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With food and iPads, overhauling air travel at the gate

With food and iPads, overhauling air travel at the gate

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OTG CEO Rick Blatstein is converting airport holding areas from what he says looks like root canal waiting rooms to places where passengers are treated like kings and queens.

When I talked with OTG CEO and founder Rick Blatstein last week, he said he wasn’t sure whose brilliant idea it was 80 years ago to arrange airport holding area seats in rows and have everyone sit there looking like they’re getting ready to have a root canal. But the idea stuck, and airports around the globe followed suit. Now, Blatstein--whose company already manages 135 food and beverage spots in eight airports—is turning that model on its head. His goal: to overhaul air travel on the ground.

Last November, OTG rolled out its newly renovated Delta terminals at JFK and LaGuardia airports. Dsigned by ICRAVE, the concept focuses on chef-driven restaurants (rather than chains), a new seating structure, power outlets at most seats and iPad stations—so passengers can order food, work and play right at their gate. Restaurants include Croque Madame, Bar Brace, Crust and WorldBean. Click here to see a video of the space.

Best of all, OTG will expand the concept, starting with additional gates at LaGuardia this fall and—if Blatstein has his way—soon spreading to other cities and airlines. It almost makes me excited about flying again.

So the idea behind this concept is that you spend money on iPads and increase sales at restaurants?

We look at the iPads as an additional OTG crew member. The iPads are a large part of our customer service. Our customers are kings and queens. Whatever they want they get. Delta was willing to work with us on this. And this is the first opportunity we’ve had to fully go into the hold rooms.

We now have just over 250 iPads for both airports—JFK and LaGuardia. At JFK we have Terminal 2 and 3 for Delta. At LaGuardia we have two areas in Delta’s Terminal D, which will expand to the entire terminal.

Has that been that an airport rule, the no restaurants in holding areas?

Forever the hold rooms have been off limits to anyone but the airlines. We’ve been in the airport business for a little over 15 years. As I walked around I saw people waiting for their planes. And I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to give them something different—a restaurant experience, place to plug in their laptop, check email on an iPad and have it all right there for them.

I don’t know who said, 80 years ago, we’re going to line up the seats in a row in the hold rooms and have everyone sit there looking like they’re getting ready to have a root canal. And everyone followed this model, all over the world.

People have all kinds of anxieties. Now they have battery anxiety. By offering electrical sockets, it gives them a chance to charge up while they are doing work, to be comfortable, productive and to be right by their gates. It’s the single most desirable piece of real estate, because that’s where all the people are.

So the food is ordered on the iPad and delivered by your staff to the same iPad station?

Yes, you place your order on the iPad, and we’ll also have OTG crew that can take orders on handhelds. Then it’s delivered to you at the station by an OTG crew member. Customers have embraced the iPad ordering immediately, like they’ve done it forever.

Is there a charge for sitting there and surfing the web?

No, it’s free. We’d hope they’d order food or drinks, but if they want to just sit there and play games, or check their flights or connecting flights that’s fine too.

And a time limit?

No time limit, just enjoy yourself. If you look at people’s demeanor, they’re happy again. Delta’s found it’s been wonderful for their customers. At the beginning, Delta said we’ll let you do this if you 1) maintain or increase the number of seats and 2) maintain or increase the aisle space. We’ve been able to do both. Think about a traditional old room, with seats lined up, people having their legs spread out, which takes up a lot of space. We have it where there are work stations and people have their legs in a more natural position under them. So that’s how we created more space. A radical application of common sense.

In your opinion, how bad is the situation with electrical outlets at most airports?

I’m sure you’ve done the same thing I’ve done—sat on the floor next to an outlet and plugged in. Now some airports use poles, and so people stand around the poles. I’ve sat on the floor many times—you can’t get anything to drink, to eat. Give the customers what they deserve.

So the idea is to partner with airlines, not airports.

In this case we’re partnering with Delta. They’ve been a great partner, very proactive and open.

This is one thing an airline can do to improve service that has nothing to do with flying.

You get up in the air and it’s in beautiful planes, but to change that ground experience… It’s such a wonderful opportunity to change the whole vibe of what happens in an airport. Our objective is to change the need to go through the airport security early to the want to go through the security early.

What about expansion plans?

There’s been a great demand in talking to other airlines, in other airports. We thought it would work, but it has exceeded our expectations in sales. Come fall, we’ll have 500 iPads between [JFK and LaGuardia].

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure