Tell Me About This Photo

February 1, 2022

I FOUND THIS picture on the Interwebs. It’s an aerial shot of Boston-Logan, my hometown airport. Judging from the liveries and aircraft types, I’d put the date at 1986, give or take a year.

What a time capsule. We see USAir’s red tails; a United DC-8; a pair of Piedmont 727s; a Delta TriStar; a United DC-8. And most obvious, maybe, is the old terminal A, home to Eastern Airlines. Three of the carrier’s Airbus A300s, which it used on Shuttle routes to La Guardia, are visible. You can’t make it out through the shadows, but the latticed façade and five-story archways of this building bore a likeness to the lower curtain wall of the World Trade Center in Manhattan — and not by accident, for both were the work of architect Minoru Yamasaki. And, standing sentry, there’s Logan’s unmistakable control tower. The 16th floor observation deck would still have been open.

But something else really jumps out at me. And it’s not something we can see. It’s something we don’t see. I want you to study the picture and tell me what’s not there. Air travel in 2022 is quite different from air travel in the 1980s, and a big reason for this difference is the thing missing from this photograph. What is it?

The answer appears on the next line. See if you can figure it out before scrolling.

Photo by Aerial Photography International.

What I’m talking about is the complete absence of regional jets.

No Expresses, no Connections, no Eagles, and so forth. No Canadairs or Embraers. Every single jet in the picture is a mainline jet. This was before the introduction of RJs, at which point the big airlines began the widespread outsourcing of their routes to small-jet contractors.

Small jets did exist in the 1980s (the F-28 for instance), but they burned a lot of fuel and had very high seat-mile costs. It wasn’t until the advent of more efficient planes like the CRJ-200 and the early Embraers that domestic codesharing really took off. By the early 2000s, depending on the airport, forty percent or more of the planes in a photo like this would be regional jets. Love them or hate them, RJs are everywhere.

Many travelers don’t realize it, but the majority of regional airlines have a livery-only affixation with their legacy carrier partners. Some are wholly or partly owned by a major; others are completely independent, but either way they are separate entities, with their own employee groups, pay scales, management structures, and separate FAA operating certificates. (There’s more about this, if you’re interested, in chapter four of my book.)

The term “regional airline” has always been around, but in the old days it meant something different. A “regional” was a major airline whose network concentrated in a particular part of the country. Ozark Airlines, for instance. Or Southern Airways. What today we think of as a regional was called a “commuter.” Commuters fed the majors’ hubs from outlying cities, using turboprops almost exclusively. Look closely at the photo and you can see a couple of turboprop planes. One of them is a Command Airways ATR-42. An independent commuter at the time, Command later became an American Eagle franchise.

The first airline I worked for was a commuter. This was the very early 1990s; maybe we were calling them regionals by then? Our planes flew under the banner of Northwest Airlink, a feeder into Northwest’s Boston hub. We had 15-seaters, 19-seaters, and later a handful 37-seaters. All props. Our network spoked out to places like Burlington, Bangor, Albany, down to Virginia and up into the Canadian Maritimes.

The balance has begun to swing back of late, with the majors taking over a bigger and bigger percentage of routes and frequencies. Driven in part by the pilot shortage, which has forced regional airlines to offer better salaries and working conditions, the cost advantage of RJs has diminished somewhat. For the time being, however, they still comprise a healthy chunk of our flying.

 

Photo credit: Aerial Photography International.

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Welcome to “Hidden Airport”

Unexpected Pleasures at a Terminal Near You.

WITH SCATTERED EXCEPTIONS, U.S. airports don’t have a whole lot going for them. They’re noisy, dirty, poorly laid out, and just generally hostile to passengers. As my regular readers are well aware, I’ve made this point in numerous prior posts — perhaps too many times. Now, so that I’m not accused of harping on the negative, here’s something different. “Hidden Airport” is a semi-regular feature highlighting little-known spots of unexpected pleasantness.

ALL PHOTOS BY THE AUTHOR

 

UPDATE: Gateside Graffiti

Terminal Four at Kennedy Airport isn’t the most passenger-friendly building, but it has its spots, including the famous Calder mobile dangling from the departure hall ceiling (see earlier entry, below). Now, in the B concourse close to gate 25, you can enjoy this interactive wall mural. It was put in place last summer, presumably as a sort of post-pandemic morale booster for travelers.

It looks like most people just scribble their autograph, but some leave the names of whatever far-flung destinations they’re headed to — or wish they were headed to. You might get your clothes dirty, but grab a giant pencil and jump in there. Give us a “Bayonne, New Jersey,” or a “Smolensk.”

 

PREVIOUSLY IN HIDDEN AIRPORT:

— INDY KIND

Indianapolis International is the rare gem among U.S. airports. It’s spacious, clean, and splashed with natural light. Best of all, and unlike almost every other airport in the country, it’s remarkably quiet. According to Airports Council International, IND is the Best Airport in North America, and the readers of Conde Nast Traveler have dittoed that sentiment multiple times.

