Go to previous post:
Neal Pollack:

Go to Electrolite's front page.

Go to next post:
John M. Ford writes:

Our Admirable Sponsors

April 5, 2003

Airport World. I have long asserted that all airports are the same place. These stunning photographs of American troops in combat amidst the departure lounges and curbside dropoff areas of Baghdad’s international airport confirm me in my prejudice. Right down to the typography, it could be Sky Harbor in Phoenix. Or Newark. [10:24 PM]
Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Airport World.:

gabe chouinard ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2003, 11:38 PM:

I've flown into Sky Harbor a hundred times, since my family is down in Tucson.

I don't think I'll ever go there again without envisioning an invasion force rappelling down that faux rock wall...

--gabe chouinard

Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2003, 11:56 PM:

"The soldiers blasted a hole through the wall of the VIP terminal, stepped through the hole, and found themselves in the departures lounge of Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, surrounded by confused business travelers and New Englanders."

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 12:57 AM:

"I have long asserted that all airports are the same place."

Except this one.

God is great.

Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 01:21 AM:

Saddam^H^H^H^H^H^H Baghdad International looks rather clean and classy with nice landscaping.

But to judge from the corridor shot, it is desperately short of kiosks and carts staffed by horribly bored twenty-somethings selling kipple, trashy paperbacks, and kettle corn.

zizka ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 01:58 AM:

My position is that all airports, theme parks, shopping malls, and ring suburbs are the same place. My idea of Hell is to spend my life going from one to the next forever.

David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 06:13 AM:

You know, I really have to disagree. Those arched ceilings in the interior (seen for instance in slide #8) and the decor of the VIP lounge (slide #10) have a very Arabic feel to my eyes; they don't look like US or even European airports that I've seen.

Scott Martens ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 07:24 AM:

Actually, if you want to see a truly different airport, fly into Koh Samui, Thailand. I've put up some photos on my blog at http://pedantry.blogspot.com/2003_04_06_pedantry_archive.html#92084731

Lots of airports use basically the same class of design and then try to add some sort of "local" flavour to it. But there is a reason why airports all look the same: many of the people travelling through them are by definition from far away. They want their airports to be as simple, obvious and clearly laid-out as a McDonald's. No suprises, no confusion.

Jordin Kare ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 07:59 AM:

Zizka: I recall a short story, but can't place it at the moment, of exactly that -- a traveler whose flight is indefinitely delayed, then cancelled, who keeps taking alternate flights that get diverted, or just take him to another hub. Never getting home, living on airport food, sleeping in terminals... forever. Horrifying.

Scott: It's not just that travelers want airports to be similar -- if that were true, some of the airports I've been in would flunk badly. It's that airports, to be reasonably efficient, have to meet a *lot* of constraints, and there just aren't many possible layouts. Major airports have to get huge numbers of people from personal vehicles to boarding gates and back, handle ticketing, customs, and baggage, *and* provide all the infrastructure for the airplanes themselves -- runways, taxiways, parking areas, fueling, catering... About the only practical variations are 1) how many terminal buildings do you have? One giant one or several smaller ones? 2) do you put them in a single line or around a circle or U-shaped loop? 3) How do you connect the terminal building(s) to the gates? Surface-level halls, underground walkways, buses (Dulles), or some kind of people-mover (Atlanta).

I suppose there are a few features that are common but could be done differently -- for instance, most major airports have 2-level terminals with departures/ticketing on top and arrivals/baggage claim below. The 2 levels are forced -- not many other ways to separate departures and arrivals if you're trying to minimize terminal area -- but I suppose putting departures on top and arrivals on the bottom is largely a matter of custom. (Although I could also see it being driven originally by ease in handling baggage -- more chances for bags to slide downhill). But airports are a real challenge to architects -- which is probably why there are so many weird airport-building exteriors, trying to make up for the dull conformity of the interior layout.

Atrios ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 10:46 AM:

One exception is the Havana airport. Now there's an experience..

Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 11:53 AM:

I've always liked the United terminal at O'Hare myself. All that lovely natural light. A commodity often in short supply inside airports. And I like the silly connector tunnel.


arthur ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 01:08 PM:

I'm glad to see they have wheelchair accessible facilities. Actually, that probably mae it easier to roll the tanks in.

In the movie, the comic relief scene will involve fully loaded soldiers going through the metal detectors.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 03:14 PM:

After which they'll be searched anyway because they look like Americans.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 04:32 PM:

David G., the carved exterior doors, abstract interior vaulting, and lounge decor are all superficial surface quotes drawn from traditional Middle Eastern architecture. They aren't integral to the building itself. They could easily be tossed out and replaced with a different and equally arbitrary decorative scheme. The exterior tiled arches visible in the first photo would be harder to swap out, but their presence and their form are likewise arbitrary.

Seen from the outside, the building could be any sunbelt mall; from the inside, it could be any airport I've ever flown through. The only elements that wouldn't pass unremarked in the US are the bas-reliefs and other interior decoration in the VIP lounge (#10), and the concourse signs in Arabic #8.

