Your flight is delayed and you're stuck with no e-mail voila, a business is born

On a recent summer afternoon at Los Angeles International Airport, Lisa Bercovici was dreaming of llamas. The Los Angeles lawyer was supposed to be on a plane to San Francisco, where she was planning to catch a ride to Redding, the starting point for a backpacking trip through the Trinity Alps. Like many travelers passing through LAX, Lisa learned that her flight was delayed.

That's when she stumbled into the Gate Escape.

Beyond the security gates in Terminal 8, the Gate Escape has opened the first of several specially equipped stores. No traditional retail outfit, the Gate Escape peddles connectivity. For $5, you get 15 minutes of access to powerful computers with software applications, peripherals, a T1 line, a telephone, DirecTV and plug-ins for other devices all in a slick office-like environment. Every 10 minutes after the first 15 costs an additional $5, a modest amount for addicts like Bercovici.

"I can't bear to be away from e-mail for more than five minutes," explains Bercovici, who would have brought her laptop backpacking, but a weight limit for the llamas carrying her gear kept her from taking it along.

Gate Escape, a private L.A.-based company that was formed last summer, is one of a growing number of technology firms providing Internet access and other gadgetry for travelers at airports. It is the first company of its kind to set up shop in LAX.

The timing couldn't be better. The Federal Aviation Administration recently announced that domestic airlines are booking more flights than many airports can handle, and that travelers should expect longer and more frequent delays. That's no surprise to anyone visiting LAX this summer.

While reading and sending e-mail seems to be the biggest selling point for the Gate Escape at Terminal 8, Charlie Meister, its chief executive and founder, has larger aspirations.

"It's about providing the opportunity to be productive while you wait," he says, and that can mean everything from preparing a PowerPoint presentation or kicking back and channel surfing on DirecTV.

Kiosks and other stores offering Internet access have been popping up around the world, not just at airports but at hotels, on cruise ships, in hospitals and just about anywhere people are forced to wait. It's a potentially huge market, one that Frost & Sullivan projects to reach $1.3 billion by 2006.

Gate Escape's competitors include EKiosk, an Illinois-based company that operates about 1,000 small Internet kiosks around the United States. The first 10 minutes of Web browsing at its kiosks are ad-sponsored and free to users. After that, the cost is 25 cents per minute. AT & T; Corp. offers a similar service with its PowerPhones, which are pay phones with small Internet screens.

Laptop Lane Ltd., a subsidiary of struggling San Francisco-based broadband provider SoftNet Systems Inc., operates office-like stores in more than 20 major domestic airports. It typically provides about six computer terminals and targets the business traveler. The cost for a single cubicle at Laptop Lane is 65 cents per minute after a $5 minimum for the first five minutes. Conference rooms can be rented for $60 per hour or $400 per day. It generates about a third of its revenues from selling computer accessories. SoftNet put Laptop Lane on the selling block. Its next owner will determine how formidable a competitor it is to Gate Escape.

Coming soon: Web-enabled llamas.

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