Blacknell.net

June 29th, 2007

In Appreciation of Airports

Posted in DC, Travel by MB

This recent article in Salon, which reviewed the readers’ favorite (and least) airports, got me thinking about my own relationship with airports.

JFK Light

Relationship? What?

Look, I should lay it out now: I love airports. Yes, the same places that inspire government stupidity, passenger rage, and supernatural wrath. Whatever they are to other people, airports are – to me – comfortable and easy places that hold the reliable promise of something good. That good is might come in the form of the excitement of a new destination, an interesting lounge conversation, or simply the comfort of the familiar. But it’s almost always good.

So, with that in mind, here is the Mark Blacknell Review of Select Airports, International and Domestic:

First, we visit my reliable favorites. These are the places that, over the years, have come to be my regularly transited crossroads, and do a decent job of it. So that start us off with . . .

DCA

National Airport is just about everything an airport should be – convenient to access, easy to move through, and gets you where you want to go. It’s not just a sub-10 minute cab from my house, but you can get from Terminal B to K St. in 20 minutes or less, most days. It’s very well laid out, with minimal door to terminal time (unless you’re unfortunate enough to book one of the budget airlines that flies out of Terminal A). The building itself is beautiful – the giant glass main hall (for terminals B and C) is perfect for an airport, giving lots of space and raising your eyes to the sky.

DCA In addition to great design, DCA has that rarest of rares: competent and (almost always) decent TSA agents. Perhaps its because they run the daily risk of pissing off someone who could end their careers, but they seem to be uniformly polite and reliable applicators of a standard set of rules. How many airports can you say that about? The only things I could realistically ask for, as far as improvements go, is free wi-fi and taxi line managers that aren’t confused by the concept of a line (my most shameful public outburst was provoked by one of these guys . . . ).

In short, I couldn’t ask for a better home airport. It lacks only one thing – international flights (sorry, Canada, you don’t count). Which is why the next two airports are often on my list.

JFK

JFK is everything DCA isn’t. It’s crowded, dirty, and a nightmare to navigate. JFK I think there’s a desperate competition between it and LaGuardia to see which can produce more bitterness in its staff. But even with all of that, I’ve come to develop a grudging appreciation for it. It gives a sense of being a crossroads for the planet, something that, say, Atlanta never achieves (though it may have a better technical claim). And it’s as a crossroads that I always use it (from DC, the train is generally the less troublesome (and quicker) way to get to where you’re going in NYC). I’ve marked many a milestone there, and expect to mark many more.

I suppose I should come up with a couple of positive things about JFK, lest the reader think that this is the start of a descent into complaints. First, if you fly through JFK next year, you should make your way (if you can) over what remains of Terminal 5.

Worth the flight

Designed by the Eero Saarinen (who also gave us the only good thing about Dulles – the inspired main terminal building), it used to form the hub of TWA’s glory years operations. And then there’s the views.

Few views can match that which you get on an eastern approach, and you certainly won’t be getting them from an Acela seat . . .

ATL

Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson is the airport people love to hate. I don’t understand that, really. It’s big, to be sure, but it’s quite logically laid out, and I challenge you to need something that you can’t get at the airport.  Good food?  Check.  Replacement electronics?  Check.  A tie to replace the one you forgot?  Check.  Peace and quiet?  Well, okay, it’s not perfect.  But there are direct flights from ATL to pretty much every city of any size on the planet. What more could you ask for from an airport?

Well, I suppose you could ask for an end to the construction. Waiting Or security guards that at least *pretend* to pay attention. And while I’m at it, I’d like Chapter 11 to reopen the 24 hour bookstore they used to have there. But that’s all frosting, really. ATL is functional, and I appreciate it for what it is. It was my home airport for years and years, from which I learned many a lesson. I waited outside of its international arrivals for my grandparents there as a child. I tried my hand at petty theft there as a teenager. And I’ve stretched out in the Crown Room, martini in hand and waiting for my flight home as an adult. It’ll always be home to me.

So those are my functional and sentimental favorites. On to the other airports.

BOS

Logan only arrived on my radar in the past few years. When I started flying there (via US Airways or a Delta Shuttle), I usually disembarked to some pretty appalling conditions. The decrepit gates were the sort that you’d usually think were reserved for the once a day flight to MacArthur or some other unfortunate destination.

