Printer Friendly

Fasten your seatbelt! Western airports are flying into the 21st century.

Western airports are flying into the 21st century

Once upon a time, airports had sex appeal. Recall Hollywood's most romantic farewell: Bogie and Bergman on the tarmac in Casablanca--their eyes said more than a kiss could.

These days, many of us would just as soon kiss airports good-bye, if we could.

Too many big airports resemble angry hives, where travelers scurry like anonymous ants through endless lines and down dimly lit tunnels lined by ubiquitous snack bars serving rubbery, overpriced food.

That scenario may be changing. The good news, notably in the West, is that some planners have recently taken the lead in a movement to redesign airports to serve people--not just planes. The best airports are taking steps to provide more streamlined check-in procedures, better food, brighter lighting, and more attractive landscaping, as well as fine art and entertainment.

Here, then, is a report on Western airports, past, present, and future; a guide to coping with--even enjoying--the West's busiest airports; and strategies for avoiding airport terminal trauma. The most frenetic air-travel times--Thanksgiving and Christmas--are upon us, so fasten your seat belt and prepare to spend some quality "dwell time" at the airport.

Dwell time, in the parlance of airport operators, is time spent in the terminal. On an average domestic trip, we now spend 76 minutes in airports; if you subtract check-in and such, we spend 59 minutes just hanging around. And dwell time has been increasing by about 10 minutes per year for the past five years, according to Ira Weinstein, president of Airport Interviewing & Research (AIR), a market research firm.

Why? One factor is the airline routing concept called hubbing. Translated, it means you fly to a "hub" airport you don't want to go to, land with other people who also don't want to be there, and disembark into a seething swarm of passengers all trying to catch connecting flights.

Another factor: more travelers are crowding outdated facilities. The number of passengers boarding planes at our nation's airports rose from about 300 million in 1980 to 462 million in 1990, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). And the crowds are probably going to get worse. The FAA forecasts an annual increase of 4.7 percent in passenger volume until the year 2000, when an estimated 738 million passengers will be flying our skies.

To gear up for this traffic explosion, and to update technology, airports have been expanding and remodeling at a furious pace, and more work is planned. Denver is building a brand-new airport, which is scheduled to open in fall 1993. And the best of today's airports are responding to the changing demands of an increasingly sophisticated traveling public.

From humble airfields to humongous hubs

In the 1920s, when pioneer aviator Charles Lindbergh touched down at Mills and Lindbergh fields in San Francisco and San Diego, respectively, most airports amounted to a hangar or two. By the late 1930s, many airfields had sprouted small terminals, with interiors resembling hotel lobbies. After World War II, when the crowds and planes got bigger, so did the terminals.

Until quite recently, airports were designed to accommodate planes; when it came to people, the airport's role was simply to get them from auto to airplane quickly. But with airline deregulation and the transformation of so-called origin/destination airports into hubs, more and more people had to hop from plane to plane, at terminals that weren't built to handle such massive internal transfers.

To modify origin/destination airports for service as hubs, architects redesigned big airports, detaching concourses from terminals to allow for transfers and to handle more planes. Still, such designs didn't serve people too well, since concourses were very long and often dimly lit, and had limited amenities. The result: passengers often arrived late, tired, hungry, and grouchy.

As an example, take Dallas-Fort Worth International, opened in the 1960s as an origin/destination airport. DFW's circular shape served it well then--travelers could park close to gate areas and walk in. Now it's the West's biggest hub, with thousands of passengers transferring. Many must walk long distances around or across three terminals, through narrow, overcrowded concourses, with insufficient or poorly located amenities. A people mover was added in an attempt to make the original design fit a new role.

More recently, design emphasis has shifted to accommodate the passenger. "The key words today are passenger convenience," says Ronald Steinert, a vice president of Gensler and Associates Architects in Santa Monica, California. "Airports are being laid out or redesigned in a more orderly fashion so the passenger is not confused. We're also seeing natural light and landscaping plants being brought in to make spaces more human. Use of warm-colored materials and natural stone help make them more beautiful, like the grand old railroad stations."

