A Tale of Three Airports
Can we really make a brand new start of it in old New York?
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