Ask the pilot

The pilot goes home again and uncovers the deeper meaning of airports.

Published March 17, 2006 12:00PM (EST)

Air travel has influenced the architecture and design of our century to a perhaps greater degree than anything else, including even the automobile.

-- John Zukowsky, from "Building for Air Travel"

Begin with a pair of segmented elliptical pylons that soar 250 feet into the air. They are sand colored but often turn amber in the sunset. Trussed between them, two-thirds of the way up, is a six-story platform, like an office building hung between two great goalposts. Its shoulders taper inward, and perched at their apex, like the head of a giant robot, is a 12-sided cupola crowned by a porcupine array of antennae and radar dishes.

What I've just sketched is the control tower at my hometown airport, Boston's Logan International. That perhaps a few New Englanders out there recognized it pays homage to the structure's strangely iconic status as one of the most distinctive airport buildings in the world. I can't speak for anybody else, but whenever my plane lands at Boston and I glance up at that twin-trunked behemoth, I feel the warm flood of memory and a poignant sense of having arrived home.

People don't get sentimental much about airports anymore, and why should they? Some airports are engineering marvels; others hold honors of aerohistorical significance; still others are, if not exactly enjoyable, vibrant and colorful. But most are ordinary, cheerless, and frankly not very interesting. Of course, nostalgia is in the mind and memories of the beholder. Hong Kong's famous in-town airport, Kai Tak, was a dirty, claustrophobic snarl with approach paths that brought noisy jetliners within arm's reach of skyscrapers and apartments. But when the field closed eight years ago, hundreds of cheering citizens crowded onto rooftops to toast the last of the incoming planes. "Animated, cheerful souls," wrote one reporter, "absolutely passionate about their beloved airport." That all seems a bit much, but I understand where they were coming from.

If an airport has one aesthetic obligation, it's to impart a sense of place: you are here and nowhere else. Logan seems to do that quite well, though how much of that is me, and how much is the airport itself, is something I can't quite determine.

Finding out first entails a trip back in time, to the 16th floor of that twin-trunk control tower. On the bottom level of the tower's workspace -- either the first or 16th story, depending on how you see it -- used to reside one of Boston's most distinctive public spaces: the airport observation deck. I eulogized this perch in a column once before, but it's worth repeating: The spectacularly poised lookout featured opposing sides of knee-to-ceiling windows and, arguably, the best view in town. To the north and east was a commanding vista of terminals, runways and taxiways; to the south and west, a sweeping panorama of the Boston skyline and waterfront. It's a scant two miles from Logan's perimeter seawall to the center of downtown, and thus, from the 16th floor, you observed the city and its airport in a state of working symbiosis. From here, as an eighth grader in 1979, I saw Pope John Paul II touch down in a green and white Aer Lingus 747 named "St. Patrick," then watched his motorcade disappear into the Sumner Tunnel before emerging again downtown. Passengers relaxed on carpeted benches while kids and families came on the weekends, feeding coins into the mechanical binoculars, and picnicking on the floor. The idea of an airport evoking civic togetherness is hard to fathom these days, but the 16th floor possessed an element of that spirit, clinging to the now vanished idea of an airport as a destination unto itself, like a park or a museum.

The deck had its regulars, and as a young teenager I was one of them. My friends and I would hop the Blue Line at Wonderland and spend the better parts of Saturday and Sunday at Logan. The 16th floor was our office, where we'd check in to unpack bag lunches and plan the day's activities, which tended to blend our nerdier infatuations -- taking pictures, logging registration numbers of planes -- with the types of activities you might expect from adolescents: assorted rummaging, ransacking and troublemaking.

