Ask the pilot

How to build the perfect airline terminal? Here are 15 steps in the right direction.

Published February 13, 2009 11:30AM (EST)

One Saturday in the spring of 1979, when I was in seventh grade, a friend and I embarked on a secret trip to Kennedy airport in New York. It was a sort of junior pilot's pilgrimage, in which we'd spend an entire afternoon up on the roof of JFK's Pan Am terminal, watching and photographing planes. We had used our birthday money to buy round-trip tickets from Boston. We brought packed lunches, binoculars and an old Kodak 110 camera. Our parents had no idea.

The Pan Am terminal was known as the “Worldport.” Opened in 1960, the Worldport was never exactly beautiful, but it was one of the most architecturally distinctive airport buildings around -- a jet-age fantasy topped with a dramatic elliptical rooftop that loomed over JFK like a giant flying saucer. The main international hub of history's most legendary airline, this is the building where, in a conference room, John Lennon had declared the Beatles "bigger than Jesus"; where stars and starlets waved from metal stairs pulled up to Constellations and DC-7s. Kings and queens, sheiks and ambassadors, statesmen and spies, had all walked its corridors. For a 13-year-old airplane nut, it was the coolest place on earth.

Here it is 30 years later, and Pan Am has been gone for almost two decades. But the Worldport remains, today the property of Delta, which acquired the place, along with most of Pan Am's transatlantic network, in 1990. Nobody calls it the Worldport anymore; it's known merely as Terminal 3.

The reason I bring this up is because Salon's readers have just voted Terminal 3 their least favorite airport building in America. A week ago I solicited your opinions on which was America's worst place to fly from, and my in box was quickly full. As for airports in whole, LAX, Miami, Washington-Dulles and Atlanta seem to generate the most animosity, but when it comes to particular buildings, Terminal 3 takes the booby prize. I can't say that I'm surprised. T3 in 2009 is grimy, forlorn and badly overcrowded -- an old, confounding warren of dimly lit passageways and partitions. The great flying saucer is still there, but its crumbling masonry and peeling paint evoke little beyond a crying need for it to be torn down. I'm usually a preservationist when it comes to terminals. I was thrilled when JetBlue was able to save Eero Saarinen's TWA masterpiece, for instance, and LaGuardia's Marine Air Terminal, adjacent to the Delta Shuttle, ought to be kept forever. But T3, for all its history and novelty, should have met the wrecking ball years ago.

If it's any consolation, T3 was in even worse shape prior to Delta's taking it over from a dying and neglectful Pan Am. Delta is well aware of its shortfalls and is anxious to replace it. It is not only dingy but also dysfunctional; the lack of apron space contributes to lengthy arrival and departure delays, the trickle-down effects of which (crew logistics; misconnected passengers and luggage, etc.) cost the company millions. Exactly how and when a new facility will be built, however, is still under study. Aside from an estimated billion-dollar price tag, there's the problem of how to temporarily relocate dozens of daily long-haul flights amid massive reconstruction. American and JetBlue, both of which have big new terminals at Kennedy, had ample adjacent room on which to build, with minimal disruption to their daily operations. But there's very little space in Delta's corner of the airport, meaning a new T3 will have to be a complicated, multiphase project. (Kennedy's Terminal 2, also used by Delta and in similar condition, will be replaced as part of the same project.) Until then, the carrier plans to borrow several gates from nearby Terminal 4.