That curving passenger pickup/dropoff area in the second photo, with its pre-stressed concrete shelter modules could be anywhere in Arizona or Southern California, plantings and all. I even recognize the light fixtures. The control tower in #5 looks just like the ones in Phoenix and Newark. And all the non-VIP airport furnishings are bog standard for US airports, convention centers, and hospitals.

It's Airport World: a principality that shares alliances and borders with Interstate World, New Suburbs, and the Republic of Big Box Retail.

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 05:54 PM:

The fittings are probably manufactured by the same firms worldwide. I doubt there's more than two or three companies that make airport docks, and there may be only one.

The plan of any airport, though, is defined by the forms of surface transport that come together there (runways, notice, are a form of surface transport), the need for an observation tower, and the social activities that occur within. (This also applies to shopping malls.) The Hajj terminal at Jiddah is different from others because its social character is different.

A person who did much to define the type was probably Edward Durrell Stone, at Idlewild (now JFK) and Dulles. The younger Saarinnen (Eero?) may have had some influence as well.

I believe the designer of that tension roof system at Jiddah, by the way, consulted on the new Denver International Airport, which also uses a tension roof. Interestingly, both operate partly as references to tribal tent forms.


Lois Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 06:02 PM:

Jordin's comments basically boil down to "form follows function", and I think he's right. The need to process people, their baggage, and the planes to carry them supersedes all other considerations. The "bog standard" waiting lounge in photo #9 is a prime example of Patrick's main point; it looks very similar to ones I've been in, and I don't even pretend to have been in as many airports as some of you.

The decorative stuff -- arches, tiles, bas-relief, etc. -- sure is pretty, but T's probably right that it's not essential except to give some "local culture" feel. That first photo of the entrance for some reason reminded me of Monroeville Mall in the suburbs east of Pittsburgh (not far from where my parents used to live, so I've spent lots of time and money there), even though MM's entrance doesn't have arches like that at all!

Lois Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 06:05 PM:

Just as I posted that I looked again at that #9 photo and wondered if those soldiers had the same thought, "Man, this is weird, this is an airport lounge."

Jonathan Strahan ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 06:40 PM:

Patrick -

I don't know if all airports are the same place, but you should check out Ursula Le Guin's CHANGING PLANES, which suggests that they at least lead to the same mental condition (and a sort of escape).

- Jonathan

Dustin ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 07:28 PM:

I have a theory, call it the "Theory of Public Spaces Identity", that with the right frame of mind, air travel and other long-distance mans of transportation become unnecessary. The Identity Theory says that public spaces such as malls and airports are so similar, so devoid of meaningful distinguishing characteristics, that you may as well be in any other mall or airport than the one you're in. From "you may as well" to actually being in any of those other places is only a matter of mindset. Current research into shifting one's mindset to take advantage of this revolutionary means of travel has, unfortunately, so far been unsuccessful. But it should work...

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 07:39 PM:

"About the only practical variations are 1) how many terminal buildings do you have? One giant one or several smaller ones? 2) do you put them in a single line or around a circle or U-shaped loop? 3) How do you connect the terminal building(s) to the gates? Surface-level halls, underground walkways, buses (Dulles), or some kind of people-mover (Atlanta)."

The placement and number of terminal buildings are likely to be heavily influenced by site constraints--where the runways and roads can be placed. I suppose there are some airports where there is more flexibility--the new Denver Airport seems to have been placed where there was largely undeveloped land--but in any major developed area, there are going to be site constraints having to do with availability of land, its geological character, and the existing roads.

Connection of terminal is probably more subject to fashion, available technology, and cost. My impression is that a number of these transport technologies were first deployed on a large scale in Disneyland.

Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 08:48 PM:

Actually zizka, afterlife airports to me would only be purgatory. Hell (in my opinion) is eternity in coach on a United 737. In a middle seat.

Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 10:26 PM:

Randolph--Eero Saarinen designed the original TWA terminal at Idlewild airport, a very cool building still.
Patrick--You should put together a Photoshop picture with a row of Robert Jordan paperbacks visible for sale in the background of one of these photos...

Charles Dodgson ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2003, 11:36 PM:

I'm surprised no one has yet mentioned Merhan Nasseri, the Iranian exile who has been living out Zizka's vision of hell since 1988, when a mishap involving the loss of his papers left him stranded, stateless, at Charles de Gaulle airport outside of Paris, where he has been living ever since.

He has, I'm compelled to note, been at only the one airport all this time. But if they're all the same, then it hardly matters...

clark e myers ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2003, 12:13 AM:

I certainly can't falsify the null hypothesis that all airports are the same - perhaps a general application of a developing rule that large cities have more in common with each other than they do with their own hinterlands.

Cargo side may have more differences - there was a time MIAD had what I think of as a lot of C46's scattered around waiting for scrap. Boeing Field has a different scale when the Antonov is in. There are odd-ball facilities - Grangeville Idaho had the busiest airport in the United States the day after 9/11 - the firebombers kept flying albeit with fighter escorts though the fighters were not there to protect the bombers.

Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2003, 01:17 AM:

I think airports are CONVERGING on sameplaceness as they are renovated and/or replaced.

Until the early 90s, Pittsburgh had a great 50ish airport with a classy green-tile retro look. There was a hotel right in the terminal. The new airport is fine, just not as distinctive.

New York City's JFK airport's terminals were (are) a diverse mix, from the wing'd TWA terminal mentioned above to stark International style places. They were designed to serve the elite travelers of the early Jet Age, and are / were not very functional for today's high-volume security-concious airline industry.

Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2003, 11:14 AM:

Toronto Island Airport was not the Same Place (it's no longer serving commercial flights), because of both location and size. It actually looked more like the bus terminal in a middle-sized town, except far more pleasant than that implies.

I suspect there are other small airports that are a different place, though they may also resemble each other.

And then there's Las Vegas, which assaults you with slot machines as soon as you enter, making it hard to tell whether it's essentially Yet Another Airport or Yet Another Casino.

Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2003, 11:53 AM:

I would say, Vicki, that the slot machines at McCarran fall into the same category as the bas-reliefs at Saddam International: they provide the distinguishing local touch.

McCarran's biggest deviation from the Standard Airport is its cavernous baggage claim facility, with giant video screens at either end, complete with gigawatt sound system, blaring and screaming promotions of the local attractions and shows. When you're is standing at the carousel waiting for your suitcase to show up, disoriented by the dislocation of high-speed air travel, the endless loop — Race for Atlantis, at Caesar's Palace!! Club Ra at the Luxor! The Star Trek Experience at the Hilton! Lance Burton! Siegfried and Roy! — is genuinely surreal, and genuinely unlike any other airport experience in the world.

The sight of members of the Third Infantry Division sweeping the facilities for the Republican Guard could not add to the essential strangeness of the experience.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2003, 01:13 PM:

Hell (in my opinion) is eternity in coach on a United 737. In a middle seat.

In the back row (where people can lean their seats back into you, but you can't lean yours back to compensate).

With grotesquely obese, inconsiderate, and/or drunk people on both sides. And a baby across the aisle whose parents totally ignore it as it screams its poor suffering heart out.


CHip ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2003, 03:51 PM:

The pictures do show one feature that is regional rather than local; as in Paris and London, this airport uses something like international yellow as the background for signs. (I've never seen this in the U.S.) The color is a little jarring when everything else in the terminal is muted, but it makes the important stuff easier to find.

Jordin: as of ~2 years ago, Dulles was finally making serious plans to get rid of its elevating busses (and not before time, IMO); they've delayed while figuring out how to do cut-and-cover (much cheaper than deep boring) without disrupting taxiing traffic too much. It also occurs to me that form following function is more important with the increase in hub-and-spoke systems -- more baggage has to be handled more often and more people have to find their way not just between landside and airside but around airside. One interesting change (at Orlando, e.g.): two levels for landside arrivals (one for personal cars, one for commercial); their transport sometimes has a reason to wait, while departures should be kiss-and-go.

We'll know they're really similar when you can flip syrup lids and teleport between them the way you can do at IHOPs.

Xopher -- a good point, but the row in front of the emergency exits is worse; you can't recline and you have noise on three sides instead of two. (In a 727 it would be a tossup -- less people noise in the back and more engine noises.) And just to make matters worse, make it a red-eye, where all the kids are screaming because they really ought to be asleep (and, in one memorable case, weren't even boarded first).

Lois Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2003, 01:39 AM:

Stefan said, "Until the early 90s, Pittsburgh had a great 50ish airport with a classy green-tile retro look. There was a hotel right in the terminal."

Not to mention the Alexander Calder mobile. It's been moved to the new airport but doesn't really show up as well there. In its new location, you can miss it if you don't look, whereas in the old airport it was *there*.

One of my early memories is of going to that airport when it was fairly new, in the mid-50's (if I had to guess I'd say '56), with my grandma, to pick up my stepgrandfather -- my real grandfather had died and she remarried -- who'd been away on a business trip. And I went there many times since, on trips or even a couple of times just to sightsee. (You actually used to be able to do that at airports!) I've only been in the new one twice, once each way on a round trip, and it's interesting but doesn't have the same personality. (Much less the memories.) It's more like a mall with a parking lot for airplanes.

As I was writing that last paragraph I realized my feelings about the new Carnegie Science Center vs. the old Buhl Planetarium are similar, and again in part due to childhood memories. But there are other reasons: the old Planetarium had one of those big projector things (I forget the name) that looked like a giant ant, which really freaked out some of my classmates when our sixth-grade class went there on a field trip. It also had a Foucault pendulum that knocked things over to show the rotation of the earth. The Foucault pendulum in the Science Center has lights that light up when the pendulum passes over them, which is cool in its own way but not as much fun to watch. There are a lot of interesting things to do at the Science Center -- and I didn't even get to the submarine -- but new does not in all cases mean better.