We navigated our turf with a kind of muscle-memory intimacy. We knew the keypad combinations to most of the secure areas and were on a first-name basis ("Here come those pain-in-the-ass kids again") with some of the airline ground staff. We'd sneak behind kiosks and dig through drawers and closets, helping ourselves to anything and everything affixed with an airline logo: stickers, stationery, boarding passes and timetables. (At home, most of this detritus was tossed into a large aluminum footlocker -- a stash of collectible aerobooty that would doubtless garner thousands on eBay had I not thrown it all away in the early 1980s.) The parking lot atop the original Terminal A, since demolished, was another prime zone for pranks. More than one Eastern 727 or DC-9 had its wings and tail bombarded with snowballs from our rooftop launching pad.

Getting onto parked aircraft was something we accomplished regularly and with little resistance. It was an easy process of meandering through security, then staking out an arriving flight. After everyone had disembarked, we'd request a cockpit tour from the agent or crew. Tired captains occasionally sent us down the Jetway unattended -- and it wasn't beyond us to wander aboard without asking. We'd sit in the cockpit, going through imaginary takeoffs or pretending to be aloft over the ocean somewhere. Safe to say that as a seventh grader I logged more time in the captain's seats of widebody jetliners than I ever will as an airline pilot. (Hunkered down over their desktop simulators, kids today think they have the edge on realism, but they will never savor the visceral thrill of moving the actual throttles, knobs and levers). Once bored with the flight deck, we'd head back to the cabin, loading up our backpacks with barf bags, magazines, briefing cards and cans of soda from the galley.

We'd guzzle down that soda and were careful to save the cans. After amassing a six-pack or two, it was back to the 16th floor. There, in the bathroom sink, we'd fill the cans with water before sneaking into the fire escape. Within the tower's north pylon, directly between the elevators, is a top-to-bottom spiral staircase. We'd learned to jimmy the door without triggering the alarm. Once inside, we'd lean over the railing and drop our water-filled cans the entire 200-plus-foot height of the shaft.

The cans would wobble, twist and twirl, depending on the angle at which we released them. Like a pitcher feeling out the seams of a baseball for a slider or a curve, we had the different trajectories down to a science: Hold it this way for a flat spin; tilt slightly for an end-over-end rotation. Off they'd go, and you'd hear the cans hissing as they accelerated toward terminal velocity, disappearing into a barely visible speck before hitting the concrete floor. Then came the sound, like a rifle shot echoing up the column. Often the cans would drift sideways and strike the lower floor railings or slam against the plumbing. Out of control, these wayward projectiles would ricochet madly, disintegrating in a white spray. Then we'd hop in the elevator for the post-crash investigation, marveling over the bizarrely crumpled cylinders and slivers of torn aluminum.

Over and over and over we'd let loose our water bombs, emerging only for occasional quick scans of the tarmac, lest we miss Lufthansa's daily departure for Frankfurt (flight 421, I still remember), or Swissair's DC-10 (flight 129). We'd also figured out a way, using wedges of cardboard, to raid the snack machines. Our heists were restricted to the lower shelves of the machines' rotating dispensers, where the vendors, apparently catching on, began stocking some of the world's most revolting treats. Back in Revere, my family's kitchen cabinets held a year's supply of stale Canada Mints that even our dog wouldn't eat.

Up on the 17th floor, incidentally, was a lounge called Cloud Nine. For us, as 14-year-olds, it was one of Logan's few decidedly off-limits spots, but itinerant fliers and off-duty employees were able to take in that same majestic view, enhanced by the buzz of an overpriced cocktail.

All of this is gone now. The observation deck, and Cloud Nine with it, were shuttered for good in 1989.

"Security concerns," explains Phil Orlandella, spokesman for the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport). Massport has been the tower's landlord since it opened in '73, and Orlandella's office sits in its shadow, in a corridor halfway between terminals B and C, near where the Piedmont jets once docked.

