April 13, 2016.   Jet Bridge Blues.

Ah, the jet bridge, that strange, too-often troublesome umbilicus connecting terminal to fuselage. The other day I was stuck on a regional jet for twenty minutes longer than I should have been because the gate agent couldn’t get the damn bridge into the right position. If only I had a dollar for every time this has happened. Part of the problem, I think, is that these devices are so monstrously over-engineered.

Take a look at the typical jet bridge. The things are enormous. They must weigh hundreds of thousands of pounds and cost millions of dollars. The wayward bridge at JFK the other day was twice the size of the plane. As the agent fumbled with the thing, it looked like she was trying to steer a battleship. Hydraulic arms flexed and groaned, machinery wailed, lights flashed and bells rang. Finally the tires began to turn — like the wheels of those huge mobile barges that NASA once used to position the Apollo moon rockets. All of this so that fifty people could walk the negligible distance from the aircraft to the terminal.

I realize the bridges are multifunction. The air conditioning and power connections used by the plane during its downtime are part of the assembly. But does the passenger tunnel part really need to be so big and heavy, with all of this Rube Goldberg machinery? It’s just a gangway for crying out loud. You sometimes see simpler, lightweight jet bridges in Europe and elsewhere around the world — with windows! — but here in the U.S. we rely on these ponderous, lumbering contraptions.

Of course, I’m opposed to jet bridges on principle. I prefer the classic, drive-up airstairs. Some of the international stations I fly to still employ those old-timey stairs, and I always get a thrill from them. There’s something dramatic about stepping onto a plane that way: the ground-level approach along the tarmac followed by the slow ascent. The effect is like the opening credits of a film — a brief, formal introduction to the journey. The jet bridge makes the airplane almost irrelevant; you’re merely in transit from one annoying interior space (terminal) to another (cabin).

My friend Harriet Baskas recently penned this interesting story for USA Today on the history of the jet bridge.


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