Tucked into the A concourse, between gates 14 and 16, is the KIND Gallery. Created in partnership with the city’s Arts Council, it showcases the works of Hoosier artists. The gallery is neither large nor — depending on your tastes in art — particularly breathtaking. But it’s exactly what it should be: an engaging and relaxing little sneak-away spot. My favorite of the current installation is “Cloud Study 1-4,” a four-frame series of cloudscapes by an artist named Kipp Normand.

What do we do at airports? We kill time. And here’s a way to do it that’s a little more fulfilling than staring at your phone or browsing the magazine kiosk.

And about that name, “KIND.” Chances are you’re familiar with the three-letter identifiers for airports, Indy’s being IND. What you probably didn’t know, however, is that airports also have four-letter identifiers. These are assigned by ICAO and used for navigation and other technical purposes. Airports in the United States simply add the letter “K” to the existing three-letter code. KLAX, for example. Or KBOS or KSFO or KMCO. Or, in this case, KIND.

PREVIOUSLY IN HIDDEN AIRPORT:

— KENNEDY CALDER

The next time you’re on the check-in level of terminal 4 at Kennedy Airport, look up. Suspended from the ceiling near the western end of the building is a sculpture constructed of balanced aluminum arms and trapezoidal panels. This is “.125,” the famous mobile made by Alexander Calder in 1957, back when JFK was still known as Idlewild Airport.

At 45 feet long, it’s supposedly the fourth-largest mobile in the world. For years it hung in the arrivals hall of the old Terminal 4, better known as the IAB (International Arrivals Building). Later it was moved to the departure level when the terminal was rebuilt. “People think monuments should come out of the ground, never out of the ceiling,” said Calder. “But mobiles can be monumental too.” The name “.125” comes from the gauge of its aluminum elements. What it evokes is, I suppose, in the eye of the beholder. One can detect a certain flight motif, though to me it looks more like a fish.

This wasn’t Calder’s only aviation-related project. In the 1970s he hand-painted two airplanes for Braniff Airways, including a Boeing 727 for the Bicentennial.

 

— UNDERGROUND ATLANTA

Atlanta. The Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has its negatives, to be sure. The low ceilings, beeping electric carts and endless public address announcements make the place noisy and claustrophobic. Many of the windows are inexplicably covered over, and the airport’s skinny escalators were apparently designed before the invention of luggage. On the other hand, ATL’s simple layout — essentially six rectangular concourses sequenced one after the other — makes for fast and easy connections. It’s one of the most convenient places anywhere to change planes. The neatest thing about it, though, is the underground connector tunnel. This is where you go to catch the inter-terminal train, but the better choice is to walk it. (If, like me, you purchased a Garmin Vivofit and have become obsessed with step-counting, note that it takes sixteen minutes and 1800 steps to cover the tunnel’s full walkable length.)

ATL’s history of Atlanta exhibit.

Along the way you’ll pass a series of art and photography installations. Between concourses B and C, is an excellent, museum-quality multimedia exhibit on the history Georgia’s capital. You could easily spend a half-hour here. My favorite section, though, is the forest canopy ceiling in the tunnel between concourses A and B. This installation, made of multicolor, laser-cut aluminum panels is the work of artist Steve Waldeck. Described as a “450-foot multisensory walk through a simulated Georgia forest,” it features an audio backdrop of dozens of native birds and insects. What a welcome change it is, listening to the calls of sandhill cranes and blue herons instead of some idiotic TSA directive. It takes only two or three minutes to pass beneath the length of it, but these are about the most relaxing (if a bit psychedelic) two or three minutes to be found at an airport.

 

— The 9/11 MEMORIAL AT BOSTON-LOGAN

The idea of building a memorial to the 2001 terror attacks, at the very airport from which two of the four hijacked planes departed from, ran a fine line between commemorative and tasteless. It needed to be done just right. What they came up with is superb, and ought to serve as a model for such memorials everywhere. Reached along an ascending pathway that twists upward amidst grass and trees, the main structure is a sort of open-topped glass chapel, inside of which are two vertical slabs, one for each of the two aircraft that struck the World Trade Center — and mimicking the shapes, one can’t help noticing, of the twin towers themselves — engraved with the names of the passengers and crew. There’s one for American’s flight 11, the Boeing 767 that struck the north tower, and the other for United 175, which hit the south tower a few minutes later. The glass and steelwork allow the entire space to be flooded with silvery light, creating an atmosphere that’s quiet and contemplative without feeling maudlin or sentimentalized. There are no flags or any of the crudely “patriotic” touches one might expect (and dread). It’s everything it should be: beautifully constructed, understated, and respectful.

Officially it’s called the “Place of Remembrance,” and it was built by the Boston-based firm of Moskow Linn Architects, as part of a public competition. The final design was chosen by airline workers, airport representatives, and family members of the victims. The engraved names are separated into columns of crew and passengers, and the names of off-duty United employees on the flight 175 plate include a small “tulip” logo of United Airlines. This might seem a strange touch, but this memorial was built primarily for the community of people who work at Logan Airport. Among the passengers and crew killed on the two jets were more than a dozen Logan-based employees. But anyone is welcome, of course, and I only wish the memorial were more easily accessible. If you’re at BOS and have some time, it’s worth seeking out. It sits on a knoll just to the southern side of the central parking garage, at the foot of the walkway tunnel that connects the garage with terminal A. Find the tunnel and follow the signs.


