Why don’t airports offer better amenities?

Tyler Cowen wants to know why airports don’t offer showers and other amenities (presumably for a fee) to ease the travel experience.

He links to Megan McArdle’s answer (high cost of space) and offers his own (“Airports will sell goods which are complements” the attention of the wealty, “which is otherwise so hard to get.” although why isn’t advertising on planes even more prevalent such as on overhead bins?).

Some of Tyler’s commenters have already pointed out, though, that desireable facilities often do exist.

Take showers, for instance. Many airport lounges around the world provide them, as a benefit for very frequent flying or with paid membership. Several of these lounges also allow access by the day. The facilities offered, however, are not standard and airlines don’t do a particularly good job differentiating their product (usually seen as a commmodity seat) from the competition for the infrequent customer.

Inside the US, American Airlines lounges frequently offer showers. Day passes cost $50, or can be redeemed as an award in exchange for Business ExtrAA points. (You can earn these in addition to frequent flyer miles when signing up for the program and purchasing tickets at AA.com. About $3000 in paid air travel yields 2 day passes.)

I get access to American’s clubs both as a British Airways Executive Club silver elite member, and with my American Express Platinum card.

Off the top of my head the only United lounge in the US offering a shower is the International First Class lounge in San Francisco (for which you can’t buy a day pass, although nothing will stop you from either buying a refundable international first class ticket, using the facilities, and refunding the ticket… Or asking an unaccompanied passenger entering the lounge to bring you in as a guest.)

Elements of both Megan McArdle’s and Tyler’s explanations ring true.

Competitors don’t undercut pricing because airport space is at a premiuum, adding space is difficult, and politics rather than markets distribute the space and allocate the services. Furthermore, competing airports aren’t built on a whim, and the infrastructure necessary to offer some benefits is rather difficult to plan and build (plumbing).

Less infrastructure-intensive services do exist. Massage chairs and common, often in the middle of heavily trafficed areas. Live massages are offered in the North Satellite terminal in SEATAC. Bars offering liquor for a fee abound. But greater space is necessary for showers, and they’re difficult to plan for and produce.

The product is bundled and sold at a premium. You have access to departure (and even sometimes arrivals) lounges when purchasing business or first class tickets. It’s a component of the luxury good that constitutes the ‘experience’ above and beyond simple transportation that a premium class international airline ticket entails. Take for example Lufthansa’s separate First Class Terminal at Frankfurt. International first customers have sit down dining don’t even re-mix with business class customers upon boarding time — instead being collected and driven directly out to the plane in a Mercedes or Porsche.

The product is expensive to offer. In addition to fixed costs such as plumbing, upkeep on gym equipment and showers is pricey. Substantial use degrades the investment quickly. And the way shower facilities are currently offered, marginal costs are meaningful, too.

Check into a lounge and tell the attendant you’d like to take a shower, you’ll be offered a ‘shower kit’ which ranges in the particulars but will include towel(s), shampoos and other amenities (at nicer facilities, designer-branded such as Bvlgari), flip flops, razors, etc.

The archetypical example of lounge overuse mixed with an unmotivated workforce is the Alitalia lounge in Milan.

When I landed in Milan back in March after an overnight flight in business class, I wanted a shower. Fortunately they had shower kits (they often don’t). Unfortunately the shower had only cold water, and the drain was clogged. The lounge was nearly full. There was a 15 minute line to get up to the bar for a cappuccino. All business class customers and frequent travelers on the national airline can use the facilities, and the facilities are simply not large or robust enough to handle the volume. (On my return I used my British Airways then-GOld status to access their lounge, even though I was flying Alitalia.. Really quite sublime.)

All of this is not to say that nice travel experiences are impossible for the coach passenger. Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport claims to have a lounge available to coach passengers, for instance (I’ve only flown through Bangkok in business and first). And airlines are experimenting with upsells and disaggregating services previously bundled in fares.

Northwest will let you pre-reserve the ‘better’ coach seats for an extra $15 when booking. Most charge telephone booking fees (an extra cost for those who prefer the human touch). Ryanair is even introducing a fee for not checking in online.

To the extent that such fees generate revenue rather than exclusively shifting behavior, it’s perhaps a sign that small charges for better experiences are viable. Perhaps an entrepreneurial opportunity has been uncovered. My hunch, though, is that there aren’t enough people willing to pay incremental costs to make premium services available and offset the revenue lost from disaggregating the bundled services currently purchased through premium fares or accessible by the few in the know.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. The Northwest WorldClub in Detroit offers two showers. You can get in with a $45 day pass, flying WBC, Amex Plat, various lounge memberships, etc.

  2. Yes, that’s why I said the only United lounge *in the US* with showers is the SFO international first class lounge, at least without checking into it..

  3. For all their many faults, BAA’s three London airports all have showers as part of their public restroom facilities landside (at LHR 1, 3 and 4, LGW S and Stansted) – and some terminals (LHR 4 and Stansted) have them airside as well. From potentially unreliable memory, there’s not even a charge if you have your own towel and your own soap.

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