Unexpected Pleasures at a Terminal Near You.
WITH SCATTERED EXCEPTIONS, U.S. airports don’t have a whole lot going for them. They’re noisy, dirty, poorly laid out, and just generally hostile to passengers. As my regular readers are well aware, I’ve made this point in numerous prior posts. Now, so that I’m not accused of harping on the negative, “Hidden Airport” is a semi-regular feature highlighting little-known spots of unexpected pleasantness.
ALL PHOTOS BY THE AUTHOR
— NEWEST ADDITION: RALEIGH-DURHAM’S TERMINAL 2
“Ah for the days when aviation was a gentleman’s pursuit, back before every Joe Sweatsock could wedge himself behind a lunch tray and jet off to Raleigh-Durham.” That’s from Sideshow Bob, in an old episode of the Simpsons (back when that show was still watchable), and we love the way he gives the words “Raleigh-Durham” an extra nudge of derision. I guess Bob hasn’t seen RDU’s Terminal 2. Home to Delta, American, jetBlue and United, this is possibly the most attractive airport building in America. Opened in 2008, it was the first major terminal with a wood truss skeleton. The design earned architect Curtis Fentress, whose firm also designed Denver International and Korea’s impeccable Incheon Airport, the American Institute of Architects’ Thomas Jefferson Award. It’s spacious, clean, and flooded with natural light. “A blend of the region’s economy, heritage and landscape,” is how Fentress describes it. “Terminal 2’s rolling roofline reflects the Piedmont Hills, while the daylit interior provides the latest in common-use technology. Long-span wood trusses create column-free spaces that offer efficiency and flexibility, from ticketing to security.” All true. And, unlike most airport facilities in this country, it’s quiet! Boarding calls and other public address announcements are kept to a minimum. This, together with the building’s architectural style and flair, will almost make you think you’re at an airport in Germany or Scandinavia.
PREVIOUSLY IN HIDDEN AIRPORT:
— THE A/B CONNECTOR AT BOSTON-LOGAN
Earlier this year at Logan International Airport in Boston, Massport put the finishing touches on a pedestrian tunnel connecting terminals A and B. Previously, walking between these two buildings required a noisy sidewalk excursion. The new connector is calm, bright, and quiet, with floor-to-ceiling windows that face the Boston skyline. They’ve outfitted the space with wooden rockers. It’s all very similar to the connector tunnel linking terminals B and C, highlighted below in an earlier installment. Both are tranquil spots to grab a little relax time between flights.
Which reminds me. Massport really, really, really needs to do something about the public address pollution in the otherwise beautiful walkways that connect terminals A, E, and the central parking garage. We don’t need to hear Governor Charlie Baker and Mayor Walsh blathering on in their Boston accents about what a great place Massachusetts is. Pardon me, but nobody gives a shit. What we want is a little peace and quiet on the way to or from our flights. Either of these promo recordings is intrusive enough, but often they play simultaneously. Plus, if you’ve parked in the central garage, you already live here, and the last thing you need to hear is a couple of politicians boasting about local attractions. Even if you’re a tourist there’s no reason to hear this. The noise level then gets exponentially worse once you enter the terminal proper, with speakers blaring out gate changes, arrival and departure announcements, and Massport’s idiotic safety announcement “… We call it SAFE: Security Awareness for Everyone! So if you see something, say something.” Over and over again we have to endure this pointless spiel, layered in with the rest of the racket.
Why are we so in love with public address noise in this country? At the airport, all it does is make an already stressful experience more stressful. Airports in Europe and Asia are so blissfully quiet in comparison.
— KANSAS CITY EASY AND UNDERGROUND ATLANTA.
Kansas City? Yup, I’m talking about MCI, an airport I visited for the first time only a couple of days ago. Its “little-known spot of unexpected pleasantness” to borrow from this post’s introduction, is in fact the entire airport. There’s nothing pretty about MCI’s three semi-circular terminals, unless you have a thing for unadorned concrete, but it’s startlingly convenient. There cannot be a quicker-in, quicker out airport anywhere in America. Curbside to gateside is literally a twenty-foot walk! The MCI experience is quick, quiet, and no-fuss — three rarities among airports these days. Worryingly, there’s a movement afoot to replace MCI’s terminals with something more “modern.” In other words, the existing layout doesn’t provide enough floor space for those “retail and dining options” that have helped turn every other big American airport into a hellish sort of shopping mall. Please keep Kansas City the way it is.
