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New O’Hare upgrades: Easier to get charged, buzzed

Chicago’s newly appointed aviation commissioner has made it her mission to enhance the passenger experience, from the moment air travelers set out for the airport until their flights take off.

On Monday, Ginger Evans took the wraps off $3 million in concession, technology and furniture upgrades at O’Hare Airport tailor-made to make passengers more comfortable.

The makeover runs the gamut, from a new “charging wall” for cellphones and other electronic devices to additional seating, a digital art wall, self-serve “Craft Your Draft” beer taps and multiple liquor carts that allow passengers hustling to catch a flight to grab a beer, a glass of wine or a drink without going to a bar or restaurant.

The improvements also will shorten notoriously long coffee lines at Starbucks and allow consumers to order their food on iPads for speedy pickup and, eventually, for delivery at the gate.

At 11 of its 17 O’Hare locations, Starbucks plans to add state-of-the-art equipment, at a cost of $2 million to the coffee giant, to bring the concession stands up to “current brand standard” capable of offering the “latest menu offerings.”

At four of the Starbuck’s locations, employees wearing headsets will take orders while passengers are standing in line and relay those orders to the barista. That will allow customers to pick up their orders and pay more quickly.

Frontera Grill also plans to debut a mobile “point-of-sale device” that will allow customers to order and pay while standing in line.

Seating in at least one gate area, at Terminal 2 near the United hold room, will be re-arranged to improve traffic flow and add amenities.

It will feature a “mobile design” ceiling, a giant digital screen and re-upholstered furniture organized into different zones that suit a passenger’s mood and purpose. They include a “chill zone,” a “waiting zone,” a “dining zone” and a “market zone.” There also will be a “food concierge” with “remote ordering capability.”

Overnight kits distributed to passengers whose flights are canceled during storms or other unforeseen events are in line for an upgrade, possibly through a sponsorship program.

Rendering of proposed improvements at O'Hare Airport | City Aviation slide

Rendering of proposed improvements at O’Hare Airport | City Aviation slide

Plans are also in the works to add an “I Love Chicago sports” apparel cart, featuring jerseys for the Cubs, Sox, Bears, Bulls, Sky, Blackhawks and Fire.

At the International Terminal, which already has an ultra-modern shopping mall, there’s a plan to bolster duty-free sales by adding free shipping of items either out of stock or too big or delicate for passengers to carry.

The new food court in Terminal 5 will introduce a pager system similar to the one that popular restaurants use to alert waiting diners that their tables are ready.

Aviation Department spokesman Owen Kilmer said some of the improvements will be made immediately. Others, like the new gate area in Terminal 2, will be completed next year. All of the cost will be absorbed by concessionaires.

Kilmer noted that Evans has turned up the heat on O’Hare concessionaires to improve the passenger experience, even as they continue to operate on month-to-month contracts and await a long-stalled request-for-proposals that’s a prelude to long-term concession contracts.

“She’s very concerned about the experience people have from the time they leave the door [of their homes] to the time they take their seat on the airplane. That’s what CDA [Chicago Department of Aviation] is responsible for,” Kilmer said.

“It’s not about what’s wrong [with O’Hare]. It’s about what we can do better. We hope for shorter lines, a better customer experience at concessions and a more worry-free experience once you pass security. We’re cognizant of [the long lines at Starbucks]. We want to ensure that people have a better experience trying to get their morning coffee before an early morning flight.”

Evans telegraphed the impending changes at O’Hare during an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times shortly after she was appointed to replace longtime Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino.

Rendering of proposed O'Hare improvements | City Aviation Department

Rendering of proposed O’Hare improvements | City Aviation Department

“When passengers are waiting to board a plane, you’ll see the queues going out into the circulation areas . . . They’re very crowded, congested. There’s not always sufficient seating. Our retail offerings and food and beverage offerings are smaller in number than they should be. The facility is kind of busting at the seams, particularly during peak periods . . . Additional square footage means additional service. It’s as simple as that,” she said then.

Two weeks ago, Evans talked about using technology to enhance the passenger experience after joining Mayor Rahm Emanuel in unveiling a $248 million makeover that will confront Midway’s biggest weaknesses and passenger annoyances: parking, security and concessions.

On that day, Evans said it was pivotal for the city to “maximize non-airline revenues” to support the investments that airlines need to make “to grow their business.”

“We want to incorporate the use of technology into our concessions, so that people can order on-line and pay on-line and get their food more quickly,” Evans said then.

Asked whether that meant ordering by smartphone or tablet and getting food delivered to passengers waiting at the gate, Evans said, “We’re going to roll that out at O’Hare very quickly before we do [Midway]. But in this [Midway RFP], the tag line is, `We want innovation. We want the best products. We want the best services. We want the best technology in the country, in the world.’ ”