BOS

And getting a taxi turned out to be such an exercise in exasperation that Logan can claim credit for turning a car service from an occasional luxury into a reasonable option.

So it’s not like we started off on the best foot. But, I’m happy to say, things have changed. The new Delta Terminal A is wonderful – brightly lit and spacious (perhaps too spacious, but that’s Delta’s problem to fix). The food options, which were well below average, have improved (to average. But hey, it’s progress). It’s not a preferred airport for me, but it’s one that doesn’t bother me when I see it on an itinerary.

SFO

Despite its greatly inconvenient distance from San Francisco, I quite like SFO. Unlike most other airports, I’ve never seen it dirty or in need of repair. I can’t recall any unreasonable waits for security. The terminals are easy to navigate, and the food is good. One other thing that I’ve always enjoyed about SFO: great museum and art displays in the walkways. Seriously, most airport public art is safe and not at all interesting (how many Mrs. Cooper’s Fourth Grade class drawings can you really take?), but I’ve always found something worth stopping for on the way to the terminal. Deep sea oddities. Miniature models. Russian dolls.  Between that and a generally quiet and chill atmosphere, this is one airport for which I don’t mind an early arrival.

LAS

Now we’re talking about airports I can’t stand. Las Vegas’ McCarran tops my list.

Why I Hate McCarran

To call it my own personal hell isn’t too much of an overstatement. Perpetually overcrowded by clueless travelers who book bottom dollar tickets, thus promoting bottom dollar service. It actually pales in comparison to my general dislike of Las Vegas itself, but it has all the same ingredients – design where function is sacrificed on the altar of garishness, service that can’t even manage the illusion of cleanliness, and did I mention the teeming masses?

IAD

Dulles *should* be my second favorite airport. It’s the closest international airport, and certainly has a good number of flights. But I do my damnedest to avoid it. Why? For starters, it’s a pain in the ass to get to. Sure, you can bypass most of the Dulles Toll Road to get there, but first you have to get to the bypass. And for me, that means sitting in slow moving traffic on I-66. So take the Metro there, right? Bzzt. Wrong. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there is no train link between the city and the primary international airport for Washington, DC. Not only is there no train link, there’s no public transportation link. At present, the best public transport solution is something of a hybrid – take the Metro to West Falls Church, and then wait around for one of the private shuttles to get going. And that’s just getting there.

Once you’re there, you are almost certain to spend a ridiculous amount of time in the security lines. I’ve spent two hours in a security line at Dulles, and that’s not an unusual experience. Hopefully this has changed, as the airport finally got around to opening up a second security checkpoint section to funnel passengers through. Of course, a cynic might note that this will just provide double the space in which the Worst TSA Agents Ever can practice being unreasonable, obtuse, and overzealous. Anyway, don’t worry – the fun doesn’t stop here.

What?  The photo looks old and crappy and poorly executed?

Once you’re through security, you get to experience the revenge of some embittered bureaucrat from the 1960s – the Dulles Moon Buggies. Maybe the designer’s cousin owned the company that provided them, or perhaps it was a joke played on an unwitting airport authority by engineers who wanted to see how ridiculous they could be before getting called on it. Whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t common sense or good design that saddled IAD with the worst interterminal transport system in the United States.

What? The photo looks old and crappy and poorly executed? Then yes, I’ve captured the Dulles people movers perfectly. By the time that you get to the terminals, it doesn’t matter that it’s luck of the draw on food, and that some of them look like they’ve not seen a good coat of paint since the late 80s. Given a choice between a direct flight out of Dulles and something out of National that requires a stop? National, almost every time.

Other US Domestic Airports

Many airports leave little to no impression – I’ve been through Newark, Phoenix, and Cincinnati a number of times, but I couldn’t tell you anything about them. Many would consider that a success, thinking of airports as mere conduits through which people should pass with a minimum of drag. That’s a shame. While I agree that an airport should make it easy to pass through quickly, I think it should work to be a symbol of its region, giving visitors a flavor of the place they’re about to see (or are just passing through). The Twin Cities’ MSP does a serviceable job of that, if only because the Hubert H. Humphrey Terminal signs always have me humming this song when I pass through. Vancouver’s YVR does an excellent job of conveying that you’re in the Northwest, and I’ll explore that in the next installment.