Increasingly, airports are embracing their role as gateways to cities--the first and perhaps only impression of a city some travelers may ever get. According to Phillip Jacobson, design director of TRA Architecture Engineering Planning Interiors in Seattle, "We seek out what is special about a place, then try to understand the local cultural and physical conditions and have these influence our designs. Western airport clients show the most interest in this type of design."

Designing airports for bigger jets, more people

What's ahead? We're likely to see more efficient peoplemoving systems, more high-tech devices to expedite baggage handling, and bigger airports with wider gates and taxiways to handle larger planes.

Tramlike people movers already whisk passengers around DFW and the Las Vegas and Seattle airports, and more are planned. At large airports, laser scanners that read bar codes on baggage tags are being used to sort up to 480 bags per minute. The scanners are aimed at reducing missed baggage connections and misrouting. (Of 408 million domestic passengers last year, only about 2.2 million reported baggage complaints. That's about 5.4 complaints per 1,000 passengers.)

Experts say future airport designs and renovations must allow for bigger jets already on the drawing boards--doubledecker planes that will carry 600 to 1,000 passengers. Larger, more widely spaced gates will be needed to accommodate these monster planes, and taxiways will have to be widened so the planes won't impede and delay other aircraft heading for runways. One design solution is likely to involve a linear terminal with remote parallel linear concourses, separated by taxiways wide enough for the bigger-winged planes. Another solution: midfield satellite terminals or concourses, set out between runways, which passengers reach by subways or buses.

Two big Western airport projects are anticipating future needs. At San Francisco International, construction on a $2.2-billion, multilevel international terminal could begin in January. Plans include a people-mover system similar to a monorail, which would link all terminals, and a transit station (possibly to BART or CalTrain). Baggage may be transported on individual computer-directed carts powered by a magnetic levitation system. By its projected completion in 1996, the terminal is supposed to be capable of handling the largest passenger aircraft and as many as 8,000 passengers per hour.

In Denver, the future is nearer at hand. Denver International Airport (cost: $2.7 billion), scheduled to open next fall, boasts a state-of-the-art design that many say will represent airports of tomorrow. The main terminal will be huge--three blocks long--with six levels. To avoid curbside traffic snarls, ground traffic will be channeled to different levels according to function, with one level reserved for buses and shuttles. Just inside the main terminal, all travelers will pass through one main security check area, then board 40-mph subway trains to the concourses, each of them sited like an island out on the tarmac. The airport also aims to be a 24-hour art gallery, with $6.5 million set aside to purchase artworks.

You can see partial transformations at some airports today. Walk through Los Angeles International's redesigned Terminal 5 (Delta); it's a bit like strolling along a Southern California boulevard. The palm-lined concourse, paved in pastel marble, is brightened by a circular skylight. Gateside lounges, shops, and restaurants are tucked at various levels in the manner of sidewalk cafes. More expansions are proposed for Portland, San Jose, and Tucson. In San Diego, alternatives for the city's hemmed-in Lindbergh Field (pilots consider it one of the West's toughest places to land) include a proposal called TwinPorts, an international airport that would straddle the U.S.-Mexico border.

But building airports to accommodate tomorrow's passengers may not always make sense to today's travelers. At Phoenix airport, thanks to the cavernous new Terminal 4, so many gates stand empty that some say the place resembles a ghost town. Art Kosatka, an official of the Airports Association Council International, is philosophical. "Such projects have to be funded and planned up to a decade ahead. One thing is certain: we have to build to meet the best technology, latest safety equipment, and tomorrow's biggest aircraft."

Who's going to pay for costly airport expansions? You will, in part, through a new Passenger Facility Charge. It's already being collected (as a $3 charge added to tickets) by four Western airports: Denver, Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas, and Portland. And at least 60 airports across the country have applied to the FAA to impose the charge.

