When spending time in most airports we can’t usually purchase much entertainment or experience even moderate comfort when paying with our precious minutes, hours, and, on some cancelled-flight-occasions, whole days. But the recent announcement from United Airlines and airport restaurant management company, OTG, about changes in design, technology and taste coming to Bush Intercontinental Airport might give us reason to get to IAH a little early to splurge a few extra minutes away on food and — dare we hope? — fun.
On an recent layover in at the Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), I got a sneak peek into IAH’s possible future.
Newark’s Terminal C is another United/OTG venture with the goal of making the airport experience enjoyable while also allowing visitors a culinary taste of the area. OTG brought in local, celebrated chefs to help create unique restaurants throughout the terminals. They have similar plans for IAH Terminal C North Concourse as they team up some of Houston’s favorite chefs and restaurateurs, including Roland Laurenzo, Ryan Pera, Monica Pope, John Nguyen and 2014 James Beard Best Chef Southwest award winner Chris Shepherd.
Yet, I realized after going on a United and OTG-guided walking and tasting tour of the in-progress renovation of Terminal C, that’s it’s not just about bringing good food to an airport. In fact, as we ended our walk-through, I was hit with a strange bit of design deja vu. The trip through the terminal reminded me not of any airport or restaurant I had known, but rather surprisingly of a few luxury casinos I’ve visited in Vegas and Louisiana, and that sense of the familiar lies almost solely with the treatment of time.
All in the Timing
Both the airport and the casino spaces are almost Einsteinian in their time philosophy: it’s all relative for the observer. The casino would rather the visitor (i.e. gambler) forget that time is passing at all and creates an enticing, climate controlled space of no clocks and few if any windows to see the world turning. It’s a world they never want you to leave, even to eat, which leads to all those celebrity chef adjoining restaurants.
The average airport, on the other hand has the problem of what to do with tired travelers, whose only objective is to get on that next plane, ASAP. Waiting for anything can make time feel much slower, but when you’re trapped in a place with nothing to do but eat bad food and fight for those few scattered charging stations, every minute can feel like agonizing hours. But wandering through the EWR terminal, it didn’t feel like I was wasting hours in perpetual waiting. Instead, the environment seems designed to keep the senses so engaged that time seems to speed by.
While many of the restaurants were situated along the walls just like the gates, others were placed in the middle of the wide corridors of the terminal. They had more of a feeling of cool, open air cafes amid the bustle of busy city streets.
Instead of languishing at a crowded gate, you can sit at one of the high chairs at a nearby eatery as you nibble on fresh sushi or a gourmet slider and people watch as travelers from all over the world run to catch their flight to some other place in the world. I found it easy to sink into the illusion that I was taking a refreshing respite on my wonderful journey, forgetting for a few minutes that in actuality I was stuck in an airport. . .in New Jersey.
Every seat at every table comes with its own iPad, so even if the body sits in Jersey, there’s plenty to keep the mind busy and virtually wandering the world. Travelers can check on their flight, play games, view news sites, and sign in to their social media accounts. So like casino design, at EWR, food and electronic play create an atmosphere that disguises the passing of large quantities of time.
Whiling the Wait Away Earning Miles
Perhaps also similar to those casino rewards memberships, the OTG technology also allows patrons to feel like they’re always earning and/or redeeming something of value. Frequent travelers who log in to the system might find food and dining recommendations waiting for the them, and the very frequent United passengers might even be offered an extra treat, perhaps dessert.
The restaurants and shops all take either real money or United mileage points. At the time I visited, Terminal C in Newark had recently debuted its own pop-up shop, fill with specialized travel gear and luxury items. Travelers not paying with points could earn five miles for every dollar. So while you might not absolutely need that cool traveling facial kit, what the hell, you’re earning extra points for more traveling to use the kit.
All in all, my layover in Newark felt like time, if not necessarily efficient, was at least enjoyably well spent, which is saying much for a few hours waiting to catch a plane. It also gave me a pleasing glimpse a year into Houston and IAH’s future. Are we about to enter a time when instead of dreading that wait at the airport, we look forward to getting there a little early to eat and play? Watch that airport space to find out.
CultureMap contributor Tarra Gaines stopped at the Newark Airport on the way to Europe on a travel trip for a select group of writers sponsored by United Airlines.