An Unusual Airport Occurrence

I was at O’Hare airport yesterday and saw something very unusual: a person actually using a pay phone.

Airports have enormous numbers of pay phones which, if you observe them, go virtually untouched. At best you will see a senior citizen using one from time to time (as I did yesterday).

The pay phone is one invention whose time has largely come and gone. I don’t know the numbers, but I can’t believe anybody is making money from airport pay phones anymore. It must be more trouble to take them out than to leave them.

Whoever runs O’Hare has put in a lot of nice touches for travelers. There are the neon lights in the tunnel from terminal B to terminal C. (Although it used to be much more fun when accompanied by music … does anyone know why they stopped the music?) There are play areas for kids, and a large dinosaur replica.

But one of the best things they’ve done — which I have never seen anywhere else — is to rip out the banks of pay phones and replace them with an airport’s most precious and elusive commodity: electrical outlets. I am constantly prowling around airports looking for a way to recharge my computer, cell phone, or beloved iPod. If you have ever looked, you will know that one common denominator of airports is a scarcity of public electrical outlets.

Where the phone banks once were, O’Hare has placed chairs, a counter, and rows of outlets. These work spaces are now far more crowded than any of the airport’s bars.

What a great idea. I suspect we’ll see this same phenomenon popping up in airports everywhere.

Matt Nicholson

In London pay-phones have become far more important for the advertising of local prostitutes than as places where you might phone someone. So much so that anyone seen entering one is viewed with suspicion - particularly if they then use a mobile phone to make the call...


Here in NYC, they're still used and useful in subway stations, where the cellular radio signal doesn't reach...


what's a pay phone?


I hope they don't take out all the pay phones. Too often we make decisions to serve the 99% but forget the 1%. If you don't have a cell phone on you for whatever reason, it would really suck to be the 1% and have to beg strangers to borrow a cell phone.


I think people using payphones have dead batteries on their cell phones.
Either that or they finally figured out how to turn them OFF for the flight but could not figure out how to turn them back ON. (yes I know people like that)

The music is normally on in the United tunnel, but I have noticed that since they have emerged from bankruptcy, the tunnel is not high on their maintenance list. Half the neon is out as well.
The tunnel is maintained by United.
Incidently does anyone remember the original music that was played when the C concourse opened with the neon? It lasted about a day because people complained that it sounded like a funeral dirge and they felt like they were being transported off to be slaughtered. Now it is (or is supposed to be) that "tinkly" Gershwin tune that use for their "theme".


Hotels have the same problem. Hotels tend to change hands fairly often, and when that happens, a re-design generally takes place, and the architectural inset for the payphones gets a workover, often to accommodate electrical outlets and phone jacks, as SD describes. But they've also turned them into coat closets, diaramas touting local tourist attractions, and -- in their best possible reincarnation -- an extra bar area.

And for the record, I agree with wk633.


I don't know if it was from terminal B to C, but I walked through one of the psychedelic tunnels about a month ago, and it had music...


In the Denver airport recently I saw a group of what I assumed were Mormon missionaries on their way to Russia using the pay phones. That is, several young men, with crew cuts and cheap suits, thumbing through Russian disctionaries were all using the pay phones...


In Europe, where telecoms are more heavily regulated, maintaining a set number of payphones is sometimes required by their licences. Lacking more specific directives, a row is cheaper to service than a scattered network, and an airport is a relatively safe place - the phones are less likely to be vandalised.


A: there is only one psychedelic tunnel at OHare and that is United's

B: I have a friend who has had some sort of PayPhone business for years.
I have asked him who uses the pay phone in this day and age and how he makes money. He seems to do very well. He will not tell me anything about his PayPhone business. grrr....


Shockingly, there are a few of us who still don't have a cell phone. For me, there are very few times (maybe once every two months) where I think a cell phone would be useful, and for those cases, a pay phone works out fine.

About 15 years I stated that I'd get a cell phone when they were basically credit-card sized (so that I could carry it in my wallet, and it would flip open to the size of two credit cards) and the low-usage service was $5/month or less. I figure I have about another 7 years to go...


There's only one Pyschedelic Tunnel at O'hare, but the poster might have been thinking about the similar psychedelic tunnel at DTW: (


does anyone know why they stopped the music?

Maybe they realized that not every waking second of life has to be accompanied by someone else's idea of a sound track?

Bravo to whoever turned it off. Now for the remaining 99% of public, retail and commercial spaces...


What I wonder is why airports don't offer other coin operated distractions like video games and televisions. Airports are bursting with people trying to kill time and the most common sources of entertainment are reading materials, portable music devices and bars/food courts. Sometimes a gate will have a television playing the news with the volume turned down but why doesn't Sony or NBC partner with an airline to put in a lounge or a viewing room open to the public?
Sony would be able to put their latest flat screens on display, NBC could play episodes of its up and coming sit-com to an audience desperate for something to watch that might not have given the show a chance were they flipping through the channels at home. Lastly, the airline would benefit because an entertained passenger would be less inclined to complain about a delayed flight than someone whose only option is to be alone with their thoughts, which will inevitably turn to how poorly the airline is run.
What stops videogame developers from putting game consoles in airports like they do at Best-Buy?
Coin operated TV's and video arcades seem like they would be a cash cow in an airport but the benefits to the manufacturers and the networks of having access to hoards of people looking to be captivated by something, anything, would be priceless.
Is there something like this going on that I haven't seen, or is there some reason why this idea is impractical?



I would think airports are the perfect place to still have payphones. Many travelers from overseas will not be able to use their cell phones out of their home countries.


What stops videogame developers from putting game consoles in airports like they do at Best-Buy?

Three words: first person shooters (-:


I've always assumed payphones were for overseas travelers.

Until my most recent trip, I hadn't been able to justify carrying my mobile to a country it didn't work in, just so I could call my ride when I got back home. Of course, I was stranded at Hartsfield airport last week when I realized the money I would have used for the payphones was all in Turkish Lira - I ended up having to borrow another passengers phone!


I don't think the payphone is dead as much as it non-mainstream. Every public place should have at least 1 for a someone who has lost a cell phone, doesn't have a cell phone, or if their cell phone has run out of batteries. I think it is still a necessity for airports to have payphones. However, I completely agree that we don't need them in the quantity that was necessary 25 years ago. We could probably halve the payphones and be fine. Secondly, you're right. Electrical outlets rock.


How about a little economics here? I think I have a handle on the economics of the payphone. Fewer people need it today. It's expensive to service small numbers of pay phones. But there's also a public good aspect to payphones. So there's plenty to say about it.

What about electric outlets? Why should the airport install them? Who should pay for them? What are the economics of why airports have few outlets and why some are starting to have more?


I didn't replace my cellphone when I came to Germany 3 years ago. For a long time I didn't have a landline. It feels wonderful being able to walk out of the house and be uncontactable. The number of times I need to contact someone at short notice while out of the house is VERY small -- perhaps a couple of times a year. The number of times people decide they need some trivial question answered IMMEDIATELY, whether I want to talk to them or not, is rather larger. Holidays are one time when even people who must generally be contactable would be much better off leaving the cellphone at home -- and since so many people on holiday go through airports, the airports should humor them and keep at least a couple of payphones in operation.