Welcome to “Hidden Airport”

U.S. airports get a failing grade.  But, there are unexpected pleasures at a terminal near you. Welcome to “Hidden Airport.”

Note: the original version of this post ran on the website Salon.


FROMMER’S THE TRAVEL GUIDE PEOPLE, recently released their list of the world’s best and worst airports.

JFK’s terminal 3, which is scheduled for replacement in 2013, was voted the worst, while the Hajj Terminal in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, was ranked best.

These things are subjective, and we all have our own criteria, but both lists leave me scratching my head.

As to the worst, they’ve obviously never been to the arrivals hall at Dakar (or, from what I’ve been told by several emailers, to N’djili Airport in Kinshasa, Congo). The best list, too, is a little strange. I’m unsure how fair it was including the Hajj terminal — a building that is open only six weeks each year and visited almost exclusively by pilgrims. Seoul’s Incheon airport is a well-deserved inclusion, but conspicuously absent is Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport. BKK ought to be there on aesthetic merits alone — its central terminal is one of the most stunning buildings I’ve ever seen.

For a video intro to Suvarnabhumi, see my YouTube video, here.

I’m also disappointed to see JFK’s terminal 5, the much overhyped home of JetBlue, rated near the top. As I’ve opined before, this building has to be one of the most disappointing airport projects of the last three decades. It’s certainly one of the ugliest. The airside view — the exterior as seen from the runways and taxiways — is criminally hideous. It looks like the back of a shopping mall; all that’s missing are some pallets and dumpsters. (Which is fitting I suppose, given how the ongoing trend in airport design is to make terminals and malls utterly indistinguishable from each other.) On the inside…. wow, hey, a food court. And although the terminal is only a few years old, already it’s overcrowded.

With scattered exceptions, US airports don’t have a whole lot going for them. Putting aside aesthetics, cleanliness, and a lack of public transport options, another thing that doesn’t help, and which you don’t hear about much, is that American airports simply do not recognize the “in transit” concept. All passengers arriving from overseas, even if they’re merely transiting to a third country, are forced to clear customs and immigration, re-check their luggage, pass through TSA screening, etc.  It’s an enormous hassle that you don’t find in most places overseas. Compare to Singapore, Dubai, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and so on, where transit passengers walk from one gate to the next with a minimum of fuss.

Here’s how this hurts us: Flying from Australia to Europe, for instance, a traveler has the option of flying westbound, via Asia (namely Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Hong Kong) or the Middle East (Dubai, Qatar), or eastbound via the US West Coast (Los Angeles or San Francisco). Even though the distance and flying times are about the same, almost everybody will opt for the westbound option.  The airports are spotless and packed with amenities, the connections painless and efficient.

Changing planes at LAX or SFO on the other hand, and you’d have to stand in at least three different lines, be photographed and fingerprinted, collect and re-check your bags, endure the TSA rigmarole, and so on, just to change planes.  Few passengers will choose this option, and I suspect it costs our airlines many millions annually in lost revenue.  Indeed this is part of what has made carriers like Emirates, Singapore Airlines, and others so successful.

CLICK HERE for an in-depth critique of airports in the US and abroad.


So that you don’t accuse me of harping on the negative, allow me to introduce a new feature. I’m calling it “Hidden Airport.” The idea is to highlight little known spots of unexpected pleasantness at US airports. It can be a place for some peace and quiet, an unusually good restaurant, etc. It should be somewhere out of the ordinary and relatively unknown — an escape spot.

I’ll start things off with two:

1. I’ve already written at length about the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport in New York City. This historic art-deco building, in far southwest corner of LGA, adjacent to the Delta Shuttle, 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 main entryway, 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. Grab a sandwich from the Yankee Clipper and enjoy it on one of the wooden benches.

Getting 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 some time.

LGA garden.     Photo by author

2. The connector walkway between terminals B and C at Logan International Airport in Boston. This isn’t one of the newer, elevated walkways with the inlaid sea life mosaics, cool as they are, but rather the old, main-level passageway between gates used by AirTran and Virgin America. 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 some text messages or otherwise relax.

Getting there: From terminal C, walk towards B. From B, walks toward C. Stay on the main level; don’t take the stairways into the elevated walkways.

Perhaps you know of somewhere else? Has anybody seen the butterfly garden at Singapore-Changi? Submit your own “Hidden Airport” photos and I’ll add the best of them in a later post.

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34 Responses to “Welcome to “Hidden Airport””

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  1. Anthony says:

    Not a lot nice can be said of Hartsfield, but terminal E is a gem.

  2. Robert Levine says:

    Another nice amenity is the aviation library at the International Terminal in San Francisco; a very restful place. Unfortunately it’s not always open.

  3. Gary Paquette says:

    One airport that will probably never be on anyone’s “best” list but should be is T.F. Green in Providence (KPVD). While the terminal is compact and small by anyone’s standards, the layout is simple and the atmosphere is relaxed and laid back. A traveler with just carry-on baggage can be on Rt. 95 within 15 minutes of touching down.

