Since Sept. 11, 2001, 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."
Retailers -- and passengers -- could get a reprieve, but it is not clear how soon or how extensive it might be.
In an interview, a top official of the Homeland Security Department -- which on Thursday banned all forms of liquid, gel and cream as carry-on items -- said it was considering easing the restrictions. Passengers might be allowed, for instance, to carry on small bottles of liquid containing perfume or perhaps other substances that pose little security threat because of their size.
But 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 ChapStick 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 Travel Hospitality Services, which operates 350 shops and restaurants at 25 airports across the country. "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."
"We hope this doesn't last too long," he added.
At the Denver International Airport on Friday, a sign hanging inside a store called Newsstand summed up the day's beverage sales: "We are not allowed to sell any liquids," it read, "including water."
Jane Noda, a 23-year-old clerk at the store, said the ban applied even to toothpaste.
"Yesterday they started to take it off the counters," she said, "and today we're not selling it."
Airport officials, explaining their decisions to take liquid items from store shelves, said they believed it would assist security screeners.