The nation’s airports are feeling pretty lonely these days.
And who can blame them? As the economy worsens, the number of people traveling on U.S. airlines keeps on dropping. And if fewer people are flying, fewer people are hanging out at airports.
So it was probably a good thing that the agenda for the airport conference held earlier this week in Montreal was full of sessions on how airports can make — and keep — new friends.
Buddy up with your airport
In the old days, an airport had to be a “transportation node” with $4 hot dogs to be popular. Now, as you’ve probably noticed, many airports have gone glam and transformed themselves into community crossroads with valet parking and shopping malls dotted with wine bars, medical clinics, upscale boutiques, salons and spas. In the past, you’d never hear from your airport. Now airports are using social media tools such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to reach out and interact with travelers and invite them come over and hang out. Even if it’s just for a quick, virtual visit.
Myrna White, director of the Public Affairs department at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, told colleagues how her airport has been successfully using Facebook and YouTube to alert travelers to everything from a recent visit by movie star Desperaux the Mouse and the opening of a 24-hour BestBuy vending machine store to a false report of an airport restroom hold-up and a warning about a pet-shipping scam.
Other social media tools, most notably the micro-blogging tool Twitter, were also promoted as great ways for airports to make friends and monitor the instant reviews travelers are sharing about airport services and amenities, such as meal choices in food courts and the condition of bathrooms.
White said the Atlanta airport is still experimenting with Twitter, but many other airports are already sending out messages, or tweeting, with gusto.
Check out our rockers
I learned that first hand on a recent stop at San Francisco International. A tweet I sent out about my long layover was responded to within minutes by my new friend, “SFOgal”, who wanted to make sure I knew about all the great art and history exhibits spread throughout the airport.
Richard Walsh from Boston Logan International Airport said his airport is also finding new friends via Twitter and Facebook.
“In the last day or so we have discussed on Twitter our cell phone lot, our parking and our rocking chairs ... We post regularly [on Facebook], share photos and even posted a video from the Brandeis University Choir who held an impromptu concert at Logan while waiting for their luggage,” Walsh said. “Things like that help humanize the airport.”
While some airport administrators don’t yet see the value of spending already-stretched staff time communicating with travelers via Twitter and Facebook, Walsh said he heard a lot of buzz about the successes of those tools in the conference hallways. “There are quite a few calls being made to the home office to discuss social media.”
So don’t be surprised if you get a Facebook friend request from your airport before your next flight.
Making friends by being green, artsy and accessible
Even without the latest Web sited du jour, airports are finding new ways to get chummy with customers.
Mirroring the actions of many travelers, an increasing number of airports are going green and adopting earth-friendly practices and procedures ranging from recycling and reducing programs to the installation of major award-winning solar, wind and bio-diesel projects.
Elsewhere, airports in cities such as Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Fla., and Asheville, N.C., are gaining new fans by expanding their exhibition and gallery programs that feature the work of local, regional and national artists. As a bonus, some airports are even making a little extra money by taking a small commission (much less than the 50 percent fee traditional galleries take) on artwork they help sell to travelers.
Eric Lipp, executive director of the Chicago-based Open Doors Organization, shared a low-cost secret for how airports can make life-long friends in the disability community, which includes 22 million people who together spend more than $13.6 billion annually on travel. “When asked ‘What would get you to travel more?,’ the top answer was ‘Staff who go out of their way to help.’ And that doesn’t really cost an airport anything,” Lipp told conference attendees.
And when thinking about travelers with disabilities, Lipp warned airports against assuming that only means people who use wheelchairs or travel with oxygen tanks.
As the population ages, he says, many folks in the baby boomer generation are finding airports are becoming more difficult to negotiate. “Those are people who are not likely to ‘self-identify’ as having a disability,” said Lipp, so he urged airports to make new friends among the travel-savvy boomers by insuring that terminals are welcoming and accessible with easy-to-read signs and posted information about distances between gates.
Ready for anything
Sadly, this week’s airport marketing conference was taking place while the world was learning about the disappearance of Air France Flight 447.
It was more than timely that representatives of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Buffalo Niagara International Airport and Pinnacle Airlines were on hand to share notes about how they communicated with the friends and families of passengers, as well as the public, after the tragic crash of Flight 3407 in Buffalo earlier this year.
Sure, we hope airports and airlines will never need to use emergency communication plans, but it is good to know there are people who have practiced and thought carefully about what to say and do in different situations.
Even our own well-meaning friends sometimes get that part wrong.
Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the , a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for USATODAY.com.