  4. Chris Holm says:

    Detroit Airport (DTW). The tunnel between the A and B/C concourses, is lined with color-changing glass panels synced to new-agey music. Riding the moving walkways and enjoying the show is a soothing way to kill a few minutes.

    Also, at the top of the escalator at the A end, there’s a fountain made of a disk of black stone, shooting bursts of water across it. I’ve been told it’s supposed to represent the different routes that Northwest then flew.

    I often see parents using both to distract travel-crabby children.

  5. Yogi says:

    I appreciate the Honolulu Airport very much. I love everything in the area. The airport traffic is good and I will land here again next year!

  6. […] connector walkway between B and C, by the way, is one of Logan’s friendliest spots. I don’t mean the newer, elevated walkway; I’m referring to the old main-level […]

  7. Tom Hill says:

    General Mitchell in Milwaukee is a terrific airport. Good food, free ping pong tables and a signed “Recombobulation Area” after the TSA station – which is manned by helpful humans, not hostile androids – are highlights. There is also a magnificent book store, Renaissance Books, which sells used, collectible and new books.

    • Robert Levine says:

      MKE in Milwaukee is indeed a very nice airport. The bookstore is wonderful; a remarkable collection for such a relatively small space. There are good views of the field from on top of the parking structure as well.

      I’ve always wondered about what looks like a memorial garden at Newark; It’s visible from the airport train on the way to the NJT/Amtrak station. Does anyone know what it is?

  8. JohnC says:

    I agree that JFK T3 should rank near the bottom — especially the large addition from 1967 built to accommodate the 747. But I am still going to miss it. It’s one of the jet age terminals and when you look past the overcrowded check-in area and other unforgivable shortcomings, there is still a great relic of the early 1960’s, The Pan Am Worldport. I’m sure it’s not the least bit practical to keep it, but I’m sad to see this and the late terminal 6 (The National Airlines Sundrome designed by I.M. Pei) fall to the wrecking ball.

    T5 may also be an aesthetic nightmare airside, but at least they didn’t tear down the old TWA Flight Center.

  9. KSB says:

    Newark airport is horrible. Transporting passengers from one terminal to another is ridiculous. Get off one bus to get on another bus to finally get to a terminal and then climb 20 stairs outside (while lugging suitcases, etc.)to get inside the airport.

  10. ABQOkami says:

    Frankfurt? It used to be great, but my recent experience belied any reputation it used to have. First, the terminals are aging, somewhat dirty, and maintenance is lacking. Second, we arrived at a bus gate (!!?), had to be driven all the way back to the main terminal, go through a massive line at security, and then run all the way back to a gate not too far away from where we originally were scheduled to deplane. We made our flight by 3 minutes, but our luggage did not. Combine that with a miserable experience on Lufthansa (my wife and I had booked seats together but were both re-booked in center seats apart from each other, and the flight was so over-booked that I saw them move one man to three different center seats before we departed), I doubt I’ll be transiting through Frankfurt again.

  11. James says:

    Even if we eliminated the necessity to fetch and recheck bags, etc, people would still fly via Asia, simply because flying via the US would likely entail US airlines (or a change of carrier.) Can you imagine 25 hours on United?

  12. Nathalie says:

    Timely. My husband and I were discussing some travel we will be doing to the US later this year. Heading to New Orleans first, then Denver, then home to Calgary. For the YYC to MSY leg, we cannot get a direct. We have several choices of where to transfer, but it wasn’t even a question. We will transfer at Pearson to avoid more than one US airport for the day. Pearson isn’t exciting to hang out in, but at least it’s pleasant. And we were very relieved to note that there are directs home from Denver.

    Love this post for those hidden gems. Are there any in the MSY or DEN airports? :)

  13. […] 11372 blog, were were turned on to this article by pilot and columnist Patrick Smith in his Ask the Pilot column. In it he introduces a new feature called “Hidden Airport,” where he will […]

  14. Mark says:

    One of the little known but much appreciated amenities of many airports is the USO. There is one hidden in most major airports. When traveling for the military you can stop in, watch a movie, get internet access, a bite to eat or a place to crash overnight all free of charge. I have not had the opportunity to use one in a few years but I always donate when I see them fundraising.

  15. Mark says:

    One of the little known but much appreciated amenities of many airports is the USO.

  16. Mike says:

    How about the central garden in Honolulu’s airport? It has to be at least two acres of lush plants, streams and koi ponds. Here’s some links to pictures.



    There’s also the interisland terminal garden.


  17. Sarah says:

    I love that walkway at Logan. I can attest that they are very comfortable rocking chairs!

  18. Joey Maloney says:

    It’s not really hidden, but the Honolulu airport has a beautiful outdoor garden that includes a memorial to C.B. Lansing (the flight attendant was was killed when the fuselage of Aloha Airlines 243’s fuselage ruptured in flight). It’s part of the interisland terminal.

