport

Free yoga rooms are available at airports in Chicago, San Francisco, Houston and Miami. American Heart Association kiosks offering free training in lifesaving, hands-only CPR are operating again at many airports. And cute-as-a-button teams of therapy dogs are out in force in dozens of airports this season offering stress-busting visits and accepting free pats and hugs.