The last thing Joel Malizia, a co-founder of the video production company Pilot Moon Films, expected when he arrived at the airport in Austin, Texas, for the recent South by Southwest festival was the sound of live music.
What he heard was the ensemble of Wendy Colonna, who describes her musical style as Americana. “It was so ethereal,” he said.
Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is among more than a half-dozen airports in the United States that offer travelers frazzled by bottlenecks on security lines and cramped seating on planes (not to mention pressured airport employees) a bit of a respite in the form of music.
San Francisco International Airport said it is planning on bringing back its Summer Sessions program, which features live musical performances at all its terminals. San Jose brings in musicians to play over the holidays. And the Oakland airport is actively recruiting buskers, whom it positions at the baggage claim in Terminal 2.
“We’re trying to do something to make the customer experience more pleasant,” said Oakland International Airport marketing supervisor Brian Kidd. “Sometimes waiting for bags can be annoying or frustrating, and it’s something to add to the ambience of the space.”
Colonna said her group played at the Austin airport about four times a year as part of the airport’s Music in the Air program. “We don’t have to go on the road to make new fans,” she said. “At the airport, the road comes to us.”
For much of the year, several musical groups perform weekly, but during South by Southwest in March, that number swelled to more than 20, said Michael Pennock, music coordinator for the Austin Aviation Department.
The Aviation Department; Delaware North Cos., a food service and hospitality company based in Buffalo, N.Y.; and Pepsi underwrite the Austin program. The musicians are paid $120 for two 50-minute sets on four smaller stages or $100 per musician for up to five musicians on a main stage on the secure side of the airport.
For a similar program at Nashville International Airport, Music in the Terminal, 80 to 100 bands perform each year on four stages. Last year, Pittsburgh International Airport began hosting two performances a month in the baggage claim area. Houston Airport System created a performance series, Harmony in the Air, with rotating soloists, including classical music and jazz, at William P. Hobby Airport beginning in 2015 and George Bush Intercontinental Airport in 2016. San Diego Airport recently instituted a paid performing arts residency. This year’s winner, TranscenDance, began performances there last month.
The idea is not a new one: After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Portland International Airport in Oregon began hosting musical performances by volunteer musicians and now has 65 performances a week.
The airports’ arrangements with musicians vary. Most pay the performers, although rates may depend on experience, the size of the group and even the difficulty of the genre. Funding comes from a combination of sources. An airport authority may join forces with a corporate partner or a state or municipal arts commission. Houston Airport System has an enterprise fund for operations, maintenance and capital improvements.
While passengers say they appreciate the unexpected interludes, and musicians’ earnings and fan bases may receive a lift from the programs, airports’ decisions to offer performing arts are largely for their own benefit, said Steven A. Carvell, a professor at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration.
“Arts are one of the few things an airport authority can do to control the traveler experience,” he said. “They take the traveler out of the space they are in, so they are not attending to their anxiety.”
A potential for increased profits may also factor into that decision. In airports where entertainment is offered in areas past security lines, the music gives passengers a reason to linger near shops and food and beverage concessions, and to make purchases.
A report released in March by the Airports Council International-North America, a group in Washington representing airport owners and aviation-related businesses, said airports estimated they would need almost $100 billion for capital projects over the next five years. Right now, they can fund only about half that on their own.
“Music provides a better passenger experience and encourages people to arrive earlier,” said Darren Perry, a managing director in the aviation and travel practice at L.E.K. Consulting. “The earlier they arrive, the more money they spend. The money could be used for any number of things, from improving the facilities to making the facilities more comfortable.”
Some passengers, like Donna Seymour, an assistant vice president and account executive at a title insurance company who lives in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., agree. Seymour said that hearing a blues guitarist when she arrived at the Nashville International Airport recently “set the mood for the trip.”
And a performance may reach listeners beyond its in-person audience. Sharjeel Ahsan, a certified public accountant in Houston who said he traveled about six times a year for business, was walking through Hobby Airport in February when he heard strains of classical music.
Before getting something to eat and continuing to his gate, he stopped for about 15 minutes to hear the Apollo Chamber Players. He recorded the segment on his phone and still listens to it.
Matthew J. Detrick, a violinist and artistic director for the Apollo Chamber Players, said the airport gig had helped improve the group’s performances. “It teaches us to break down barriers between audience and performer,” he said.
Maricela Kruseman, the performing arts program manager for the Houston Airport System, said the audition process was competitive. Musicians are expected to have a college degree in music, five years of experience, two professional and two personal references, and must be performing in Houston. (Currently 10 groups perform at two Houston airports.) Other airports have their own criteria; a common requirement is for musicians to reside and have performing experience in a specific city.
For all its entertainment value, music can only go so far in easing passengers’ stress. Barbara E. Lichman, a lawyer specializing in aviation at Buchalter, a law firm in Irvine, said the airlines and the Transportation Security Administration needed to closely examine their contributions to travelers’ anxiety. She pointed to cramped and overcrowded airplanes and what she considered illogical parameters for TSA searches.
“Fix the problems in the industry and don’t coat them over with icing like music,” she said.
Still, Kruseman said, the comment cards she receives are positive. One called a performance “a soothing touch of hospitality to my trip”.
San Francisco Chronicle writer Nicholas Cheng contributed to this report.
Amy Zipkin is a New York Times writer.