by Al Sacco

A brief history of the humble airport cell phone lot

May 04, 2016
Consumer ElectronicsMobilePhysical Security

In addition to heightened security, the horrific Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks resulted in at least one more enhancement to the modern air travel experience: the cell phone lot.

Family in silhouette waving goodbye at airport
Credit: Thinkstock

I write a lot about mobile phones. Cell, smart, dumb, flip, landline, rotary, clamshell, Garfield, candy bar, phablet. If it’s a type of phone, I’ve written about it over the past decade.

As a former dedicated mobile and wireless beat writer, and a current editor who still regularly dons a reporter’s cap, I also travel quite a bit. That means I spend a good amount of time in and around airports. During a recent business trip to San Francisco (for Samsung’s annual Developer Conference), as I returned to the city’s airport at the break of dawn for my flight home to Boston, a familiar sight caught my eye upon arrival: the SFO cell phone lot sign.

Cell phone lots don’t get as much love as they deserve, I thought, remembering the ol’ days when my mother would pack my little brother and I into our station wagon and circle the labyrinthine Logan airport byways for what felt like days, waiting to pick up my father following his regular weekly business trips. The experience was often excruciating. Today, most folks don’t have to suffer such cruel and unusual punishment, thanks to the humble airport cell phone lot — and, of course, the advent of the mobile phone.

What is an airport cell phone lot?

Most frequent travelers, or folks who regularly transport road warriors to and from airports, have likely spent a fair amount of time in a cell phone lot or two. However, if you’re unfamiliar with cell phone lots, here’s Wikipedia’s succinct definition:

“A cellphone lot is a parking lot, typically located at airports, where people can wait before picking up passengers. The purpose of these lots is to reduce congestion at arrival sections by preventing cars from continuously circling around the airport.”

Two important details Wikipedia omitted: cell phone lots are typically free to use; and there are almost always time limits on parking, usually between 30 minutes and an hour.

Why are they called ‘cell phone lots?’ 

The term “cell phone lot” comes from the idea that most people who park there anxiously await mobile phone calls or messages from travelers who are ready to be picked up at the appropriate arrivals terminal after they exit their planes, hit the restroom, (possibly have a quick libation) and pick up any checked baggage.

Where was the first cell phone lot, and when did it open?

Cell phone lots are a relatively new airport amenity, and they’re a direct result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City. Transportation security and airport officials realized the need to keep people in vehicles from idling in and around airport terminals, causing congestion and confusion for police and others who patrol the area. So they came up with the idea to create separate waiting areas.

In 2004, West Coast airports, including Los Angeles International and Seattle-Tacoma International were among the first U.S. airports to offer such lots, according to USA Today and other sources. Today, the majority of major U.S. airports have cell phone lots, with a few notable exceptions, including New York LaGuardia.

Evolution of the airport cell phone lot

Today, cell phone lots have many more features than the earliest iterations of the mid-2000s. For example, many have restrooms, free Wi-Fi, basic auto repair services, electric car charging stations, digital signage with relevant flight information and vending machines.

In 2012, Tampa International’s cell phone lot, called “the best cell phone lot in the country” by a particularly enthusiastic Foursquare user, started to offer rotating food trucks, though this does not appear to still be the case. Other notable cell phone lots at airports including Tucson International and California’s Long Beach Airport followed Tampa’s example and have also offered Food Truck fare, according to CNBC.

The next time you find yourself pulling up to a U.S. airport to pick up a friend or family member, keep an eye out for the trusty cell phone lot sign.