Chicago’s O’Hare, one of the busiest airports in the US, stretches across an area one-third the size of Manhattan.
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A long way to walk
Eero Saarinan, designer of classic jet-age terminals at Dulles and Kennedy airports, proposed two different answers. At Dulles, outside Washington, D.C., he called for large, bus-like vehicles to move passengers from the terminal directly to their airplanes. Called “mobile lounges,” they’re now being phased out in favor of another system billed as more future-oriented: an underground train.
In his TWA terminal at JFK Airport outside New York City, Saarinan planned for moving sidewalks to help people cover the distance. The final construction didn’t end up including them, but many large airports adopted the idea.
Those approaches did reduce the number of steps passengers had to take. But as terminals grew in size and airline routes became more complex, passengers had to change planes more often. That has required trains or trams to help people travel longer distances within terminals, or even to other concourses.
Checked luggage has to travel farther, too. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Denver officials thought they had the ultimate futuristic solution with an automatic bag handling system. After repeated failures, though, the machines were shut down and baggage handling was put back in human hands.
An airport baggage handler in South Africa has received praise after diligently straightening suitcases as they fall on the carousel belt.
After decades of attempts, the best way to ensure you and your bags arrive at the same place at the same time is carrying them on the plane yourself. Of course, that means you have to drag heavier bags even farther through sprawling airports.
Planning for the unexpected
After the 2001 terrorist attacks, new security screenings created long lines and increased the amount of time people spent at the airport before flights. The need for additional security and waiting space challenged designs that had seemed forward-thinking even in the late 1990s.
For instance, a terminal completed in 1997 at Reagan National Airport outside Washington, D.C., included shops and restaurants, as well as a seamless link to the region’s public transit system. That whole layout is being revamped now, at a cost of US$1 billion, to enhance the travel experience and to accommodate growing passenger numbers.
As more people fly more often, the pace of growth and unexpected events have often overwhelmed the best intended designs and plans. After more than 60 years of trying, it’s an open question whether the ultimate airport of the future — one where passengers and their bags move quickly through a space that’s enjoyable to be in — could ever exist at all.
Janet Bednarak is a professor of history at University of Dayton