    • Walter says:

      Agreed. It’s a little oasis of an oriental style garden with ponds, shade trees, and little pavilions. It’s a great place to relax while waiting for a flight, or eating a snack. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get much ventilation as it’s surrounded by building, and the rest of the airport isn’t worth talking about. But, that garden is probably the best hidden feature of the airport. It’s visible from the domestic/international terminal, but it’s not heavily used. I live there, but even I appreciate it. :-)

  19. Catherine says:

    I’m Australian who visits Europe every couple of years, and I’d never go via the US. Singapore is by far the best transit I’ve found – straight off the plane into the terminal, with transfer train/buses between terminals or you can just walk (nice straight corridors you don’t get lost in), somewhere to have a swim and a shower, no checked in bags to worry about, free computer terminals to send emails/ read this website :), NO announcements except in emergencies, butterfly house to explore or fish ponds to look at, big windows to watch the planes, information desks to help with whatever, and if you’re stuck for something to do the internet start up page has a list of everything that’s available, with different suggestions for different amounts of time you’re there (up to “take a tour of Singapore – no visas required”). Other airports should follow their example.

  20. Tim says:

    Can I just throw out some effusive praise for Washington National Airport? Yes, technically it’s called Reagan now, but I liked the old name. Not necessarily in functionality, but in sheer aesthetics. I love that vaulted, cathedral-esque main area.

    • TomParmenter says:

      At the time of renaming Washington airport after Reagan, some sorehead complained that the airport was already named after a president,

      • Tim says:

        I was one of those, I admit. Also, I don’t object to naming things after Reagan, but I object to naming EVERYTHING after him.

    • Jeff says:

      It’s worth noting this airport shares grounds with some of the old Custis plantation (George Washington’s wife’s family) and part of an excavation can be visited as well. Unfortunately you do have to go outside security, which makes it a bit inconvenient.

      • Tim says:

        And there’s a great planespotting park within WALKING distance of the airport. Gravelly Point is almost directly under two of the approach paths at DCA.

    • JuliaZ says:

      DCA is quite honestly a delight to fly in and out of, as long as you are on a long-haul jet instead of a regional to somewhere in the northeast. The regionals depart from a confusing set of gates and then require a walk down a jetway to a crappy and crammed little bus that whisks you out to all the little jets parked in a row. Yeah, I get the romance of the stairs to the plane in the open air, but I could skip giving up even my laptop bag and then the teeny-tiny aisles!!!

      At DCA, TSA is fast and friendly, even the furthest gate is steps away from the Metro, there are lots of electrical outlets on standing-height tables in the terminals, and in general, it’s sparkly clean. Even the food and gift shops seem better, and they are definitely MUCH cheaper on comparable items when you look at IAD prices. Is this because it’s the airport our Senators and Congress-critters tend to use? Even if that’s the reason, I’m HAPPY for it. I have been in and out of IAD once and DCA three times in the past four months, and I’m not going back to IAD if I can avoid it!

      I flew home to SEA last night on AS 3, and we actually pushed back 14 minutes EARLY because they were concerned about stronger-than-usual headwinds. We were at our gate in Seattle 11 minutes early. That would never-ever happen on a departure from IAD.

      BTW, only tourists call it “Reagan”. Locals and frequent-fliers all still call it “National”.

    • Buff Crone says:

      Another nice thing about the new National terminal is that they use sound-absorbing materials extensively throughout.

  21. Alex says:

    It’s not hidden, really, but can easily be overlooked if you depend on the Automated People Mover to get around: the Atlanta Airport Art Program (http://tinyurl.com/bjtx27f).

    Usually very hidden, though, at Atlanta and 30-some other airports, is the non-denominational chapel–an oasis of calm amidst the nerve-jangling announcements, TVs, crying babies, and general chaos. On a long layover, if there’s no wine bar, that’s usually where I’ll hang out, just reading quietly or meditating.

    • Tim says:

      The chapel at Cleveland is pretty easy to find if you want to, but very few people use it, so it’s pretty quiet. It’s near the beginning of Terminal B, as I recall (I haven’t flown through Cleveland in a few years, so my memory is hazy).

  22. KevinT says:

    I unexpectedly found myself at Boston Logan in November with some time to kill… I liked the airport and if I ever get back there will hopefully get the chance to check this walkway out. Nice to hear about the LAX rose garden too, thanks Klaus!

  23. Klaus says:

    Another hidden gem is the Rose Garden at LAX. It is located next to Terminals 7 & 8 (see http://goo.gl/maps/HUufT – it is the curved garden between the building and the freeway). Strolling under the freeway you get to a memorial garden square with an American flag that reminds us of those that gave their lives in aviation duty.

    Both gardens have a very peaceful atmosphere – and on a couple of occasions I have very nearly missed my onward flights!