Ask the pilot

Tom Ridge Airport? Isn't that just asking for trouble?

Published July 14, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

"Let me throw another wrench into the discussion," writes Sherry Wallace from the management office of Springfield-Branson Regional Airport, in the heart of the Ozarks. "We've got U.S. Customs and a Port of Entry trade zone, but we do not call ourselves 'International.'"

Wallace is picking up from the recent outings of "international" airports of dubious merit. Her airport meets the official criterion, such as it is, but opts for the homey simplicity of "Regional." I promised Wallace I wouldn't make any cracks about Branson itself, but the choice of moniker is appreciated. Appropriately humble and unpretentious. People like that.

On the other hand, let's pay another visit to Maine. Those tuning in last week learned that Bangor International is in fact a semi-frequent stopover point for transatlantic charters and thus entitled to a degree of haughtiness. But a drive down 95 brings us to the more flamboyantly named Portland International Jetport. Seems a bit insecure, and exclusionary. Turboprops are people too, and a staple of Portland's traffic.

Still, "Jetport" has some flair, and I welcome any tweak on the usual fill-in-the-blank formula. What could be more boring than another Anyplace International Airport? I was deeply disappointed when the new airport in Hong Kong dispensed with its initial name -- taken from the reclaimed island on which the site was built -- and became, yawn, Hong Kong International Airport.

Then again, try to say "Chek Lap Kok" five times fast without stammering.

In Phoenix we discover a whole new twist: Phoenix Sky Harbor International. I'm quite enamored of that name, much as I'm taken by the irony of a harbor of any kind amid the parched Southwestern landscape. So as not to confuse, the full legal title is Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

Speaking of ironies, I recently learned that Erie, Penn., is home to Tom Ridge Field, so called in honor of the former state governor turned Homeland Security führer. If I remember right, one of Secretary Ridge's air safety initiatives was asking that Qantas passengers refrain from "gathering in groups" aboard flights from Australia to California (a move that a Qantas spokesperson branded "a little hard to handle"). Moreover, is it just me or is there something needlessly provocative about naming an airport in honor of a man with an active hand in national security? If I were running things in Erie, I'd be changing those welcome signs faster than the folks at Chevron were slapping paint over the Condoleezza Rice, their 136,000-ton oil tanker, dutifully re-christened the Altair Voyager when certain conflicts of interest became, shall we say, thicker than a barrel of crude.

Doubtless there are those who'll submit that Tom Ridge Field was brought to us by same conspiracy that, in 1997, changed Houston's airport, known for years as Houston Intercontinental, to George Bush Intercontinental. This happened around the same time that Washington-National was re-dubbed in honor of Ronald Reagan, whose legacy includes the controversial firing of thousands of striking air traffic controllers in 1981.

Why stop there: Earlier this summer, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., introduced a bill to rename the Pentagon the Ronald Reagan National Defense Building.

Don't forget, Newark is now called Liberty International, and perhaps it's but a matter of time before the rest of our public spaces are co-opted by our fearless leaders and their gibberish propaganda: Welcome everybody to Freedom and Democracy Airport Under God. The only thing worse, maybe, would be the auctioning of stadium-style corporate sponsorships. Boston-Logan becomes Dunkin Donuts International; Detroit becomes General Motors Field.

As an aside, and since we're in the area, let me throw something out there: In late May, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) commenced twice-weekly Boeing 777 flights between Karachi, Pakistan, and... Houston. This strikes me as a perplexing choice of destinations for an East Asian carrier whose only other U.S. gateway is New York. Strange enough, but PIA will cross paths at George Bush Intercontinental with none other than Saudi Arabian Airlines. The Saudis fly only weekly freighters, but the idea of these two airlines, government-owned carriers of nations with a decidedly important role in the geopolitical scene, flying to the heart of Bushland is, if nothing else, curious.

Too much coffee this morning. Besides, I'm sure there are plenty of airports named after Democrats and their various ideals of treason and depravity.

Our ongoing conversation about airports, now in its fifth week, seems to invite a contest in the vein of my best/worst airline pageant of a few months ago. Indeed, readers have been urging me to hold a similar competition. For now I'm hesitant. The airline poll, fun as it was, ran with a disclaimer: Lasting opinions, good and bad, are often hard-forged through single encounters, and with any open solicitation of opinions, votes tend to be cast from the extremes -- by those most inordinately pleased or vindictively pissed off.

