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Travel Woes: How American Airports Lost Their Glamour

The dissolution of the industry was reflected in airports, where architectural innovation was quickly pushed aside to make room for quick, easy fixes.


American Airlines’ filing for bankruptcy protection last week provoked surprisingly little reaction from the media or regular travelers. Perhaps we've grown immune to the whims of the rapidly changing airline industry, where the past three decades have seen the merging and dissolution of countless carriers.

Yet it wasn’t so long ago that air travel was synonymous with Americans’ visions of the future, when purchasing a boarding pass meant participating in the ever-expanding dreams of post-war America. Somewhere along the way, the optimistic glow surrounding air travel faded away, leaving a beleaguered industry that causes stress and frustration, not awe, for American travelers. And the dissolution of the industry was reflected in airports, where architectural innovation was quickly pushed aside to make room for quick, easy fixes.


The TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport was designed in 1962 by Eero Saarinen as a crown jewel of Modernist architecture that is still referred to as the ultimate symbol of the jet era. Forty years later, as parts of Saarinen's terminal were being demolished, construction began on Lord Norman Foster's new Terminal 3 at Beijing's Capital International Airport. Airport innovation has fled to developing countries, where the promise of travel is only beginning to achieve its glow.

Airport architecture of the jet era was defined by modernism, intended to be the stylistic cure-all for the world with its beautiful, clean structures that shunned ornament. At first, airports and modernism made perfect bedfellows—the hippest style in the world intertwined with the optimistic, promising future of air travel, which was first coming of age in the late 1950s. Together, the two created the jet era, the vision of air travel propagated through the Pan Am mystique and still recounted by baby boomers today. For those who traveled during this time, the luxury of the jet era cannot be understated.

But the hype didn't last long—by the 1970s, the jet era was over, and modernist architecture was increasingly labeled sterile, cold, and elitist. The post-war halo faded, taking modernism, World's Fairs, and futuristic visions with it. The country was mired in an energy crisis, causing nearly every teetering U.S. airline to tip into the red. Flights were hovering at 40 percent passenger capacity, while Pan Am sought a bailout from the Shah of Iran. Adding a few hijackings created perhaps the darkest days of the American airline industry, with Big Brother intruding into the austere, modernist terminals. "Terminals sprouted long tunnels, corridors, and labyrinthine extensions,” Janna Eggebeen writes in Airport Age: Architecture and Modernity in America. “Formerly open interiors were now darkened, partitioned and cordoned off. Choke points and security cameras further regulated but also deteriorated the airport experience. The air terminal now exuded the oppressiveness, dehumanization, authoritarianism, and tedium of late modern life."

As the airlines hurtled toward bankruptcy, the federal government watched nervously. In 1976, Congress had sunk billions into consolidating the failing railroad companies to create Conrail, and representatives realized that an intervention would be necessary to avoid the same costly fate for the airlines. So in 1978, Congress introduced the Airline Deregulation Act, allowing carriers to engage in competitive pricing for the first time—previously, the government had approved all airfares and flight schedules, which kept fares high and ridership low. Deregulation democratized air travel: Even with inflation adjusted, airfares of have fallen 25 percent since 1991, and planes now fly at an average 74 percent of capacity.

Airports struggled to adapt to the skyrocketing number of passengers. Like patching a flat tire, they tacked on satellite terminals and endless hallways replete with confusing signage. The architect and his optimistic visions were lost in the shuffle. "As airports grew in size and complexity… the architect became part of an expert team,” Eggebeen writes. Design was relegated to a supporting role in favor of a "make do and mend" approach.

Designers remain on the fringes of the air travel industry, attacking the symptoms of the problem one by one: Mobile apps to address boarding passes, checked luggage, and airport maps, for example, create a sort of traveler's ibuprofen that temporarily alleviates stress. Creating an app or renovating a terminal can’t solve the root problems. But with such a large and diverse cast of characters—air carrier employees, TSA officers, retail cashiers, baggage handlers—a complete overhaul is daunting.

And that’s exactly the problem: Design thinking, the phrase that so boldly offers itself in blogs and newspapers as the answer to all of our problems, becomes timid when faced with large, established systems. Design thinking can easily resolve the problem of getting water from one village to the next, but what if the two villages are already connected by a massive, faulty sewage system, controlled by scores of companies who have declared bankruptcy and switched ownership more than once, and are further thwarted by the objectives of third parties?

Our once-optimistic vision of the future of flight still permeates the terminals of America's oldest airports—seen in side-by-side people movers, revolving luggage carousels, and lounge chairs made in the by-gone modern era. They serve as reminders of air travel’s golden age and offer hope of a brighter future. The construction of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport’s Terminal D in 2005 breathed life back into the system, proving that American air travel could once again have some semblance of opulence. The air travel industry may not have bottomed out yet, but Terminal D might represent the still-tiny light at the end of the tunnel. With 2 million square feet of open, sunny hallways adorned with fascinating art installations, Terminal D is a respite from DFW’s older, musty corridors, where the stress of lost luggage and delayed departures hangs in the air. Any airport that can bring even a sliver of joy back to the journey of the traveler is a step in the right direction.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user jronaldlee

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