Dallas--Fort Worth International

Like Texas itself, DFW is vast--with more runaways (six), more acreage (18,000 acres), and more parking spaces (26,191) than any other Western airport. Long walks and boring connector halls are what people gripe about here. Allow lots of time to shuttle between the four terminals, or to the distant car rental area. Trams run between the terminals, departing at 10-minute intervals; check video monitors for latest gate listings to be sure of which car to take.

Serenity is hard to find here in the world's second-busiest airport (48.1 million passengers last year). Try heading over to the Hyatt Regency Hotel, between terminals 3E and 3W, to sit in its hushed lobby or enjoy its restaurants. The airport is about 13 miles northwest of downtown Dallas, 17 miles northeast of downtown Fort Worth; allow 30 minutes (50 minutes at rush hour).

Los Angeles International

When it opened in 1961, LAX was built to handle about 7 million passengers a year. Now it's the third-busiest airport in the world, with 45.6 million fliers last year. Like an aging star, it has endured costly face-lifts--$310 million worth of renovation in the 1980s alone.

One international and eight domestic terminals sit in a sort of U shape, with parking lots and the flying saucer-like Theme Building in the center. For respite from the crowds, head for the observation deck in the Theme Building or the palm-lined oasis in Terminal 5. Airline Connections shuttle buses offer free rides between terminals. Parking lot crime is a problem; lots B and C have the highest auto break-in rates.

Ground-traffic congestion near and at the airport is still a major complaint. A new phone line for transit information to LAX may help; call (800) 310-5465. Drivers nearing the airport can tune to AM radio channel 530 for a report on parking and traffic conditions. LAX is 20 miles southwest of downtown; allow 1/2 hour (1 hour in rush hour).

San Francisco International

With the three terminals (North, International, South) and 80 gates, SFO tallied some 31.7 million passengers last year, making it the nation's fifth-busiest airport. SFO's horseshoe shape can mean a long walk for transferring passengers, and there's no people moved to speed things (an intraterminal bus outside on the second level sees few riders). But since SFO serves mainly as an origin/destination airport, not as a hub, only a small percentage of passengers have to transfer.

A $512-million remodel was completed in the late 1980s, and early next year SFO plans to kick off construction of a new international terminal. Meanwhile, its permanent art collection and its changing exhibits have set standards for other airports. SFO is off U.S. 101 about 14 miles south of downtown San Francisco; allow 40 minutes transit time.

Stapleton International, Denver

Stapleton, the nation's sixth-busiest airport, saw 28.3 million passengers last year. But during winter storms, Stapleton's traffic-handling capability drops from 88 flights per hour to 30, causing delays and missed connections. Technology at the new airport (opening in fall 1993, 13 miles northeast of Stapleton) aims to solve those problems.

Stapleton opened the first Kids Port, run by the Denver Children's Museum, with a climbing wall, interactive exhibits, and a room full of balls to dive into. The airport is about a 35-minute drive from downtown via Interstate 70.

Honolulu International

Despite hosting 22.3 million passengers per year, this airport has an uncrowded, breezy feel, with lots of open-air walkways and a topical garden off the lobby of the main terminal. The main terminal has plenty of shops, familiar fast-food outlets, Hawaii products for sale, and a full-service bank open weekdays. For leis, you best bet--for price and variety--are the dozen lei stands by the rental car return. By spring 1993, the new interisland terminal should be open.

For the typical Honolulu-stopover flight, a long layover is fairly common. Spend it at the new Pacific Aerospace Museum on the second level of the main terminal. Or consider checking your bags and heading into town for shopping or sightseeing. The airport is 4 miles west of downtown; allow 20 minutes (45 minutes during rush hour).

Sky Harbor International, Phoenix

Sky Harbor's $280-million Terminal 4 opened in November 1990--a seven-story structure with parking garage included, five concourses, and some $2 million worth of art. Air traffic hasn't met projections--of 90 gates, 14 stand idle. Old Terminal 1 was bulldozed, and half-empty Terminal 2 may soon be closed. Still, the airport saw 22.1 million passengers last year, and Terminal 4 has eased congestion.

