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Monday, March 11, 2013

They don't build airports like this anymore

One of the bigger impediments to growing the pilot population is that airports have lost much of their aesthetic charm. Airports are not the solitary, half-empty expanses of corrugated aluminum and concrete they all-too-often are today because of any of the tired, worn-out reasons the naysayers trot out over and over again: high fuel prices, ridiculously expensive aircraft, overly complex regulations, [insert your favorite gripe here], and so on. Airports are empty today because of what airports look like today.

Despite the claims that video games, social media, etc. are out-competing real airplanes for the attention of our youngsters, flying itself still has the same magical charm to them that has captured people for the last century. I've seen the excited young eyes too many times on discovery flights, dual flights given as birthday gifts, at air shows and Learn to Fly Day events to be worried about whether aviation still captures them: I know it does. The charm is still there, but we need to recapture the beauty of flight in part by recapturing the beauty of our airports.

Flying is still a dream of a huge number of people; in fact, if everyone who has told me they wanted to learn to fly actually started taking lessons tomorrow, it would be a catastrophe for me: I'd be working 24/7 immediately and indefinitely. Airports are the vehicle that dream moves around in, and just as no one dreams of driving a beat-up, rusty, run-down 1965 Mustang, we need to make airports a restored, nicely-purring, gleaming classic Mustang of their dreams. Do that, and we'll finally start going somewhere again.

Continuing the beater car analogy, let's borrow an idea from the TV show Pimp My Ride and start putting playgrounds with kid-sized runways and airplane swing sets and control towers with slides coming out the side of them just outside the ramp fence. That way kids can run-up while they run up and slip while they slip.

Compare the sterile barbed-wire-and-scary-sign look of a typical modern airport to the beautiful Art Deco terminal, complete with community office space, a doctor's office, post office, and fancy restaurant of New Orleans's Lakefront (formerly Shushan) Airport.

I'm not saying we need to completely rebuild our airports; a coat of paint and a parking lot that has been resurfaced in the last 30 years would be nice, but the single biggest change (and one of the cheapest) would be to replace the sign at the gate that typically says something like "Visitors will be shot on sight, then drawn and quartered, hung, and served as lunch at the next Cannibals Society meeting" with something containing simple, friendly instructions on where to go/who to talk to/etc. to get through the gate. Something like, "Visitors: please push the button to the left and we'll be happy to let you through the gate. Then take an immediate right and say hi to the person at the desk, who will then tell you how to get to where ever it is you need to go." This would have the happy side effect of completely enraging the reality-challenged desk jockeys at the TSA, whose actions show that they think the only secure airport is a closed airport. That makes it a worthy goal all on its own.

Airports are not a reverse jail designed to keep out the unwashed masses. We need to stop making them look like they are. Despite the imposing fence and/or decaying look, I have found almost everywhere that if you actually go through that gate, you'll find friendly people who are more than willing to talk about flying and might even give you a free ride! But don't just take my word for it: this woman is proving just how welcoming the typical airport denizen tends to be by hitching rides all across the country:

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