Ask the pilot

What's the matter with airports? A tour of the loudest, weirdest and ugliest problems on the concourse.

Published April 7, 2006 10:05AM (EDT)

Two Fridays ago, USA Today's weekly "Destinations and Diversions" section ran a spotlight on airports. Drawing from the practical and peculiar features of various terminals around the country, staff writer Gene Sloan constructed a fantasy list of, at least in his mind, the perfect airport. His list of amenities that every airport should have ranged from the obvious and sensible (free wireless Internet, convenience stores) to the curious and esoteric (wine bars, rocking chairs). Actually, Sloan's layover Shangri-La sounds a lot like many places in Asia, Europe and the Middle East, where airports tend to be more pleasant and in sync with their core mission -- processing, comforting and distracting thousands of people for hours at a time. Singapore's unbeatable Changi Airport, for instance, might lack a wine bar, but it does have a swimming pool, a fitness center, a movie theater (free entry), waterfalls and koi ponds.

I'm usually not one for the derivative knockoff route, but Sloan's picks got me thinking.

My own fantasy terminal is pretty straightforward. It's a spacious, architecturally compelling place with cathedral ceilings (Washington-Reagan) and flooded with natural light (Chicago-O'Hare). It has a grand central atrium with centralized check-in (Frankfurt, Hong Kong). There is interior landscaping (Singapore). There is a public transportation link to and from the city center with in-terminal access (Amsterdam) and a minimum of fuss -- a rail connection that doesn't require a bus-to-train transfer (Boston), and that allows you to check your luggage at the downtown station (Kuala Lumpur). There are lockers and/or luggage storage facilities (Atlanta). And, most critical of all, there are concourse bookstores with common sense enough to stock copies of my bloody book (nowhere).

But, if you ask me, the biggest problem with airports isn't something that's missing, exactly, but something plentifully and excruciatingly abundant. Namely, I'm talking about noise. Not the window-rattling roar of jet engines, but the nerve-rattling clamor of kids, televisions, cellphones and loudspeakers inside the terminal. If there's one sorely lacking amenity, it's peace and quiet.

Even worse than the culinary abomination that is a Chick-fil-A sandwich, noise pollution is the No. 1 airport scourge. There are many individual sonic culprits, but the worst offenders are a first-place tie between shrieking children and those infernal gate-side television screens. The latter began appearing about 10 years ago, and today they hang from the ceiling at, it seems, virtually every gate in the country. At more than 40 of the busiest airports across America, the screens blare their signature product, CNN Airport Network -- a special broadcast culled from the cable giant's "Headline News" program (carefully scrubbed of stories pertaining to crashes or other airline mishaps -- a policy that caused the entire network's shutdown on Sept. 11). Because the segments are on video loop, naturally, you get to hear the same celebrity gossip 11 times over the course of a maintenance delay.

At an airport a few evenings ago I had several hours to kill and was searching desperately for a spot to relax and read. Short of staking out a seat in the men's room, the booming of television into every nook and cranny of the building made this impossible. Even though it was late at night and the terminal was uncrowded, the shrill play-by-play of a March Madness basketball game was piped everywhere -- even into a distant cluster of gates totally void of people.

The jabbering TV sets are intrusive enough, but multiple public address announcements only make things worse. Security warnings, boarding calls and passenger paging announcements often overlap, and it's not uncommon to be under bombardment by three or more simultaneously blaring P.A.s.

Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson may be the most eardrum-unfriendly facility in the world, with its claustrophobic architecture and sardine-can concourse traffic. Seated in one ATL boarding zone on a recent afternoon, a passenger was subject to the following, multilayered sonic siege:

Two over-volumed CNN Airport Network monitors; four cellphone conversations; three simultaneous public address announcements (one security, one delayed boarding call, the third totally unintelligible); two screeching infants; and the hideous, high-pitched beep-beep-beep-beep-beep of a motorized electric cart. That, in addition to expected, low-register background noise emitted by hundreds of people crammed into a too-small space.

So, how about outfitting airports with quiet zones -- designated areas where phone chatter, kids and public address nonsense are banned. We make accommodations for smokers -- and pilots, I might add, help the local neighborhoods by adhering to complicated noise-abatement departure paths -- so why not assist those customers brought to the brink of lunacy by the mad cacophony of technology and colic? Airports could take a cue from Amtrak's so-called Quiet Cars. (And if they insist on sucking up so much electricity, instead of using it to drive people crazy, how about, as the USA Today piece smartly recommended, offering it in the form of power ports, where people can charge up their laptops?)