Inside the new terminal, earth-tone colors and Native American motifs let you know you're in the Southwest. Throughout the airport, shopping and dining options get high marks; look for regional foods and crafts like Navajo rugs, pottery, and jewelry. The airport is 3 1/2 miles from downtown Phoenix; allow a 10-minute drive.

Las Vegas McCarran International

McCarran shouts Las Vegas--if the metallic palm trees and neon signs don't tip you off, the jangling slot machines will. Recorded voices of celebrities like Debbie Reynolds imitating Eva Gabor coax you to "keep to the right, dahling" as you ride along moving walkways through concourses.

With more than 20 million passengers yearly, McCarran is now the 16th-busiest in the nation, but the FAA predicts it will jump to 11th by 2005. Dozens of shops in a mini-mall setting do help pass the time. For some peace and quiet, try the glass alcoves on the second floor, overlooking street and mountains beyond. For parking advice, tune to AM radio channel 530. The airport is about a mile east of The Strip; allow 10 minutes for the drive.

Houston Intercontinental

You can get your exercise running between gates in this sprawling airport's three main terminals--A, B, and C--and the newer Mickey Leland International Airlines Building, called Leland IAB. The airport's linear layout means that unfortunates who must transfer the farthest--the 1 1/2 miles from Terminal A to the end of Leland IAB--have to ride a subway the entire length of the airport and its midterminal hotel. The good news is that the interterminal train is fast (6 minutes for the whole trip). Each terminal has its own parking area.

One feature of the Leland IAB terminal may be a harbinger of future airport design--it's the country's first totally "common use" terminal, with airlines sharing equipment, counters, and gates. The system allows airlines to add or subtract facilities quickly as needs require. With some 18.1 million passengers last year, airport traffic is growing. The airport is 22 miles northeast of downtown Houston; allow 45 minutes' driving time.

Seattle-Tacoma International (Sea-Tac)

Sophisticated, yet uncomplicated and user-friendly--much like Seattle itself--that's how Sea-Tac is often described. Its main terminal is linked to two satellite terminals with an underground people mover. Inside, shops offer a range of Northwest products.

One gripe--finding parking--is addressed by an enlarged parking garage. This fall, remodeled concourses B, C, and D will reopen with a Northwest look, new art. Last year, Sea-Tac saw some 16.3 million passengers. The airport is about 13 miles south of downtown Seattle; allow 30 minutes (60 minutes during rush hour).

Coping with, even enjoying, the West's 11 busiest airports

The West's 11 busiest airports each serve a staggering 11 million or more passengers a year. We list them according to their 1991 passenger volume, from frenetic megahub DFW to busy Lindbergh Field in San Diego. We haven't included smaller airports, not because we don't like them, but because most of us are more likely to travel through--and need the most help coping with--these 11.

Whether you're traveling for business or pleasure, our guide can help you reduce hassles and perk up your dwell time during a stopover. In compiling this guide, we found some pleasant surprises: fine restaurants with regional cuisine, attractive shops, impressive art galleries, playrooms where children can romp, and service centers where businesspeople can work. If you can, avoid flights at peak times and days.

Sending kids aloft

If you'll be flying with a child under age 2 or sending an older child unaccompanied on a flight, here are some things to remember:

Flying with infants. Children under age 2 may still fly free if held on a parent's lap.

A ruling issued by the Federal Aviation Administration, effective October 5, requires all airlines to allow the use of child-restraint systems (the kind of safety seats used in cars) on board for children under age 2.

To reserve a seat for an infant in its safety carrier, airlines require you to buy a ticket for the child. Before the ruling, some airlines would, if space permitted, allow parents who hadn't bought a ticket for their infant to sue an open seat for the carrier free of charge. At press time, airline officials could not confirm if that practice would continue.

Unaccompanied children. If you're sending a child alone on a flight, arrive at the airport an extra 30 minutes early to fill out paperwork, including the name of the parent or guardian who'll pick up the child at trip's end.

