At least they are consistent

As a general rule, I don’t like airports. This is a shame, since I spend so much time in them.

Now I have yet another reason to dislike them, or at least the people who manage them. It seems that some airports are trying to muscle their way into position to overcharge for wireless Internet access.

The basic reason I don’t like most airports is that they were not designed for people to use them. Instead they seem to have been designed so that they are nice to airplanes. Atlanta’s airport, which I had the misfortune to use recently, is a perfect example. It seemed like the designers of the airport never actually used airports. If they did, they wouldn’t have made miles of hallways without providing moving walkways to help people get around.

Atlanta’s airport is not as bad as many. At least it has some semi-reasonable food, even if the food is not well distributed in the terminals. I’ve been in a number of airports where there seems to be a conscious effort to ensure that the food quality is low enough that the food you are offered on the plane will come as a relief. Most airports also try to ensure the food stalls (it is rare that any of them might rise to a level where they might be called restaurants) price their goods at least twice as high as one would find in the rest of the world. Five-dollar hot dogs and $3 Cokes are altogether too common, as are US$7 charges for three-minute pay phone calls. It turns out that airports make a lot of money off of their pay phones.

Money they make by ripping off travelers. But this revenue stream is now under threat. Too many travelers are using cell phones and bypassing the pay phones.

(As an aside, it’s not just the fly-by-night phone companies that participate in this rip-off – the February issue of Consumer Reports says that one of the worst offenders is AT&T Corp.)

According to press reports, the airports are fighting back by restricting cell phone companies from installing their antennas in airport buildings. One airport claims it is doing so out of concern over interference with air traffic control and security systems, but that rationale is suspiciously self-serving. So that crappy connection you get in the airport may not be random chance.

Many of those airports are restricting companies that want to install wireless LANs. At least one admitted that such networks would get deployed as soon as the airport figured out how to make money from them. As a wireless LAN user, this is a pain, but I guess the airports have to uphold their well-deserved reputations.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University