Layover at Laptop Lane

A new airport office service makes time spent waiting for connecting flights a bit more productive for business travelers.
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Nelson Reeves had a fax to send but no fax machine to send it. The 43-year-old certified public accountant was on a trip from his West Palm Beach, Fla., home to meet with a client in Milwaukee. He had made some handwritten notes on the plane and, while on a layover in the

Delta Air Lines

(DAL) - Get Report

terminal at the

Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport

, decided to wait to fax the notes to his office until after he touched down in Wisconsin.

But before boarding his connecting flight, he happened upon what has become an oasis for the business traveler wanting to get caught up with some work while stuck on a layover.

Laptop Lane

is just down from Gate B-20 in Delta's Concourse B, an airline terminal that has made the two-decade transformation from bus station to shopping mall. It's a concept spreading to airports around the country.

"Can I use a fax here?" Reeves asked the concierge. Reeves could, and did. Within 10 minutes, he was back in the terminal waiting for his flight.

Faxing documents is just one of the services customers can rent at Laptop Lane for 38 cents a minute, with a minimum of $2. In each six-by-six-foot private cubicle workstation -- complete with a lock and seven-foot walls -- there is, along with the fax machine, a desk, a telephone, a computer loaded with Internet connections and office software and a laser printer. Customers can make long-distance calls and connect to the Net for no extra charge, making it easy to retrieve and return voicemail messages or send and receive email.

The cubicles are equipped with a T-1 line, which enables high-speed hookups to the Internet, and a power supply to charge up a laptop's battery and keep it going once a traveler is back on the plane. A number of additional services are offered, including copying, binding or scanning documents.

"It's a great idea," said Reeves as he paid $3.80 for the 10 minutes he spent faxing his notes. "This is the first time I've ever seen one. I wish they were in more airports." That's exactly the plan, says the management of Seattle-based Laptop Lane.

The company was founded three years ago by a group of former executives and consultants who had backgrounds in the advertising, consumer goods, oil, architecture and design industries: Bruce Merrell, Grant Sharp, Mark McNeely and J'Amy Owens. All traveled thousands of miles a year and had grown frustrated trying to find space to get some work done in airports, or even just locating an outlet or phone jack for a computer.

"They took what seemed to be a pretty simple idea -- giving business travelers a place to work in airports -- and made it happen," says Wendy Boehm, vice president of marketing at Laptop Lane.

The first location opened at the Cincinnati airport in May 1998. Mike Mullaney, director of concessions for the

Kenton County Airport Board

, the local airport authority, says Laptop Lane filled a niche for the airport. "We spent about two years looking for a provider that could give frequent business travelers and salespeople a functional, traditional office environment where they could be productive," he says. Finally, he read a proposal from Laptop Lane. "Nobody else was even close," Mullaney recalls. "Some companies have a kiosk where somebody can swipe a credit card and surf the Net.

Laptop Lane is like going to the office. There's never been anything like it in airports."

Although major airlines offer similar services in their airport clubs, Laptop Lane targets those who don't go to the clubs. And not all the services Laptop Lane offers are available in the clubs.

The company is targeting the nation's 60 largest airports. Laptop Lanes have opened at Chicago's O'Hare, Atlanta, Seattle and Denver, and they're under construction in New York's LaGuardia Airport, Philadelphia and Phoenix. Leases have just been signed in Tampa and Detroit, and deals are in the works for Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, El Paso, New York's JFK, Los Angeles and Portland, Ore. "We'll be in 13 locations by the end of the year, with 100 airport locations in the next five years," Boehm confidently forecasts.

What's more, some airports will have more than one Laptop Lane. Cincinnati just signed an agreement for three more locations.

Now the company is moving toward locating in convention centers. Talks have begun with the

Javits Center

in New York and Chicago's

McCormick Place Convention Center

. "We're looking at 500 convention centers," says Boehm.

If you think Laptop Lane is a good idea that should have been obvious and is worth repeating, join the club.

Inc.

magazine has speculated that large hotel chains or airlines could turn into competitors with their own versions of the office-away-from-home concept. That's why Laptop Lane is moving quickly and trying to get into as many airports as possible, though franchising hasn't been discussed -- at least not publicly.

The company wants to establish beachheads and build a brand name, says Laptop Lane's training manager, Jane Marlo-Donlin. "We're the first and we want to build on our identity with the customer," she explains. "How many people say, 'Give me a Coke' when ordering a soft drink? We want people to get off a plane and start looking for the Laptop Lane."

Of course, it has taken

Coke

(KO) - Get Report

most of this century to build up and maintain that kind of brand-name recognition. Laptop Lane is a pioneer and appears to have a good product, but that's going to draw some bigger competitors.

For now, however, it's the only game in town. During three visits over the past month or so to the Cincinnati Laptop Lane, I found the dozen or so customers I talked to intrigued with the idea and generally pleased with the service. "It's really convenient," said Dennis Jones, 31, a computer consultant for

PricewaterhouseCoopers

from Jackson, Miss. "I did everything here I do in my office."

But some nonbusiness travelers think the prices are too high. Jim Axelson, 31, a student of Asian studies from Portland, Ore., was heading to Los Angeles last week and stopped in Cincinnati, where he used Laptop Lane to check his email. "It's nice and convenient, but it's a little pricey for somebody like me who just wants to check or send an email," he said. "They should have a lower rate based on some of the services you use."

The company's management says 2000 will be a big growth year for Laptop Lane as it strives to make hitting the road a little easier for business travelers by providing a place to work and to use the latest technology.

To that end, the type of comfort a traveler gets from staying on top of the job while away from the office is reflected in Laptop Lane's motto: Peace, Quiet and a T-1 Line.

Patrick Crowley is a political reporter and columnist for The Cincinnati Enquirer. At time of publication, he held no position in any securities mentioned, although holdings can change at any time. Crowley can be reached at

crowleys@cinci.infi.net.