Rules vary slightly between carriers, but in general for domestic flights, most airlines require that unaccompanied children be at least 5. Ages 5 through 7 must travel on a nonstop or through flight. Ages 8 through 11 may transfer (note that America West won't accept transfers of unaccompanied children from another airline).

During the airport transfer, some airlines will escort the child from gate to gate for no charge; others charge a fee.

If you're picking up a child who has flown unaccompanied, you must show photo identification before airline authorities will release the child to you.

Peak time for airport crime

No agency monitors crime statistics at all airports. Airport security may be handled by local, state, or county law enforcement agents, the airport's own forces, or even rent-a-cops. But one thing is certain: no big airport is untouched by crime.

Security officials we polled indicated crimes are on the rise. Since such crimes thrive amid crowds and distractions, they're generally more prevalent during the peak travel periods like Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

Auto thefts and break-ins are on the rise nearly everywhere. Los Angeles International (LAX) ranked first in the West with 674 auto thefts or break-ins in 1991.

At Honolulu International, thefts reached an annual high of 563 in 1991, according to Lieutenant Edward Akiona of the Honolulu Police Department. He pointed out one contributing factor here--the design of the airport baggage carts, which are built to be pulled behind the traveler, so the victim isn't looking when bags or purses slip off or get swiped. Gangs of pickpockets have also swept through Honolulu and other airports.

Distraction is the usual technique used by thieves, who often work in pairs. A typical scenario: while one thief distracts the victim by spilling food on him or her, the pickpocket lifts his or her wallet. Other crimes have involved luggage stolen by people posing as skycaps and rip-offs by drivers posing as cabbies.

How can travelers avoid becoming crime victims?

The wisest advice: never leave your bags unattended, hand your bags only to uniformed skycaps, be alert to distractions, keep wallets in an inside pocket or use a handbag with secure closure, and use only officially designated cabs and shuttles.

Each airline determines whether it provides attendants for "positive bag match"--matching claim checks to bag tags--at the claim area.

Tips for nipping airport hassles

For hassle-free fast travel through the airport, experts give these tips:

* When booking, plan for the worst. Have your travel agent list a couple of alternative routes should you miss a flight or if a destination is affected by weather.

* Get a seat assignment and boarding pass in advance, and check in at the gate up to an hour but absolutely no later than 10 minutes prior to flight departure.

* When booking a connecting flight that involves changing carriers, ask your travel agent to check where in the arriving airport each airline arrives and depart from--if it's a long stretch between the two, you may want to request a longer time cushion between flights.

* When possible, fly on Saturday afternoons or Sunday mornings--the lightest travel times at most airports. Friday afternoons are busiest, so flights are often delayed.

* Put your identification tags on luggage prior to check-in. If you have to check luggage, do it at curbside (tipping $1 per bag)--but alert handler if your flight is leaving soon.

* Reconfirm your flight ahead. Call the airline before you go to the airport to check for cancellations, delays.

* If your flight is canceled while you're at the airport, don't stand in line to rebook with everyone else--instead, call in (use a nearby pay phone) and you may get faster service.

* If a flight is delayed more than 4 hours (and it's the airline's fault), ask for a voucher to cover the cost of a meal; if it's later than 10 P.M. request a hotel voucher (not guaranteed--airline policies vary--but it doesn't hurt to ask).

* The U.S. Department of Transportation's consumer affairs office can tell you about an airline's on-time performance and lost-baggage frequency, and record a complaint. Call (202) 366-2220. To order a copy of the 32-page booklet Fly-Rights covering air traveler's rights, send $1 to Consumer Information Center, Department 156T, Pueblo, Colo. 81009.

* The nonprofit Aviation Consumer Action Project offers a 23-page booklet called Facts and Advice for Airline Passengers ($3) and will also register an airline complaint. Write to Box 19029, Washington, D.C. 20036.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:includes related articles
Author:Finnegan, Lora J.
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Nov 1, 1992
Previous Article:Hang up a harvest wreath.
Next Article:Billboard buildings: L.A.'s car-tuned architecture is making an eye-catching comeback.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters