A Tale of Three Air­ports

Can we re­ally make a brand new start of it in old New York?

Business Traveler (USA) - - TALKING POINT -

There was a time not so long ago, it seems, when my chil­dren were small, that I al­ways made it a point to bring home some­thing just for them when I re­turned from my busi­ness trips. Some­times they were items Daddy ac­tu­ally spent money on –‘I Heart NY’tee shirts big enough to be pa­ja­mas, or pink flip flops be­decked with boa feath­ers and jewels from Hol­ly­wood (where else?). But be­cause bud­gets were tight, more of­ten than not the trea­sures were tiny bot­tles of sham­poo and bars of soap just the right size for lit­tle hands.

Of course the ho­tel toi­letries only made the grade for a cou­ple of years. Af­ter the first terse “Re­ally, Dad – soap?”we had to in­sti­tute a new rule that only‘spe­cial’trips war­ranted bring­ing home mem­o­ra­bilia. This let cheap­skate Dad off the hook for most travel, but left ex­pec­ta­tions ex­traor­di­nar­ily high when my jour­neys took me to ex­otic‘spe­cial’places. Thus I be­came some­what the con­nois­seur of gift shops in air­ports around the world.

You can imag­ine my de­light then at hav­ing re­cently made a con­nec­tion over Seoul’s In­cheon Air­port; for the past five years run­ning this air­port’s been the win­ner of Busi­ness Trav­eler’s award for best duty free shop­ping. The only prob­lem was, I’m used to mak­ing my gift shop runs in un­der three min­utes, in and out, as I hus­tle to the next gate. In­cheon com­pletely over­whelmed my shop­ping tac­tics with the re­tail equiv­a­lent of shock and awe.

Air­ports have changed dra­mat­i­cally over the years, and not just their gift shops. Ex­pec­ta­tions are higher than ever from ev­ery seg­ment of the trav­el­ing public, but es­pe­cially among fre­quent busi­ness trav­el­ers. Of course, in ad­di­tion to the pas­sen­gers they serve, air­ports are also a prod­uct of their lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties, the air­lines that fly there, the tech­nol­ogy of avi­a­tion, and to no small de­gree, the gov­ern­ments that reg­u­late them.

As we re­searched Big Ap­ple Air (this month’s Take Offs & Land­ings col­umn, page 54) we ran across some in­struc­tive tid­bits about how air­ports that are con­ceived in one era stum­ble into the next. Ne­wark was the busiest air­port in the world in the 1930s; LaGuardia was de­scribed at its open­ing as “the most pre­ten­tious land and sea­plane base in the world”by TIME mag­a­zine; and Kennedy, nee Idlewild, was in­tended pri­mar­ily to re­lieve that pesky in­ter­na­tional traf­fic com­ing into LGA, which de­spite its pre­ten­sious­ness, had proven to be over­crowded al­most from the out­set.

None of these air­ports as de­signed was able to match the re­al­ity of com­mer­cial avi­a­tion as the in­dus­try ac­tu­ally de­vel­oped. They had to change and adapt over time. Un­for­tu­nately time is a com­mod­ity that was not on their side; when you serve the busiest air mar­ket in the coun­try, you can’t just stop the clock for a decade while you tear down what isn’t work­ing to build some­thing that will. Life goes on. So does fly­ing.

De­sign­ers of so-called green­field air­ports – those built from the ground up out in the mid­dle of a pas­ture or a desert or even a man-made is­land some­where – have it good. They can cre­ate an avi­a­tion gate­way based on the best prac­tices from a cen­tury of air travel all over the world. NewYork’s air­ports re­ally have no such op­tion. So it is with great an­tic­i­pa­tion that we look for­ward to the re­sults of Gover­nor An­drew Cuomo’s de­sign com­pe­ti­tion for the Big Ap­ple’s avi­a­tion sys­tem. For my own part, I hope it’s a sweep­ing plan of great vi­sion, but at the same time one that can re­al­is­ti­cally be ac­com­plished within all the con­straints of bud­get, time and pol­i­tics. Be­cause af­ter all these years, NewYork is still one of my fa­vorite cities on earth, and I would like to ar­rive there in rel­a­tive com­fort, rel­a­tively on time.

And still be able to swoop into the gift shop to buy my grand­kids tee shirts that say‘I Heart NY.’ BT

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