An airport terminal is like a mirage. It has the appearance of hustle and bustle, but it actually holds no feasible source of entertainment. Food is often wildly overpriced, duty-free shopping with luggage in tow is a burdensome pastime, and besides, who wants to spend tons of money at the airport and not, you know, the destination?
Sitting at your gate with a $12 grab-and-go sandwich, you’ve probably conjured up some easy ways airports could improve their amenities. You’d gladly spend an hour at the gym, or even pay a small fee to snooze horizontally in a napping pod. But perhaps the most logical wish is for a movie theater. Whether it’s a long layover or you’re an anxious flyer who gets to the airport four hours early, a movie theater seems like the ideal way to kill a couple of hours.
A few airports have already integrated movie theaters into their entertainment options, including the Hong Kong International Airport, Changi Airport in Singapore, Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, and Incheon Airport in Seoul. But so far, US terminals aren’t taking the plunge, beyond a few with a handful of offerings from local filmmakers.
So why are US airports so reluctant to give travelers what they want? For one, an airport’s top priority isn’t to provide a relaxing oasis; it’s to generate revenue and promote its home city. And those goals have a lot to do with who owns the airports.
Airports are advertisements for cities
To understand how an airport works, you have to understand who owns and operates it in the first place. Airports are often owned by municipalities that lease the space to an airport authority or a public-private partnership. These partnerships are long-term deals in which the government taps a private company to develop public land. (It’s the same concept as free market roads.)
Terminals within an airport can be operated by airlines or other private companies, even if the entire airport is not.
For example, LaGuardia Airport is owned by New York City but leased to Port Authority, a joint venture between the United States, New York, and New Jersey. However, Terminal B at LaGuardia is being redeveloped by a partnership: Port Authority tapped the private company LaGuardia Gateway Partners to update one terminal of the airport by adding new amenities and modern design elements.
Even if an airport is privately operated, its goals are still much the same. Aside from the primary function of circulating passengers in and out of planes, airports want to generate revenue and advertise their cities.
“What airports are trying to do is celebrate their location,” Robert Chicas, the director of aviation and transportation at the HOK architecture and design firm, says. “Cities want the airport to reflect the region they are in. Arriving in New York should feel different than arriving at in LA or Houston.”
You’ve probably encountered this kitschiness before — a sort of slap across the face with whatever a city’s “thing” is. Nashville International Airport features local musicians playing in the terminal, Portland International Airport in Maine serves Linda Bean’s lobster rolls, and Palm Beach International Airport has a mini-golf course.
So where do movie theaters fit into this travel guide come to life? Pretty much nowhere.
Movies make us forget where we are
One of the reasons we love movies is because they make us forget where we are, which is exactly why airports see no point in investing in them. Travelers may prefer to be on a trash-covered island run by dogs off the coast of Japan, or scouring a market in Wakanda, but that is not what airports prefer. They would like you to be right here in the Windy City or the City That Never Sleeps or the City of Brotherly Love.
Art installations, local coffee roasters, regional restaurants — all of these serve the same function as an “I <3 NY” shirt; they promote a city and therefore are brand-enhancing investments for an airport to make. That can include movies: At the Portland International Airport, travelers can enjoy short films by Oregon filmmakers for free, and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport has a display of eight screens playing films, documentaries, music videos, and art programming by Minnesota filmmakers.
But both of these “investments” in movie theaters fall in the category of thinly veiled tourism ads; they’re not showing the latest blockbusters. This isn’t what travelers who crave movie theaters are asking for, and somehow these offerings could seem even more torturous than not having any movies at all.
Mitch Nadler, the director of commercial development at LaGuardia Gateway Partners, says the company is working to create more recreational spaces in Terminal B, but ones that have clear ties to the city — things like greenery areas that mirror various NYC parks, music, and other “entertainment” acts. Attractions that may convince someone who is just passing through that they need to see more than just the airport during their next stay.
Theaters are too big
Space is at a premium in airports, and movie theaters are big. Can selling tickets bring in the same amount of revenue as selling goods in a duty-free shop of around the same size? So far, Nadler says, the answer seems to be no.
Between operational space and commercial space, theaters are a hefty investment that may not pay off. It would require that the downtime of a traveler perfectly overlapped with the duration of a movie, or they may not think the experience is worth it.
“The question is, are customers going to pay for something if they’re not going to see the whole thing?” Nadler says. “It’s one of those things where customers would be interested in it if it’s available, but might not always be able to access it. I don’t know if customers would be willing to spend the money and it may not make the business viable.”
Nadler adds that when surveying travelers about what they would want in an airport terminal, movie theaters have come up, but there was not a strong demand for them.
Airports don’t trust us
There is a time-sensitive nature to airports that doesn’t exist in other transient spaces. People continually need to check the status of their flight to be sure their gate hasn’t changed or their flight isn’t delayed. There’s a general feeling that while airports want you to be (sort of) comfortable, they don’t want you to be too comfortable, so you remember you actually have to leave (and make room for others who are arriving).
Chicas says the notion that “someone will go into a big, dark room to watch a movie,” and not be concerned with missing their flight is unlikely. “You’re anxious from the moment your trip begins,” he says. “Are you going to get to the airport in time, are you going to hit traffic, are you going to get through security in time?”
Most people meticulously plan their air travel, and even if they pad in a few extra hours, their fear of missing their flight would not allow them to enjoy a movie. And if a movie does happen to alleviate the stress of flying, that may not be a good thing either: Airlines often text updates about boarding, and last-minute messages are relayed over intercom. A movie viewer might not notice these cues and miss their flight, creating an entirely new set of problems.
Movie theaters in airports seem like a good idea until you get into the nitty-gritty of what they’d have to accomplish, which is to be more profitable than a shop or restaurant. But as a flyer who is frequently frustrated by the options presented in terminals, I refuse to think that there is absolutely no way to make it happen.
Airports in Asia have embraced the integration of movie theaters in airports; some hypothesize their operators care more about customer service. It probably has more to do with the fact that the Asia-Pacific region is the largest travel retail market, taking in 45 percent of travel retail revenue in the world. Because retailers are already making so much money, investments in less lucrative amenities aren’t as big of a risk. The Americas, on the other hand, account for just 16 percent of total revenue, so risky moves are less appealing.
Even if traditional ticket-buying methods wouldn’t work, one would think there could be some workarounds. In a time when every company wants to be everything to everyone, couldn’t, for example, an airline partner with MoviePass (or whatever succeeds it) and create a deal where all holders get unlimited access to terminal theaters?
This would give the customer value both in and out of the terminal. A giant movie-travel conglomerate selling a $40 subscription with the promise of never being bored to death in an airport again? I’d buy it.