Eastward now to Atlanta. The Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has its negatives, to be sure. The low ceilings, beeping electric carts and endless public address announcements make the place noisy and claustrophobic. Many of the windows are inexplicably covered over, and the airport’s skinny escalators were apparently designed before the invention of luggage. On the other hand, ATL’s simple layout — essentially six rectangular concourses sequenced one after the other — makes for fast and easy connections. It’s one of the most convenient places anywhere to change planes. The neatest thing about it, though, is the underground connector tunnel. This is where you go to catch the speedy, inter-terminal train, but you can also walk it. (If, like me, you purchased a Garmin Vivofit 2 and have become obsessed with step-counting, note that it takes sixteen minutes and 1800 steps to cover the tunnel’s full walkable length.) Along the way you’ll pass a series of art and photography installations and, linking concourses B and C, an excellent multimedia exhibit on the history Georgia’s capital. My favorite section, though, is the newly renovated ceiling in the tunnel between concourses A and B. I love the color and minimalist-industrial look of the exposed pipes and wiring. They took an otherwise unattractive space, and, by by stripping it down, made it special.
— THE QUIET AREA AT MINNEAPOLIS-ST. PAUL
On the whole, the Minneapolis airport is about as architecturally unexciting as a parking garage. It’s an older complex with low ceilings and endless corridors that reminds me of the ’60s-era grammar school that I once attended. And like most American airports, it has a noise pollution problem. But unlike most American airports, it has a place to escape the racket: an upper-level “quiet area” overlooking the central atrium of the Lindbergh (Delta Air Lines) Terminal. It’s difficult to find, but worth the effort if you’ve got a lengthy layover and need a place to relax. Look for the signs close to where F concourse meets the central lobby.The long, rectangular veranda has pairs of vinyl chairs set around tables. There are power outlets at each table and visitors can log in to MSP’s complimentary Wi-Fi. Delta provides pillows and blankets so that stranded passengers can nap. It’s a bland space without much ambiance, lacking the funky chairs, sofas, and other quirky accoutrements that you might find in Europe or Asia (Incheon Airport’s quiet zones are the coolest anywhere), but it does what it’s supposed to do. It’s comfortable, detached and peaceful. It’s a shame that more airports don’t set aside spots like this.
— THE GARDEN AT NEW YORK-LA GUARDIA
I’ve already written at length about the Marine Air Terminal at La Guardia Airport in New York City. This historic art-deco building, in the far southwest corner of LGA, is one of the most special places in all of commercial aviation — the launching point for the Pan Am flying boats that made the first-ever transatlantic and round-the-world flights. Inside the cathedral-like rotunda is the 240-foot “Flight” mural by James Brooks, as well as Rocco Manniello’s Yankee Clipper restaurant — a good greasy-spoon place that is one of the few remaining non-chain airport restaurants. What few people know about, however, is the cozy garden just outside. Facing the building, it’s to the right of the old Art Deco doorway, set back from the street. It’s a quiet, tree-shaded hideaway amidst, grass, flowers and shrubs. There’s even… well, I guess sculpture is the best description (see photo). Grab a sandwich from the Yankee Clipper and enjoy it on one of the wooden benches. To get there, take the A Loop inter-terminal bus to the Marine Air Terminal. The spot is best appreciated in the warmer months, of course. Like the Marine Air rotunda it is outside of the TSA checkpoint, so you’ll need to re-clear security if you’re catching a flight.
— THE TERMINAL B-C CONNECTOR AT BOSTON-LOGAN
In the connector walkway between terminals B and C at Logan International Airport in Boston, Massport has installed a series of whimsically painted rocking chairs that face floor-to-ceiling windows with a view of the runways. There’s relatively little foot traffic and, best of all, no public address speakers. It’s a quiet, sunny location to read, send text messages or otherwise relax. This isn’t one of Logan’s newer, elevated walkways with the inlaid sea life mosaics, cool as they are, but rather the old, terminal-level passageway.
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