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Originally published Tuesday, November 12, 2013 at 11:52 AM

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A winter innovation: Check your coat at the airport

Some little things are a big help to passengers, including winter coat storage at Frankfurt and Korea airports.


The New York Times

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It’s getting cold in the Northern Hemisphere, and that means we are about to enter the Winter Campaign in the overhead bin wars.

With passengers stowing all those coats on jampacked airplanes, it’s more difficult than ever to claim space in the overhead bins for carry-on bags. Ask any flight attendant about that challenge. But one international airport has come up with an idea that in a small way addresses the question of what to do with that bulky coat.

Check it, just as in a restaurant.

That would be Frankfurt Airport, Germany’s main hub and, with 57.5 million passengers last year, the third-busiest in Europe after London Heathrow and Paris Charles de Gaulle. Frankfurt recently expanded a winter-coat service that it introduced last year as a holiday promotion. “Because of the positive feedback, we started the special coat offer earlier this year,” said Robert A. Payne, an airport spokesman. “Previously, passengers didn’t really think of checking their winter coats.”

Another coat-check service is offered by Korean Air for its passengers at Incheon International Airport in South Korea. It’s very popular, said Penny Pfaelzer, an airline spokeswoman. “Who wants to lug a winter coast to Hawaii?” she asked.

Of course, a service like this makes sense mainly for passengers departing from cold-weather locations on round trips to warm-weather destinations. In most such places, driving to the airport and leaving a coat in the car solves the problem — but lots of people in Europe and Asia take public transportation to the airport. Frankfurt, for example, has a dense catchment area (basically, its market) that encompasses nearly half of the population of Germany, and is well served by high-speed connections.

The standard daily price for checking a winter coat at Frankfurt is 50 euro cents, about 67 cents in the United States. At Incheon, Korean Air provides it free to passengers.

Yes, it’s a tiny amenity, but to me it helps underscore how airports have evolved in recent decades from basically giant, glorified bus stations to places where customer service and marketing innovation often shine. At many airports, the managers are thinking creatively about these things — and for all customers, not just the premium-status ones the airlines focus so much on.

Ask any frequent business traveler about airport preferences and amenities and you’ll get an earful. Yes, we all have our top airports to hold in disdain (hey, I’m talking to you, La Guardia). But we all also have our favorites, and amenities are a big part of that.

Most business travelers who fly internationally will agree with the World Airport Award listings compiled annually from details reviews by the British research company Skytrax. We may quibble over specific ranks and argue that the Skytrax results are heavily weighted to airports outside the United States, but yes, in general the global airports held in the highest esteem include Singapore Changi, Incheon, Amsterdam Schiphol and Hong Kong International. You undoubtedly have your own candidates.

No airport in the United States, by the way, makes the 2013 Skytrax list until No. 30 — Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky, though Vancouver (B.C.) International, at No. 8, does put a North American airport in the top 10.

But back to the coat-check innovation, which shows that new ideas can make air travel less burdensome — and add just a tiny bit to the revenue airports generate from passenger services, as opposed to airline operations. In the United States, that revenue has been growing robustly, up 59 percent over the last 12 years to $16.9 billion in 2012, according to the Airports Council International-North America.

About two-thirds of that comes from parking, ground transportation and rental car concessions, and the next biggest chunk, about 16 percent, from food, beverage and retailing. About 5 percent comes from miscellaneous services. And a roomful of checked coats obviously is pretty small change.

But it’s there for you, at least at Frankfurt. Many major airports offer services to check suitcases for limited periods of time ($4 to $16 a day at Kennedy in New York; $6.50 to $24 a day at Heathrow), but coat-checking looks like an idea that could work elsewhere. Coin-operated airport lockers still are available at some airports abroad, but they mostly disappeared at domestic airports after a terrorist explosion in a locker at La Guardia in 1975 killed 11 and injured more than 70.

Will it spread? “Well, it’s an interesting thought, but a very limited market,” said Michael Sommer, a technology consultant who travels frequently. But like any seasoned traveler, he also saw some potential bumps in the road. “What if you’re leaving from Frankfurt to Miami in February, but you get diverted to Boston?” he asked. “Or Moscow?”

Still, he agreed that it showed the value of innovation at airports. And he had an idea, too: “Why can’t they also offer you dry-cleaning service at the coat check?”



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