I'm not quite buying the explanation, much as I expected it, but Orlandella shrugs when pressed for specifics. "Logan is entirely different," he says. "Everything has changed here, from the subway station to the terminals. The observation deck is gone. Lots of things are gone. And lots of things are new." He's certainly right about that. Above us, that control tower stands in aloof detachment, a fatherly sentry presiding over what has been a ceaseless melee of construction, demolition and refurbishment. At its feet, the airport is finally quiet after a $4.4 billion modernization scheme -- a 12-year snarl of cranes, scaffolding and Jersey barriers.

I ask Orlandella if the work is truly finished.

"Soon," he answers. Orlandella has a north-of-Boston accent and a clipped way of talking that seems to have subsumed every minute of his Massport tenure -- a quarter-century of dealing with storms, accidents, angry activists, and doubters like me. "Terminal A was the last big piece," he explains, referring to the $482 million facility funded by Massport and Delta Air Lines, opened in March 2005.

Orlandella agrees to take me to the 16th floor, where I haven't set foot in over two decades. "Have you got a picture ID?" The elevator lobby I once sauntered through now includes a sign-in sheet and requires an official escort. As the elevator door closes, I'm hit by the smell -- a damp, industrial, rubbery odor reminiscent of a parking garage -- that has remained unchanged since the 1970s. Nothing gets the synapses of memory firing like the rush of olfactory recognition, and as the car begins to climb I feel as if I'm standing in a time machine.

But then the door opens, and everything is different. The observation deck has become Massport's Communications and Operations Center, with a suite of monitors and consoles that make it look like a miniature NASA command room. This is the headquarters of airport logistics, where a full-time staff of four coordinates everything from snow removal to emergencies. In the spot where I used to sit with binoculars amid Puerto Rican families from Maverick Square, a Massport employee hovers in a telescoping chair, a display of incoming flights over his shoulder. (Five stories above us rests the tower cab -- the crow's-nest in which air traffic controllers, working in shifts of 11, shepherd an unending choreography of takeoffs and landings -- more than a thousand daily.)

Outside, the view is both exactly the same and totally changed. It's no less sublime in breadth, if vastly changed in detail.

The first thing I notice is cars. Lots of them, milling speedily in every direction. Formerly a simple, counterclockwise loop just a few lanes wide, the interterminal roadway has become a shoelace knot of crossovers and switchbacks.

In the far distance I'm able to spot the MBTA's rebuilt Blue Line station. Logan was America's first airport with a rapid transit connection (1952), and although the new platform is markedly better than the original, which was literally falling to pieces, few will be reminded of places like Amsterdam, Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur, where one is whisked to and from the city center without the need to step outside. Boston's version remains a two-step journey with transfer to a bus.

At the center of that tangle stands the Logan Hilton, noteworthy less for its own aesthetic merits -- a forked, red brick mid-rise webbed by a glass foyer -- than as a welcome replacement for the shabby, dun-colored hotel it replaced. The Hilton is handsome, if utterly indistinguishable from a thousand other layover franchises the world over. Adjacent to the Hilton is the massively expanded central parking area. Sadly, at Logan's very heart, where an optimist might envision some greenery or a dash of architectural flair, one finds a gargantuan, desertlike spread of concrete.

In a gesture of consolation, branching from the Central Garage are a pair of climate-controlled pedestrian bridges, their terrazzo floors fetchingly inlaid with sea-life mosaics. Previously, certain airline-to-airline transfers meant several minutes of sidewalk time and a ride on Massport's shuttle. With the walkways now in place, there's covered access -- and a smidgen of ancient Rome -- between any two carriers.

On the terminal side, the basic overview -- a sprawling handprint of four independent complexes -- remains intact. I'm touched to recognize many of the same concrete aprons and T-shaped piers I knew as a kid. Except everything has, in one way or another, been remodeled, rebuilt and enlarged. Annexes and appendages sprout everywhere, covering what used to be vacant space.

