Fasten Your Seatbelt! Western Airports Are Flying into the 21st Century

By Finnegan, Lora J. | Sunset, November 1992 | Go to article overview

Fasten Your Seatbelt! Western Airports Are Flying into the 21st Century


Finnegan, Lora J., Sunset


Western airports are flying into the 21st century

Once upon a time, airports had sex appeal. Recall Hollywood's most romantic farewell: Bogie and Bergman on the tarmac in Casablanca--their eyes said more than a kiss could.

These days, many of us would just as soon kiss airports good-bye, if we could.

Too many big airports resemble angry hives, where travelers scurry like anonymous ants through endless lines and down dimly lit tunnels lined by ubiquitous snack bars serving rubbery, overpriced food.

That scenario may be changing. The good news, notably in the West, is that some planners have recently taken the lead in a movement to redesign airports to serve people--not just planes. The best airports are taking steps to provide more streamlined check-in procedures, better food, brighter lighting, and more attractive landscaping, as well as fine art and entertainment.

Here, then, is a report on Western airports, past, present, and future; a guide to coping with--even enjoying--the West's busiest airports; and strategies for avoiding airport terminal trauma. The most frenetic air-travel times--Thanksgiving and Christmas--are upon us, so fasten your seat belt and prepare to spend some quality "dwell time" at the airport.

Dwell time, in the parlance of airport operators, is time spent in the terminal. On an average domestic trip, we now spend 76 minutes in airports; if you subtract check-in and such, we spend 59 minutes just hanging around. And dwell time has been increasing by about 10 minutes per year for the past five years, according to Ira Weinstein, president of Airport Interviewing & Research (AIR), a market research firm.

Why? One factor is the airline routing concept called hubbing. Translated, it means you fly to a "hub" airport you don't want to go to, land with other people who also don't want to be there, and disembark into a seething swarm of passengers all trying to catch connecting flights.

Another factor: more travelers are crowding outdated facilities. The number of passengers boarding planes at our nation's airports rose from about 300 million in 1980 to 462 million in 1990, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). And the crowds are probably going to get worse. The FAA forecasts an annual increase of 4.7 percent in passenger volume until the year 2000, when an estimated 738 million passengers will be flying our skies.

To gear up for this traffic explosion, and to update technology, airports have been expanding and remodeling at a furious pace, and more work is planned. Denver is building a brand-new airport, which is scheduled to open in fall 1993. And the best of today's airports are responding to the changing demands of an increasingly sophisticated traveling public.

From humble airfields to humongous hubs

In the 1920s, when pioneer aviator Charles Lindbergh touched down at Mills and Lindbergh fields in San Francisco and San Diego, respectively, most airports amounted to a hangar or two. By the late 1930s, many airfields had sprouted small terminals, with interiors resembling hotel lobbies. After World War II, when the crowds and planes got bigger, so did the terminals.

Until quite recently, airports were designed to accommodate planes; when it came to people, the airport's role was simply to get them from auto to airplane quickly. But with airline deregulation and the transformation of so-called origin/destination airports into hubs, more and more people had to hop from plane to plane, at terminals that weren't built to handle such massive internal transfers.

To modify origin/destination airports for service as hubs, architects redesigned big airports, detaching concourses from terminals to allow for transfers and to handle more planes. Still, such designs didn't serve people too well, since concourses were very long and often dimly lit, and had limited amenities. The result: passengers often arrived late, tired, hungry, and grouchy. …

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