Although he had three hours to get it out of his system, Thomas Doubek was still in a New York state of mind when his flight from La Guardia Airport landed in Minneapolis. So when he sat down at the grand piano in the baggage claim area, the 1976 Billy Joel tune was the first melody that came to him.

"It's one of my favorite songs to play," said the piano man, who made a beeline for the airport's ivories while relatives whom he flew here to visit watched and applauded. "It's great for the nerves."

Residing among Terminal 1's baggage carousels, the piano is an outlet for calming creativity amid the stressors of travel. The instrument found its way there after an experiment last summer, when Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport participated in Pianos on Parade, a program organized by the nonprofit Keys 4/4 Kids that temporarily supplied upright pianos to public locations throughout the Twin Cities. Pianos on Parade is back again this summer, but the airport liked the experience so much it got its own, said program coordinator Hannah Paulson.

The black Yamaha grand was donated last fall by the family of Dan Boivin, current chairman of the Metropolitan Airports Commission. Diane Dombrock, who manages the Airport Foundation's arts and culture program, said the piano is part of a larger effort to draw arts-minded frequent fliers to the travel hub via musical performances and visual art exhibits.

"It's something to do between connecting flights, and it could potentially increase an interest in making reservations here," said Dombrock. "Hopefully it offers something wonderful for the passenger, as well."

Most travelers walking through the baggage area don't seem to notice the piano, whether it's because its shiny surface blends into the sterile surroundings of metal handrails and escalator bays, or because most people are too determined to get where they are going. When someone does sit down to play, however, passersby slow down, even stop. It's loud -- much louder than the canned classical music coming through the overhead speakers or the automated woman's voice offering baggage announcements. When the music stops, a few hands applaud, and everyone is once again moving to their own soundtracks.

On a recent morning, one traveler arrived early for his flight to Georgia just so he could take a turn on the eighty-eights.

Mark Hoyt, a keyboardist with '70s rocker alumni group World Classic Rockers, flies to gigs two to three times a month, and said he's played the piano about 30 times.

"Instead of going up to ticketing, I come right here," said Hoyt. "Before I get on the plane, I have to get my ya-yas out."

This time, Hoyt played a rendition of Steely Dan's "Josie." He said he chose the upbeat number because he was in a good mood. On previous trips, he's played "Come Sail Away" and "More Than a Feeling."

"To play a grand piano, it's just beautiful," said Hoyt.

As five teenage girls banged out an experimental version of "Mary Had a Little Lamb," Shelby Stewart, a staffer at a nearby flower kiosk, listed the instrument's most popular tunes. "Free Fallin'" and Disney classics like "A Whole New World" get a lot of play, but Stewart said she's heard John Lennon's "Imagine" more times than she can count. She's also heard her fair share of "Chopsticks."

"There's the random kids who will sit there and play for 30 minutes," said Stewart. "That sucks."

Then there are the times when talented pianists such as E. Johannes Soltermann are at the keyboard. A composer and poet, Soltermann also works for the Transportation Security Administration as a checkpoint attendant. Before and after his shifts, he makes a point of coming down to baggage claim, where his interaction with travelers is a bit more heartwarming than examining their shoes.

A woman who was on her way to her father's funeral once thanked Soltermann for soothing her with an original composition, a blend of classical and jazz.

"There are limo drivers or people who professionally pick up people, and they say that normally this is such a cold concrete, steel place, and this makes it warmer and livable. To me, that's a big deal," said Soltermann. "It makes a little community center here."

While Soltermann enjoys the response he gets from bleary-eyed travelers, Doubek, from the New York flight, plays for purely personal reasons.

"The music basically takes on a life of its own. For me, it's kind of an escape," said Doubek. Like flying, "it takes me away to other places."

Sharyn Jackson • 612-673-4260