Liquids Ban Puts Damper on Profit

NEW YORK -- Since Sept. 11, airport retailers have emerged as an unexpected beneficiary of tighter security, longer lines and earlier flight check-ins -- so much so that airports plowed millions into elaborate new concessions to feed, pamper and entertain passengers who arrive hours before their flight.

But the rules banning the newest tools of terrorism -- liquids and gels -- from the cabins of commercial flights are posing a sudden threat to what seemed like the one air-related business immune from the downturn in travel after the terrorist attacks.

"We did not anticipate this," said Kelly Price, a vice president at Westfield Concessions Management, which runs retail operations at airports in Washington, Virginia, New York and Florida. Until now, she said "it's been a robust market for airport retail."

On Friday, with the newly tightened restrictions in place, hundreds of restaurants, duty-free shops and newsstands scrambled to adapt. At Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, several stores took hand creams and even lip balm off their shelves. At Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, restaurants and newsstands instructed passengers to dump bottled beverages into cups.

Several airport stores simply shut their doors. At the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, a Body Shop closed indefinitely rather than risk selling customers banned products, as did a perfume store at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Among airport officials and store managers, confusion abounded.

"We've taken hand cream and toothpaste off the shelves, put them back on the shelves and taken them back off several times over the last 36 hours," said Nick Biello, president of Delaware North Travel Hospitality Services, which operates 350 shops and restaurants at 25 airports across the United States. "No one is sure."

Exact sales figures were hard to come by, but there were signs that retailers big and small had begun to suffer. At La Guardia Airport in New York City, several newsstand beverage coolers stood half-filled or empty, with bottles of Coke and Snapple banned from moving beyond security checkpoints.

As a result, said Bhuiyan Badrul, who oversees Hudson News stores at the airport, at least 15 percent of his business "is completely lost."

Airport officials, explaining their decisions to take liquid items from store shelves, said they believed it would assist security screeners.

"We can't let passengers obtain them again" after security checkpoints, said Tara Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which oversees Reagan National and Dulles International in Virginia.

The new restrictions are not spelling trouble for all airport retailers. Indeed, some said the new rules had unexpectedly improved their business by encouraging passengers to arrive even earlier, leading them inevitably to wander into clothing stores and gift shops.

Lush, a skin care boutique at the Orlando International Airport in Florida that sells many products now banned on commercial airlines, began offering free delivery to customers' homes Thursday afternoon. Almost immediately, sales rose, with customers spending on average $48, up from $33.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration is allowing items like liquor and perfume on board planes as long as airline or duty-free store personnel deliver it to passengers once they have boarded. That means passengers will no longer be able to receive duty-free items at the gate, as they have in the past.