Terminals C appears the least altered. Terminal B, on the other hand, is substantially muscled, its main tenants -- American Airlines and US Airways -- having spent millions on expansion. Phil Orlandella furrows his brow. "Right there," he says, nodding toward a Jetway. Unlike those around it, this particular boarding tunnel is topped with an American flag. It's gate B-32, from where American Airlines flight 11 pushed back on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, described by Orlandella as "the worst friggin' day of my life." Slightly to the left, at Terminal C, is the point from where United's flight 175 departed minutes later.

Along the south side of the terminal cluster rises the new Terminal A, occupied by Delta. The enormous white building is eco-friendly and spacious, with state-of-the-art everything (a laser-guided aircraft docking system) and, airports being airports, an impressive gantlet of shopping venues. Alas, Delta's troubles have left it something of a literal white elephant, operating at around half capacity. This cutting edge showpiece is also unattractively low-slung. From the roadway one approaches a kind of corporate glacier -- an immense slab of whiteness and glass that looks more like an office park, or a mall, than an airport's supposed crown jewel. Inside is a stultifying lack of color, with barely a trace of Delta's signature blue and red. The pudding-hued gateside carpeting is an especially odd choice.

What I miss about the original Terminal A, a stately edifice of brown masonry built for Eastern in 1969, is a certain drama both inside and out. The latticed façade and five-story archways bore a certain likeness to the lower curtain wall of the World Trade Center -- and not by accident, for both were the work of architect Minoru Yamasaki. Stepping into the lobby, your gaze was drawn upward by a soaring vaulted ceiling. It wasn't beautiful, but it did something not many terminals do these days: It imparted a sense of exhilaration and theater.

Massport has revised its long-time terminal lettering system. Terminal D, Orlandella explains, crossing one arm over the other as he points, has become part of C. Terminal E, meanwhile, is to be rechristened as D. Possibly that makes some sense, but the sequencing confusion as it stands -- ABCE? -- seems symptomatic of the entire view below. All together, the airport looks lost in itself -- a great sunken bowl of anonymous geometric fortresses -- a jumble of mismatched old and new, absent of a coherent theme or locus -- interlaced by a disorienting web of byways and overpasses.

And ironically, while the terminal expansions have been, if nothing else, radical, it's the airside zone that remains in desperate need of an upgrade. To a pilot, if not to the passenger, Logan is the Fenway Park of airports -- small, quaint, and infrastructurally inefficient. The nation's 18th-busiest airport in volume of flights, it's historically one of the most congested. The criss-crossing runways and meandering taxiways seem to emulate downtown Boston itself, where ancient cow paths became too-busy streets. Skylights and mosaics might be elegant and attractive, but they won't resolve the delays that stem from its layout. At long last, construction of a long-debated relief runway has begun along the harbor at the foot of Bird Island Flats. Once operational, the strip should alleviate much of the problem. (For background on Logan's bad-weather gridlock, see here.

In terms of raw functionality, the New Logan is a welcome one. It'd be foolish to begrudge an airport for succeeding in its core mission, however unromantic it happens to be: to efficiently process, feed and otherwise distract throngs of people -- 27 million annually in this case -- transiting between ground and flight. Yet regrettably, and perhaps inexcusably, what hasn't materialized is any defining piece of work -- something iconic, grand and recognizable at once to everybody who lands here.

Well, actually there is one. It just happens to be 33 years old, and I happen to be standing in it. The architects at Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum may have poured their ambitions into Terminal A, but it's the Perini Construction Co.'s lumbering control tower that impels the most obvious sense of place. Looming overhead with anthropomorphic bravado (it really does resemble a giant robot) and staid New England resilience, this nameless old building is, then and now, the traveler's touchstone and one of Boston's most exclamatory fixtures of identity.

Airports! Airports!

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Newark, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu

Bangor, Gander, Mandalay and other "international" airports

Madness and malapropisms at Tokyo-Narita

Caracas, Venezuela -- where DC-9s go to die

Searching for soul and sky at America's most colorful airport

Terminal One -- stalking the ghosts of Gotham at JFK international

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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