In the meantime, some airports may not leave much of an impression, but do yield great pictures, such as this one from DFW:

Intersection

Next: Beyond US Airports

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9 comments

  1. Peej says:

    Another airport junkie! I can’t wait to read the review of the international airports. I have to see if my favourite is on your list.
    I have a soft spot for PHL myself, domestically. Definitely not the best airport to visit if you are a non-flying companion, especially for some taking an international flight (unlike JFK, which is very companion friendly from that perspective). However, it’s the first airport I ever flew into when I came to the U.S., and, since living in NJ, that pretty much our first choice of airport, for both leisure and work, so there is the love that is bred from familiarity. I also dig the rocking chairs.

    Do you also sustain close relationships with train stations?

    June 30th, 2007 at 3:31 pm

  2. Mike at Blueweeds says:

    Nice post. Newark is my absolute, never again, can’t believe I pay money to be here airport. I have nightmares about delays, randomly closed runways, and people sending their kids to go through my luggage while they stand guard. I have to go through NWE in July again. Just the thought makes me cringe.

    June 30th, 2007 at 6:08 pm

  3. Peej says:

    Now, see, Mike’s comment got me thinking about a different aspect of the airport: its immigration officers. Now, I have not flown through Newark as a non-resident alien since 2000, so things may be different now, but as far as immigration officers go, I’ve had the best experience there. LAX was a close second. Houston’s was terrible…the guy looking at my passport didn’t even know what an H1-B was, at the time, and I had to spend half an hour arguing that no, he could and should not give me a new I-94.

    Suprisingly, my beloved Philly doesn’t come off so well in the immigration department; every person in my family has had at least two unpleasant experiences there. The pretzels make up for it, though.

    June 30th, 2007 at 6:58 pm

  4. Mike at Blueweeds says:

    Peej’s comment makes sense. My experience with Newark is almost all domestic – it seems to give a huge preference to international flights and administration. It’s the ham and egg domestic stuff that is a nightmare. Dishonorable mention to Phoenix – airport is fine – but I get lost every time getting into or out of the airport. Counterintuitive design and poor signage. Or maybe it’s just the heat …

    June 30th, 2007 at 9:19 pm

  5. sasha says:

    Oooh. This is a fun game. Airports are worthy of our love. Train stations too.

    DCA is one of the reasons I chose to DC over NY. As a home airport, it’s perfect.

    PDX is really nice, smallish and efficient, and the security folks there have always been polite and friendly. Fantastic wine bar with a really great bartender.

    I fly through Cincinnati a lot, and I quite like it, at least as a transfer passenger. It’s quick and easy to navigate. There is no architecture to speak of, and I never have that airport induced excitement of *going somewhere* but as pit stop between here and there it works.

    Since we’re not counting Canada as foreign, I still love YVR. The interior spaces in the international terminal are gorgeous, and the art collection is really impressive.

    I avoid Dulles, O’Hare, and LAX at almost all costs. I am neutral on ATL. I fly through it a lot, but it leaves no impression on me.

    Peej – I do most of my entry flights into JFK and usually face all kinds of confusion about the H1B. I much prefer to be able to enter the US at my departing airport, but this last time the JFK agents were great. One actually said “Welcome home.”

    June 30th, 2007 at 10:01 pm

  6. MB says:

    Last time I went through PHL, it wasn’t on my itinerary (was coming back from Ireland the August weekend that the power went out in New York/Toronto/etc.). All the rerouted flights made it something of madhouse, but I can’t hold that against them.

    ~

    Good points on the Immigration folks. I was so concentrated on my outbound hate of IAD when writing this that I didn’t even get to the inbound part. Try getting held in one of those moonbuggies for an hour because “passport control is full.” After an overnight flight (can’t recall from where), you can imagine how much fun that was.

    JFK folks are completely indifferent. And PDX has a single INS/ICE/whatever office for the entire airport. When flying through there with my Very Dangerous Pakistani Muslim Male Friend and Therefore Subject to Rules Requiring Him to Check Out of the Country, that nearly caused us to miss our flight.

    ~

    I used to have close relationships with train stations, but it’s turned into a long distance thing over the years. Eichenzell (home station), Fulda, and Nottingham are rather far away, these days. Union Station, here in DC, sets me on edge for reasons that suggest a separate entry. And no one should get close to anything, regarding Penn Station.

    July 1st, 2007 at 8:13 am

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