At least for me, stepping onto the airplane provides a welcome sense of peace that is almost palpable. All the more reason to be concerned -- very, very concerned -- that once again the FCC and airlines are considering lifting the in-flight cellphones ban, a move guaranteed to push the experience of modern air travel from one of tolerable frustration to sheer hell. If you are one of the 30 percent of surveyed fliers who allegedly think this is good idea, please share with us your wisdom. The rest of us will keep our fingers crossed and our earplugs ready.

In the meantime, let's ponder a few other airport characteristics that I find annoying, perplexing or just plain weird:

1) Carpeting. Why do so many American airports insist on flavoring their already awful dicor with wall-to-wall carpeting? Its sound-absorption qualities are no match for those aforementioned decibel levels, and the chemical composition of industrial-grade rugs is well known for its toxicity. Not to mention, it's routinely filthy and almost always unattractive. (Note: Back on March 17 I described the carpeting at Boston's new Terminal A as "pudding-hued." Upon more careful inspection, it appears to be a much uglier cross between oatmeal and asphalt.)

2) Escalators. I have no problem with the idea of escalators, what with gravity and all, but we're light-years behind other countries both in operation of these calorie-saving devices, and in general escalator protocol. First, what prevents us from installing whatever it is the Europeans have installed -- a simple light-beam trigger, I imagine -- that shuts off the motor when nobody is riding? Our escalators run constantly, riders or no riders. Second, the majority of Americans have no idea how to actually behave on an escalator. It's very simple: If you're not in a hurry, stand on the right and enjoy the view. That allows those of us with a flight to catch to walk on the left. Instead, we stand on both sides, and nobody is able to get by. This is a big problem in Atlanta, where the escalators are very tall, senselessly narrow and achingly slow-moving. Coming off the inter-terminal train, anyone hurrying to a gate is forced to stand for the entire four-minute ascent. By the time you realize this, you're locked in place and can't make a jump for the stairs.

3) Shrink-wrapped luggage. If you travel overseas, particularly outside the North America-Europe corridor, you're probably familiar with those odd machines that cocoon people's luggage in thick layers of plastic wrap. More and more of them are popping up. Now, who am I to begrudge a passenger's prerogative to encase his or her belongings in a protective, tamper-proof coating? But I have to ask, how many millions of gallons of petroleum are expended to produce this stuff, and what happens when it's thrown away? If you haven't noticed, there's already too much plastic in the world, much of it scattered across the landscapes of developing countries, where most of this airport wrap ends up. And while theft resistance is one thing, checked luggage, be it a backpack or a suitcase or a cardboard box, is itself a protective shell, not a fashion accessory to be shielded from every nick and smear. Me, I'm an old-school luggage traditionalist who believes bags are meant to suffer dings, scratches and smudges, and only look cooler for it. Swaddling it in plastic seems inordinately wasteful and, to some degree, pointless.

Last week at Juan Santamaria International, serving the Costa Rican capital of San Jose, I watched a man attending to a luggage wrapper. In his bright yellow polo shirt -- "Baggage Protective Services: Proteja su equipaje" -- he seemed to really love his job, and I have to admit it looked like fun. He would hoist a bag onto a rotating pedestal, affixing a corner of plastic from a giant spindle. Then he'd hit a button, and off it would go. As a motor spun the pedestal around and around, peeling off foot after foot of sticky clear sheeting, the man was all arms, deftly guiding, tucking and stretching, until every bit of the suitcase, from handle to wheels, had disappeared beneath an opaque sheathing of polymer. He looked hilariously like a giant yellow spider apprehending its prey.


Re: Pilot pay

I too saw the Bob Buck article in the Times. Something was wrong, but I couldn't put my finger on it. You nailed it: Playing the hero card doesn't really cut it anymore. Neither does the "we're white-collar professionals, like doctors" argument so often heard. Pilots are a weird blend of white- and blue-collar, neither tradesmen nor professionals, and the usual definitions don't apply. What do you call someone who spends tens of thousands of dollars on his own training, then endures years in an ill-paid apprenticeship, in a notoriously unstable industry, cemented into a seniority system, unable to freelance or change companies? I don't know, but it's not a professional. Of course, neither are we true blue-collar workers, who at least have transferable skills. And I suspect the ubiquitous seniority system, originally set up to protect pilots from capricious promotions and demotions, may be our greatest hindrance.

-- Jeff

(The letter-writer is an airline pilot who asks that his last name be withheld.)

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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