In the meantime, if you're one of the many fliers passing through, try to make the best of it. Maybe it sounds crazy, but with a little bit of patience and an open mind, one can still appreciate, or at least tolerate, a few hours in T3. There's something to be said for the literal worldliness of the place. There are very few terminals in America with as many nightly nonstops to as many corners of the planet -- to Europe, Africa, South America, the Middle East (Asia flights begin this summer). Thus T3 is about as comprehensive a melting pot as you'll find in this country -- a round (literally) little microcosm of el mundo itself, teeming with colors and creeds: Russians and Ukrainians, Brazilians and Colombians, Arabs and Hasidic Jews, all mingling at arm's length. In that sense, the spirit of Pan Am's Worldport lives on.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

And imagining what a new T3 might look like takes us to the second part of this week's column: A list of 15 things that no airport terminal should be without. (Originally it was going to be 10 things, but you know how it is with list making.) "With very few exceptions," I noted last Friday, "Americans haven't figured out how to build a proper terminal. We fail at aesthetics, we fail at amenities, and we fail at the relatively simple task of moving people efficiently from A to B." At the choicest facilities overseas we find things like swimming pools, movie theaters, complimentary baggage carts and in-terminal railway links to downtown. In America we have Chick-fil-A, $4.50 cart rentals and abominable public transport.

The list below is culled from your e-mails and also includes a few of my own splendid ideas. Mind you, this is a list of things that airports should have, not a list of what they shouldn't have. Fair to say I’ve hammered that latter concept to death. As many of you already know, my first moves as airport czar will be to overhaul the Transportation Security Administration and rip out every last one of those hellspawn CNN Airport Network monitors. But in lieu of the usual gripe session, here are some useful and, I think, common-sense suggestions -- a few of which you've maybe never considered.

1. A fast, efficient, low-cost public transportation link to downtown

This is pretty far-fetched for most places, I know. We may as well wish for a grove of purple trees sprouting hundred dollar bills. But let us dream.

2. Complimentary wireless Internet

What do we do at airports? We kill time. And there are few better and more productive ways of killing time than logging on to the Web ... send an e-mail to your mistress, read my column, surf for smut. Many, if not most, major terminals do have Wi-Fi access, but it's expensive and cumbersome (few things in life are more irritating than those credit card payment pages). It should be everywhere, and it should be free (see JetBlue at JFK). And how about a splash page that actually contains useful information, like arrival and departure times or an interactive map of the terminal?

3. Power ports

I didn't realize that passengers have a right -- nay, a duty -- to mooch free electricity from their carrier of choice, but based on your e-mails it's a lost cause to argue otherwise. Airlines should throw in the towel and build more charging stations.

4. Convenience stores

Judging by the retail options at most of our airports, no American takes to the sky without a bottle of duty-free perfume, a new massage chair or a thousand-dollar Tumi suitcase. (What's with all the luggage stores? Who the hell buys luggage after they get to the airport?) What we really need are the same sorts of things we buy at CVS or the corner store. Like stationery. I spent over an hour at an airport recently, hunting in vain for a notebook. Wouldn’t it be nice to grab some sunscreen before your flight to the Caribbean? Or how about, after claiming your luggage, the chance to pick up some bread and milk, eliminating that annoying stop on the late-night drive home? Even better: a convenience store with a pharmacy.

5. Showers and a short-stay hotel

No serious international terminal should be without a place to wash up and/or crash for a few hours. Passengers arriving from overseas can shower and change before their next connection. Those with longer waits can grab a nap in one of those pay-by-the-hour sleeping pods. Many airports overseas are so equipped. Ours should be, too.

6. Play area for children

Truth be told, airport play areas encourage toddlers to shriek and yell even more than they already do, but at least they're doing it together, in one concentrated little area that is easy for the rest of us to avoid. Ideally this spot should be in a soundproofed bubble approximately six miles from the airport itself, but an open space at the far end of the concourse is a reasonable alternative. The Delta terminal at Boston-Logan has the coolest kidport I've seen. I'd play there myself if nobody was watching.

7. ATMs

Their placement is sporadic, and they always seem to be on the wrong side of security. There should be more of them, on both sides. Machines that dispense foreign currency are especially helpful in terminals with overseas departures.

8. An information kiosk

How do I reach Terminal 3? Where is the nearest ATM? Where is the nonexistent subway link to the city? Where can I buy a notebook? The most helpful kiosks I've encountered are in Cincinnati and, of all places, Providence, R.I. Every arrivals hall needs one, with staff who can give directions, hand out free maps, make change for a dollar, and so on. Immediately next door should be one of those hotel reservations consoles.

