When Arlington resident Doug Carr is delayed at the airport, he heads to a restaurant, finds a seat facing the terminal and enjoys the free entertainment. “Airports are hubs of creativity. You see a lot of amazing things,” said Carr, 54, senior vice president at the National Business Aviation Association who flew at least 200,000 miles annually for work before the pandemic. “People-watching at the airport is always fascinating.”
For fliers experiencing a delay or layover, waiting in an airport can be a test of patience. And with airline bookings up and unemployment down, there could be more delays during summer, the busiest travel season, as companies cope with crowds, weather and staffing shortages. Passengers stuck in a huge hub have more options to pass the time, such as an art museum (San Francisco), yoga room (Chicago O’Hare) or a virtual driving range (Minneapolis-St. Paul). But those captive in a midsize or small airport may need to be creative to run out the clock.
After trying to rebook their flight or negotiate compensation with the airline for the delay or cancellation, travelers can keep themselves occupied by following this advice from frequent fliers.
Conduct research. John Leoni, 53, a pilot for FedEx in Memphis, recommends viewing the airport directory to devise a plan. “That’s your whole world,” Leoni said. Peruse the list of shops, restaurants and services on your phone or on a board in the terminal. Airport websites and apps will list hours of operations for shops and services; some filter choices by whether the businesses are found inside or outside security checkpoints.
Take a walk. Bobby Esposito, 27, flies two or three times each month as a referee with the U.S. Hockey League. He uses delays to hit 10,000 steps, sometimes while making calls for his other job as an investment adviser.
“I know I will be sitting for a couple hours on a plane, so I might as well move before I get stuck in that metal tube of an airplane,” said Esposito, of Manville, N.J.
Lisa Williams, 51, who has been a flight attendant with a major U.S. airline for 31 years, keeps a pair of light sneakers in her bag. She changes out of her heels and walks around the airport while catching up on podcasts. If you only have dress shoes with you, Carr suggests looking for carpeted areas that will be easier on your feet.
Call someone. The first thing Bill Whiting, of Long Island, does during a delay is call his mother. The wine educator and producer has flown nearly 4 million miles over 25 years and has logged countless conversations with mom. Whiting, 54, phones friends, too, sometimes engaging in a 20-minute chat, other times leaving a quick voice mail. “It’s the thought that counts,” he said.
Shop strategically. Hilary Munson, a travel director for conferences, looks for a place to buy a puzzle magazine. “Each of those puzzles can take time and focus,” said Munson, 51. If there’s an electronics store or kiosk, she will do some research, such as learning about ear buds. “I’m not buying them, but I might as well educate myself,” the Tampa resident said.
Whiting looks for local goods, such as chocolates, magnets and T-shirts, to buy as gifts for future birthdays. Carr finds diversions in pop-ups or tables offering travel gear or local products. “It’s always fun to discover those opportunities when I’m in the airport,” he said.
Ride the airport train. If the airport has a train, D.C. resident Catherine McMahon finds it. Whether the tracks take her to another terminal or long-term parking, McMahon relaxes during the ride. “I’m fascinated by transport, and you can see other parts of the airport or a plane unloading luggage,” said McMahon, 52, who has traveled to 53 countries as an international development consultant.
McMahon prefers outdoor trains, such as Frankfurt, Germany’s, but is intrigued by the indoor rail line that runs through Concourse A in McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. At about one mile long, it is the second-longest terminal in the world. The ExpressTram can move almost 4,300 people per hour in each direction, according to Delta Air Lines, which operates the train.
Visit the chapel. Escape the bustle of the terminal at the airport chapel, which is usually nondenominational, relaxing and pretty. “It’s a really quiet place to catch your breath,” said Tiffany Thompson, a flight attendant for a major U.S. airline who lives in Louisville. Visitors “use those rooms for meditation and to get away from the general public,” said Thompson, 50.
Talk to strangers. Munson, who is outgoing, chats with people waiting at the gate. “You become, like, this team, and you’re sharing information. It’s very easy then to strike up a conversation,” said Munson, who lived in Bethesda for eight years.
Whiting looks for anyone dressed with the logo of his alma mater or his favorite sports teams, and he uses that as a conversation opener. “You can tell by their energy level if they’re into it or not,” Whiting said. “But it can be a mistake, because they may want to talk your ear off.”
Do an act of kindness. Helping someone may brighten both your moods. Thompson always has magazines with her. “If I see a parent struggling — we’ve all been there — I’ll hand the kids the magazine and say, ‘Tear out every picture of a dog in the magazine and give it to me,’ ” said Thompson, a mother of two.
Other ideas include loaning a phone charger, buying someone a cup of coffee or helping with a language barrier. “Just be a little more aware. You’re not alone here. You’re all in the same boat,” Thompson said.
Whiting approaches people in a military uniform or a Vietnam War hat to say thank you. “It makes those people feel good. It makes me feel good,” he said. “It’s tiny things that make a huge difference.”
Entertain your children. Many airports (including Boston Logan and Chicago O’Hare) have designated play areas for children. If you’re not lucky enough to be stuck in one of them, find the airport’s visitor center to ask about trinkets and toys. Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, for example, offers coloring books, crayons, playing cards and, recently, Slinkys. “We give them something to remember us by,” said Greg Kelly, executive director of the Savannah Airport Commission.
Leave. Munson takes the free airport shuttle to a nearby hotel and hangs out in the lobby. “It’s totally worth it to be more comfortable than sitting in a place where it’s hard chairs and they’re yelling over your head every few minutes,” she said. “Use that as your personal sky club, as long as your delay is long enough.”
Williams noted that the hotel restaurant may have better food at a cheaper price, be less crowded and offer free WiFi. For a very long wait, book a room at a day rate to nap, watch TV or allow children to hop on beds. “It’s expensive, but it is an option,” Williams said.
Thompson recommended checking with an airline agent to determine whether it’s safe to leave. Don’t exit if the delay is for mechanical problems, Leoni said. “I wouldn’t stray too far,” he said. “Things could change for the better very quickly.”
At least one can hope.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.