 

— SFO DRAGONFLIES

Airport art installations of one form or another are awfully trendy these days. Paintings, sculptures and mobiles are popping up all over the place. And good for that. Among the best is artist Joyce Hsu’s “Namoo House” sculpture at San Francisco International. It’s a huge, wall-mounted display of aluminum and stainless steel insects that, in the artist’s words, suggests the way the airport “fuses science, nature, and imagination, to become the transit home for all passengers” — whatever that might mean. To me, the metalwork moths and six-foot dragonflies represent both natural and human-made flying machines. And they remind me of the erector-set toys that I played with as a kid. Go to gate A3 in SFO’s international terminal, near the Emirates and JetBlue gates.


 

— RALEIGH-DURHAM’S TERMINAL 2

“Ah for the days when aviation was a gentleman’s pursuit, back before every Joe Sweatsock could wedge himself behind a lunch tray and jet off to Raleigh-Durham.” That’s from Sideshow Bob, in an old episode of the Simpsons (back when that show was still watchable), and we love the way he gives the words “Raleigh-Durham” an extra nudge of derision. I guess Bob hasn’t seen RDU’s Terminal 2. Home to Delta, American, jetBlue and United, this is possibly the most attractive airport building in America. Opened in 2008, it was the first major terminal with a wood truss skeleton. The design earned architect Curtis Fentress, whose firm also designed Denver International and Korea’s impeccable Incheon Airport, the American Institute of Architects’ Thomas Jefferson Award. “A blend of the region’s economy, heritage and landscape,” is how Fentress describes it. “Terminal 2’s rolling roofline reflects the Piedmont Hills, while the daylit interior provides the latest in common-use technology. Long-span wood trusses create column-free spaces that offer efficiency and flexibility, from ticketing to security.”

All true. And, unlike most airport facilities in this country, it’s quiet. Boarding calls and other public address announcements are kept to a minimum. This, together with the building’s architectural style and flair, will almost make you think you’re at an airport in Scandinavia.

 

— KANSAS CITY EASY

Kansas City? Yup, I’m talking about MCI, an airport I visited for the first time only a couple of days ago. Its “little-known spot of unexpected pleasantness” to borrow from this post’s introduction, is in fact the entire airport. There’s nothing pretty about MCI’s three semi-circular terminals, unless you have a thing for unadorned concrete, but it’s startlingly convenient. There cannot be a quicker-in, quicker out airport anywhere in America. Curbside to gateside is literally a twenty-foot walk! The MCI experience is quick, quiet, and no-fuss — three rarities among airports these days. Worryingly, there’s a movement afoot to replace MCI’s terminals with something more “modern.” In other words, the existing layout doesn’t provide enough floor space for those “retail and dining options” that have helped turn every other big American airport into a hellish sort of shopping mall. Please keep Kansas City the way it is.

 

— THE QUIET AREA AT MINNEAPOLIS-ST. PAUL

MSP Quiet Area

On the whole, the Minneapolis airport is about as architecturally unexciting as a parking garage. It’s an older complex with low ceilings and endless corridors that reminds me of the ’60s-era grammar school that I once attended. And like most American airports, it has a noise pollution problem. But unlike most American airports, it has a place to escape the racket: an upper-level “quiet area” overlooking the central atrium of the Lindbergh (Delta Air Lines) Terminal. It’s difficult to find, but worth the effort if you’ve got a lengthy layover and need a place to relax. Look for the signs close to where F concourse meets the central lobby.The long, rectangular veranda has pairs of vinyl chairs set around tables. There are power outlets at each table and visitors can log in to MSP’s complimentary Wi-Fi. Delta provides pillows and blankets so that stranded passengers can nap. It’s a bland space without much ambiance, lacking the funky chairs, sofas, and other quirky accoutrements that you might find in Europe or Asia (Incheon Airport’s quiet zones are the coolest anywhere). But it does what it’s supposed to do. It’s comfortable, detached and peaceful. It’s a shame that more airports don’t set aside spots like this.

MSP Quiet Area 2

 

— THE La GUARDIA GARDEN

I’ve written at length about the Marine Air Terminal at La Guardia Airport in New York City. This historic art-deco building, in the far southwest corner of LGA, 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. What few people know about, however, is the cozy garden just outside. Facing the building, it’s to the right of the old Art Deco doorway, set back from the street. It’s a quiet, tree-shaded hideaway amidst, grass, flowers and shrubs. Grab a sandwich from the Yankee Clipper and enjoy it on one of the wooden benches. To get 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 to re-clear security if you’re catching a flight.

 

Related Stories:

THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE U.S. AIRPORT
AMSTERDAM-SCHIPHOL: THE AIRPORT OF QUIRKY CHARMS
PLANE, PRANKS, AND PRAISE: ODE TO AN AIRPORT
POVERTY, HEDGEHOGS, AND THE WORLD’S WORST AIRPORT

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