Coming soon to an airport near you: free iPads


This might be the most exciting thing to happen to airports after charging stations and XpresSpa. Very soon three major North American airports are going to have select terminals decked out with about 2,500 iPads(s AAPL) available for anyone’s use. First up will be New York’s LaGuardia, Minneapolis-St. Paul International and Toronto Pearson International.

The presentation of the devices is going to be somewhat reminiscent of Apple Stores: each iPad will be locked to a table so no one wanders off with them. The software will be locked down too, so just the most essential apps will be available for browsing, playing games, checking Facebook, shopping online and a few other things. And this will all be free. The company behind it is OTG Management, who is mostly known for running airport eateries. It will use these iPads as tools to drive customers to its other airport properties like restaurants and shops and — this is the best part — to improve the often dreadful waiting-at-the-airport experience.

The company picked the iPad because it’s the tablet that a lot of people know and like. CEO Rick Blatstein told me, “We’re very bullish on the iPad and customer satisfaction and client satisfaction.”

The idea is for the iPads to become sort of a concierge service that’s integrated with OTG’s restaurants: From gate areas or near their restaurants, anyone can pick up an iPad and track the status of their flight, check to see if it’s delayed or if the gate has been moved. This flight-tracking app will let you know how much time you have before boarding. If it’s 30 minutes or more, it will suggest you find a restaurant to chill out in, if there’s less time than that, it will suggest you grab something to go. Or if you’ve forgotten something you need on the flight, say a neck pillow, you can order one through a pre-installed app on the iPad and the item will be delivered to you in the gate from one of the company’s airport shops. The iPad tables will also double as charging stations, so anyone can recharge their phone or computer while using the iPad pre-flight.

Besides encouraging passengers to eat in OTG’s restaurants, the intention is to make exhausted, angry or harried passengers “feel calm and connected,” said Blatstein. It’s a concept he says the whole company has internalized while developing the project. The code name developers used for it was “Operation Zanax,” he said.

OTG Management has been testing this model at a few gates in New York’s JFK in terminals 2 and 3, and at LaGuardia’s Terminal D. But Minneapolis and Toronto, and more terminals at LaGuardia, will be rolled out over the next 12 to 18 months. Blatstein says he expects the company to buy anywhere between 25,000 to 100,000 iPads as the effort expands to new airports in the U.S., though he declined to say which ones.

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