A summary of favorite airports would be hostage to the vagaries of when and how, exactly, a given traveler experiences a property. For example, at John F. Kennedy International (D-Mass.) on a pleasant morning, crowds are sparse and one is drawn to the history and grandness of the place. Pay a visit to the Calder sculpture or Saarinen's masterwork Terminal 5; maybe spy a pelican gliding along the perimeter of Jamaica Bay. On the other hand, few places are more stressful than JFK on a hot summer night during the transatlantic departure push, thunderstorms forcing three-hour delays while the check-in queues at Air India snake into the parking lot.

That being said, when the industry periodicals and travel sites grade airports, the results are often as predictable as their airline polls. Just as Singapore Airlines is perennially hailed as one of the world's most esteemed carriers, so does its hometown field, Changi, score among the very best airports. At Changi flyers find, among other soothing distractions, koi ponds, gardens and a swimming pool. To avoid gateside congestion, Changi's overseers even make a point of including enough chairs at each departure portal to evenly match the capacity of the largest planes. Elsewhere, Frankfurt and Amsterdam are customary high scorers, with Miami, Newark and JFK regular pariahs.

Skytrax, which deems itself "the global barometer of airline passenger opinions" (and you thought it was, announced its airport winners for 2004. The top five:

1. Hong Kong
2. Singapore (Changi)
3. Amsterdam (Schiphol)
4. Seoul (Incheon)
5. Kuala Lumpur

One advantage held by many European and Asian players extends beyond the airport itself to include access to and from. Those who've had the (mis)fortune of contrasting, say, the rail link at Amsterdam-Schiphol with the perpetual traffic snarl surrounding Miami International will never underestimate the effects of public transport when catching a flight. When was the last time anybody drove from the middle of a large European city to the airport? Granted it happens (in Brussels, for one), but for a few euros you can step aboard a clean, quiet train at Amsterdam's Centraal Station or Frankfurt's Hauptbahnhof and be deposited on the in-terminal platform within minutes. Same at Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and other cities.

To me, more sensible than a showdown between airports, strictly speaking, might be one between terminals. This is especially relevant in the United States, where many larger airports operate as a cluster of independent units. One traveler's hell on earth (Boston-Logan, terminal D) is a short walk from another's pleasant surprise (Boston-Logan, terminal E). Kennedy is the most distinctive example, where each of nine buildings is, in a sense, a separate airport, showcasing its own architectural theme and personality. Or lack thereof. In America we tend to upgrade our airports piecemeal. Terminals are renovated and expanded one concourse at a time, like additions to an old house. For better or worse, rare in this country is the kind of central hall, common in Europe and Asia, where check-in desks and facilities for all airlines are consolidated within a single, occasionally magnificent atrium.

Also rare in America, excepting the most recent case of Denver, is the truly new, from-the-ground-up airport. Compare to Asia, where in the past decade at least four major international hubs -- Osaka-Kansai, Seoul-Incheon, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur were erected from scratch, in some cases requiring construction of the immense offshore islands on which they sit. (Here in Boston we've watched the Big Dig unfold, but Massport can't get a 5,000-foot runway approved after two decades of squabbling.)

Two more superprojects are presently underway in Asia. Outside Nagoya, Japan, the Central Japan International Airport is slated to open in early 2005, while in Guangzhou, China (the former Canton), Baiyun International was to begin accepting flights this month. While both are set amid huge population bases (20 million around Nagoya), the builders are also thinking freight: The Nagoya area is home to several of Japan's largest manufacturers, yet the nearest serious cargo hub is Tokyo-Narita, more than 200 miles to the northeast. Guangzhou, China's third-biggest city and a center of exports, sits less than a hundred miles from Hong Kong. The airports at Narita and Hong Kong are, for now, the world's second- and fourth-largest freight handlers, respectively.

To finish this off: My hesitancy to conduct an airport poll is, maybe, a shy way of baiting you. And now that I've brought it up -- who am I kidding? -- stopping your letters will be impossible. So go ahead. We'll keep it loose, and rather than an outright scoresheet I'll run a sampling of your more loved and loathed aerodromes around the globe.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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