9. A place to send mail and buy postage

One of the most annoying last-minute tasks before heading on vacation is stopping by the mailbox with your bills and small packages. What if you could send them from the airport? And after checking in for your flight home, writing and mailing some postcards is a great time-killer. If a full-service post office is asking too much (Atlanta has one in the main terminal lobby), give us a mailbox and a postage machine.

10. A bookstore

Not a magazine stand pretending to be a bookstore, but a proper bookstore. People like to read on planes, and believe it or not their tastes extend beyond sudoku, spy novels and "The Kite Runner."

And naturally, said proper bookstore will be amply stocked with copies of "Ask the Pilot," regardless of its being embarrassingly out-of-date and in dire need of revision. (As far as I know, the last of the few airport bookstores to carry "Ask the Pilot" was Olsen's, in the beautiful main hall at Reagan-National. If you've seen it elsewhere, please let me know.)

11. Ample gate-side seating

If the plane at Gate 12 holds 250 people, there ought to be a minimum of 250 chairs in the boarding lounge -- not 100, not 150. There is something extremely uncivilized about having to sit on the floor while waiting to board your flight. Do we sit on the floor when waiting for a table in a restaurant? Do we sit on the floor at the doctor's office? (When Singapore's award-winning Changi Airport was built, the gates were outfitted with no fewer than 420 chairs, matching the average number of seats on a 747.)

12. A quiet area

Every concourse needs a cordoned-off quiet zone with some comfy chairs and newspapers, insulated from the blare of public address announcements, cellphone yammering and CNN.

13. Art and greenery

As airports turn more and more into shopping malls, their ambience has become, let's just say, less than relaxing. Artwork offers a pleasant, mentally engaging distraction. It should be local, casual, perhaps with a travel theme -- be it a temporary installation, or something inherent to the overall design, like the sea-life mosaics in the walkways at Boston-Logan.

And while we're at it, how about a little horticulture? Flowers, shrubs, small trees -- some in-terminal greenery helps soothe jangled nerves. Virgin America, the young upstart already renowned for its customer-friendly touches, puts potted plants in its check-in areas.

14. Double-wide escalators

The majority of Americans have no idea how to behave on an escalator. It's supposed to work like this: If you're not in a hurry, stand on the right and enjoy the view, allowing those of us with a flight to catch to walk on the left. Instead we stand in the middle, hogging both sides. But even if we wanted to ride them properly, most escalators in America are too skinny, especially when you're toting luggage. (This is a big problem in Atlanta, where the escalators are horrendously narrow.) If they were wider, the left-right thing would be more intuitive, and traffic would flow more freely.

Ditto for etiquette on moving sidewalks. Maybe it's just me, but as I've always understood it, the point of the moving sidewalk is to expedite your passage from A to B, not indulge your laziness. You're not supposed to stand on them, you're supposed to walk on them.

And with both of these devices, I have to ask: What prevents us from installing whatever it is the Europeans install -- a simple light-beam trigger, I imagine -- that shuts off the motor when nobody is riding? Ours run constantly, riders or no riders.

15. A view!

An observation deck, once an airport staple, is probably out of the question, but can we please have some windows with a view of the runways? Why are so many airport designers intent on hiding the fact that their airports are actually airports? At Kennedy's T3, rows of windows have been intentionally opaqued with tinting or decals, making it impossible to see outside. Why? Instead of shopping or staring at one of those CNN chatterboxes, plenty of people would enjoy nothing more than sitting in front of a window and watching the planes go by. You needn't be an airplane buff to find this relaxing. As a bonus, more windows means more natural light, which is always preferred to harsh fluorescents.

Windows. At an airport. What a concept.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

MORE FROM Patrick Smith

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Air Travel Ask The Pilot Business