Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
HOME    E-MAIL JOE    PRINT    SEND A LINK     2015 COLUMNS     JOE'S ARCHIVES     SEARCH
Spare Me the Airport Icons
November 5, 2015 -- Thousands milled around the departure terminal, draped over railings, clogging staircases and wedged uncomfortably onto the limited seating areas. Hundreds more waited in a comically long line that extended from the unmanned ticket counters.

No planes came. No planes were going to come. No staff came. No staff was going to come. No one was going to fly this day and every one of the people stuffed into the building knew it.

Yet not a cross word was spoken. The people without flights and without hope of one smiled broadly, snapped selfies and talked excitedly with their neighbors. There were outlandish costumes and over-the-top bonhomie.

This, obviously, wasn't your grandfather's airport throng. But that's because this was your grandfather's airline terminal, the Midcentury Modern Eero Saarinen masterpiece called the TWA Flight Center at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Those huddled, flightless masses came from around the world last month to adore the building, closed since 2001 but, more than ever, an icon of industrial design. Saarinen created an airport terminal for the ages and these people came to worship what the future looked like in 1962.

Me? Not so much. I'm happy the impossibly elegant edifice of curved concrete and glass will be part of a new and much-needed airport hotel. It would have been a tragedy if the gorgeous building disappeared.

But I do not mourn the fact that actual travelers don't use it anymore. The building was outdated and impractical long before it closed. I couldn't help but think that every one of those people snapping selfies would be cursing a blue streak if they had to negotiate the terminal for a flight. I shudder to think what millions of rolling bags would do to the tiny marble tiles Saarinen used for the floors and walls. How many more footfalls could those lovely steps Saarinen rounded the risers so there were no sharp angles have endured?

Spare me from aviation "icons." They are too soon dated and too quickly annoying.

Do you know anyone who likes flying from Dulles Airport near Washington, another brilliant but ultimately untenable Saarinen creation? Mirabel International outside Montreal opened in time for the 1976 Olympics and was celebrated as the airport of the future. Yet there hasn't been a scheduled commercial flight at Mirabel in a dozen years. Richard Rogers' Terminal 5 at London's Heathrow Airport was going to be great, too. But its 2008 opening was chaotic, the building is already bursting at the seams and its promise of "straight-line access" from front door to departure gate is interrupted by an endless parade of escalators and bus rides. Wake me if Berlin-Brandenburg, initially scheduled to open in 2011, ever hosts a flight.

In the weeks since the TWA Flight Center took its curtain call, many commentators have bemoaned the state of U.S. airports. Why can't we have more TWA Flight Centers and fewer dark, dank nightmares like New York's LaGuardia? Where are the flights of architectural fancy to make our flights more ethereal? In a phrase your mother might have used, they all wonder: Why can't we have nice things at the airport?

The answer is simple: We shouldn't want nice things because, as Saarinen's and Rogers' gems prove, nice things can't handle the twists and turns of modern aviation. The future of flying as imagined by great architecture almost never comes to pass.

Consider the Worldport, the "iconic," "flying saucer" terminal Pan Am opened at JFK two years before Saarinen's gem. It eventually became one of the most-despised business travel buildings in the world. Yes, it was pretty when it was built. Yes, it was designed to allow the first generation of jets to pull right up to the gate. By the time Delta demolished it in 2013, however, it was overwhelmed with too many planes, too much luggage, too many passengers and no space for 21st-century amenities or security regimens.

That's the other dirty little secret of flying in the 21st century. Airlines don't want a world full of pretty terminals because they are busily stuffing us through fewer and fewer airports. It's cheaper and more profitable that way.

There are 550 commercial airports in the United States, yet airlines herd almost all of us through a few dozen of them. Look at the numbers. According to the Department of Transportation, about 780 million people flew commercially in the 12 months between August, 2014 and July, 2015. All but 100 million or so flew to, from or through the top 50 airports. Yet 225 of the 550 airports each handled fewer than 100,000 passengers.

If anything, passenger concentration is getting more acute. In the years since the 2001 terrorist attacks, U.S. carriers have abandoned hubs in cities such as Cleveland, Memphis, Milwaukee, St Louis, Pittsburgh and San Jose, California. According to a recent analysis by The Wall Street Journal, the number of weekly flight departures from Memphis in the past four years declined by 66 percent. Cleveland flights are down by 44 percent. Milwaukee is down 45 percent.

Two modern airports, Rockford International not far from Chicago and Mid-America near St. Louis, are virtually abandoned. Even in the overcrowded New York Metropolitan area, airports such as Islip on Long Island, Hartford in Connecticut and Stewart/Newburgh in the Hudson Valley are wildly underutilized. In Southern California, LAX is struggling to keep up with traffic, yet Ontario, about 50 miles away, is nearly empty. Philadelphia International is overcrowded and unpleasant, but Trenton-Mercer County Airport across the Delaware River in New Jersey is starved for flights. So are equally convenient airports in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Wilmington, Delaware.

All of the Southeast is essentially served by two hubs Charlotte and Atlanta while airports in places such as Memphis, Nashville and Raleigh-Durham have been downsized by airlines unwilling to use alternatives.

And when the carriers do expand, it's rarely at an underserved airport. The most recent example: Seattle-Tacoma, where Delta Air Lines is bulling its way into a market already amply served by Alaska Airlines. Flights at Sea-Tac are growing so quickly that airport officials are planning to bus passengers to aircraft because there's no more gate space.

So, love icons of the past such as the TWA Flight Center if you must. Adore them as you should. But enough of the "we can't have nice things" drivel.

We have nice things, plenty of them. We just choose not to use them.


This column is Copyright 2015 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.