Global Economy

Inside US airport terminals, banks are merging elite travel clubs with branch offices

Nicolette Nelson was running late for her return flight to Fairbanks as she sprinted towards her gate at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG). Overcome by a medical issue, she didn’t make it to her gate and wound up spending the night in a Cincinnati hospital. By the next day, she had recovered and awaited her flight home, but it was repeatedly delayed.

So Nelson spent hours of her delay in a quiet cubicle in an unlikely place — a bank — waiting for her flight and wiling away the time on electronic devices.

“It’s been really, it’s quiet and that is what I need,” Nelson said.

Fifth Third Bank was trying to appeal to this type of traveler when it rechristened its 40-year-old CVG branch last month as a combination lounge and lending center. Weary travelers and constantly working entrepreneurs stake out prime spots in the bank away from the airport hubbub, while corporate travelers use the center to squeeze out more business.

“One woman wanted to rent my office to work,” remembers Lisa Slocum, the airport Fifth Third Bank branch manager. Slocum directed the woman to other options in the branch.

Other customers use the bank on a purely transactional basis. On a recent day, Hannah Thelen and her mother, Ashley Thelen, were passing through on their way to Spain and stopped in to convert currency.

“I love the central location,” Ashley Thelen said as she converted dollars to euros. 

It’s a central location for a flyer, but a maze of trams, moving sidewalks, and concourses need to be navigated to get to it in Terminal B, and it is past the TSA checkpoint, so the branch doesn’t get customers off the street.

Fifth-Third Bank isn’t the first financial institution to create an airport lounge vibe. Capital One closed its branch at Washington, D.C.’s Dulles International Airport in 2020, instead creating “airport lounges” for cardholders in Dulles, along with similar spots at airports in Denver and Dallas. The lounges offer amenities on par with an airline rewards club but are only for Capital One card holders, and banking services are not a part of the experience like they are at Fifth-Third’s CVG branch.

Capital One Lounge inside Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C.

Capital One

If CVG were a city, it’d be the fourth or fifth largest in Kentucky on most days, with 16,000 workers employed on the airport campus daily, according to Mindy Kershner, CVG’s senior manager of communications, plus the nine million passengers going through the gates yearly. That’s a lot of potential banking customers. Yet full-service airport bank branches are a relative rarity, surprising in a retail landscape that often resembles an upscale mall more than a terminal.

Wings Credit Union has a small full-service branch at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, and Wings Vice President of Marketing Brent Andersen said the branch is also more about serving the large number of airport employees who are members than the traveling public. He adds, however, that in terms of visibility and advertising, even with the higher airport rent, the branch is a no-brainer.

“We’d have to spend a lot more in other advertising to get that kind of visibility,” Andersen said, crediting the branch with also landing new members.

For Fifth Third Bank, and a handful of other retail banking players, the airport branches are more than just expensive advertising for the brand (though that’s certainly part of the appeal). They are also functional financial centers, and in a digital era when bank branches are under existential scrutiny, some financial companies are betting on airports as a viable and visible place to keep their shingle hung.

Big banks are adding hundreds of branches

The banks and credit unions adding airport branches are just another indicator that the long-predicted demise of in-person banking at the hands of digital isn’t happening exactly as expected. The long-term trend is still less retail footprint, but branches have been staging a bit of a comeback. In fact, FDIC data shows that 2023 saw the first annual gain in branch count nationwide, to nearly 70,000, in a decade. This rebound comes as banking giants JPMorgan Chase and PNC have announced plans to open more branches — Chase up to 500, plus 1,700 renovations, while PNC is adding 100 new branches and renovating another 1,000 at a cost of $1 billion over the next three to five years.

When Fifth Third Bank, the nation’s tenth-largest bank by deposits, rechristened its 40-year-old CVG location last month, it did so with plenty of local media coverage, cementing its commitment to airport banking.

“There are very few full-service branches in airports, and this is one of a kind,” said John Sieg, regional retail executive for Fifth Third Bank. The bank is trying to create something like Delta’s Sky Club, except with on-site banking — cashing checks, checking balances, and converting currency — and open to all. And you won’t get dinged with an overdraft fee for lounging on their sofas.

“Our objective is for travelers to have a place to do their full-service banking and hang out with us. They could hang out with us all day if they have a delayed flight. We have had customers that have done it,” Sieg said.

Wells Fargo operates a full-service branch in Las Vegas’s Harry Reid International Airport, and according to a bank spokeswomen, has a multi-year relationship with the airport that involves both the branch and multiple ATMs throughout terminals. Although Wells Fargo had little to say about the branch, it’s not difficult to imagine why it might be popular in Vegas, where slots are as much a part of the landscape as espresso machines.

Truist Bank, formerly SunTrust, operates a full-service bank branch at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where serving customers remains a top priority, but Brian Davis, director of consumer and small business banking communications, also noted that being at the airport provides the bank with “a high level of brand visibility for the millions of passengers who pass through.”

Still, not everyone in the industry is sold on mixing anxiety about getting through security and to the gate on time with personal finance.

“I think it’s a bad idea,” says Paul McAdam, senior director of banking and payments intelligence at analytics firm J.D. Power. McAdam says ATMs and advanced-function kiosks are one thing, but a full-service branch, except maybe in the largest markets, is overkill. JFK Airport in New York City has three credit unions in its terminals.

“I sense that bank branches in airports would handle a lot of transaction volume but very little value-added volume of customers looking to open accounts or receive advice. Who wants to open a new account in an airport?” McAdam said.

Financial giants are testing the concept of bank-branded destinations more widely. Capital One has opened some cafes in New York that cater to the remote worker, offering a financial vibe without vaults of money and tellers watching your every move. 

With most travelers focused on traveling, Fifth Third conceded that banking isn’t top of mind for many airport customers. Sieg says the CVG branch does about 1,700 transactions a month.

“That is probably on the smaller side of what a transaction count would be at a traditional bank mart or office,” he said, but the visibility of the branch makes up for lower volume.

The branch offers an array of spaces, including a service bar where travelers can tap away at their tablets while watching coffee-clutching, harried travelers racing for their gates. The bank also includes a fully private office with phones, a hydration station, sofas, and overstuffed chairs, an enticement for remote workers. 

“Regardless of whether you are a customer or a non-customer, we wanted to put out the best welcome sign we could have. Everybody is invited and can use this space,” Sieg said.

However, if someone feels a need to apply for a mortgage during their layover or open a savings account, the branch has that functionality.

The rise of airport lounges


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