Don’t look out the window approaching Midway airport

Chicago Midway International Airport is a scary airport. It’s best you not look out your window upon approach. It’s an airport in the middle of Chicago, butt up against residential housing with little room for error.

I’d like to say that some terrible accident is bound to happen at Midway except two major aircraft crashes have already. More are doubtless on the way, at least while they continue to allow commercial jets to fly in and out of that airport. Most recently in 2005, six-year-old Joshua Woods died when Southwest flight 1248 skidded off the runway and onto a street ringing the airport. The incident happened in a snowstorm but it appears that simple pilot error was the primary cause of the accident. The pilot either did not deploy the reverse thrusters on landing or they came on after a second attempt. In any event there was little margin for error. Southwest’s business requirements probably overruled the safer option of landing it on a nearer and longer runway at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

A far worse crash occurred in 1972 when United Airlines Flight 553 hit trees and roofs on West 71st Street during an aborted landing attempt. 45 people died, 43 of them on the plane. The airplane destroyed five houses and damaged three others. It killed an Illinois congressman and the wife of a prominent figure in the Watergate scandal of the time.

When you fly in and out of Midway and actually look out the window you wonder why a whole lot more accidents haven’t happened. Those were certainly my thoughts this week as I transferred between Southwest flights at Midway. There is so little margin for error, particularly for the large, hulking jets like the 737s that Southwest uses for most of its flights. Pilots want to touch down as close to the start of the runway as possible to make sure they maximize their braking distance. As a result they scream over the nearby houses, just dozens of feet above their roofs. The noise must be nearly nonstop and deafening. All the jet fumes cannot be healthy for nearby residents either. Perhaps the housing is relatively cheaper on flight paths next to Midway, but I cannot imagine anyone who has the option actually purchasing a house on these flight paths. I’d be wearing hearing protection all the time at home.

So don’t make the mistake of looking out the window on approach, like I did. The probability of not making a safe landing is, of course, extremely small. If you are the nervous type you will feel much safer with a connecting flight at O’Hare International instead. In spite of the safety issue, I can see the airport’s appeal to airlines like Southwest, which at times appears to own the airport due to its oversize presence there. Smaller than O’Hare, it is less likely to have problems with congestion, and Southwest is all about running flights on time. While smaller than O’Hare, it is hardly a tiny airport. It has two concourses. My connecting flight yesterday arrived at a far end A gate. I had to reach a far end B gate to get my flight back to Washington Dulles. It took more than ten minutes to get between them.

Midway has been spiffed up a bit to compete with its shinier siblings, but it still feels quite working class. It does have a food court, but not a large one. I needed to find lunch at Midway, which is quite a challenge if you must avoid carbohydrates and fat. In fact it is close to impossible, and I was saved only by the presence of a small shop that sold salads in Concourse B. Otherwise the food was either greasy or sugary, or sometimes both. It’s no wonder that we have an obesity epidemic when those trying to avoid these foods have so few options.

I like flying Southwest but I think that in the future I will just avoid Midway. When that next accident occurs, and it probably won’t take too long given all the traffic the airport receives, I don’t want to be on that plane.

Terminal Insecurity

While on the subject of airports, as a semi-frequent traveler I have noticed that our airport security still leaves much to be desired. This is ironic when you consider how much money we are spending to protect our airports.

I am not talking just about the well-reported and gaping gap in screening aircraft cargo. I am talking about the gap securing our airport terminals. I hesitate to give terrorists ideas, but the costs to benefits ratio of striking the Great Satan America using airplanes no longer makes sense, not economically, not even to some whacked out deity. Airport terminals are much more vulnerable targets.

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps airports secretly have dozens of operatives running around terminals looking for suspicious passengers. Perhaps terminals are rife with micro-sensors sniffing the air for the faintest whiff of explosives. I sure hope we are doing these things. The only obvious terminal security seems to be at Arrivals and Departures where, at least at Washington Dulles International Airport, there are plenty of security men watching your car and making sure that you don’t tarry too long dropping off or picking up passengers. I strongly suspect though that their motive has more to do with keeping traffic moving than with airport security.

Because if they are trying to improve security, how exactly does this help? I mean, let us suppose a terrorist has a van full of fertilizer and a hair trigger. Do you think he is going to pay any attention to a security guy at Departures asking him to hustle along? No, he is going to shout, “God is Great!” in Arabic and ignite that sucker, killing hundreds of people and taking down much of the terminal with it.

Moreover, shouldn’t we be screening passengers and their bags before they get into the terminal? Of course, people are hauling all sorts of luggage and backpacks into the terminal and queuing up in front of airline ticket counters. None of it has been screened. Also inside the terminal are hundreds of other passengers, none of whom is anxious to be martyred to facilitate the spread of Islam. Aside from the casualties that could easily be inflicted by a rouge terrorist inside a terminal, these structures themselves are critical pieces of infrastructure, in many cases costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Damaging a terminal arguably would inflict as much in the way of death and casualties as an Oklahoma City type bombing. It would shut down most commercial transportation at the airport for weeks or months. It would also disrupt a good portion of the airline economy.

Instead, we are trying to protect aircraft which are obviously expensive pieces of equipment but which typically have 100 to 150 people aboard. Assuming they can be hijacked, which is becoming much harder to do, then they could possibly fly into the Sears Tower or some other structure and repeat the events of 9/11. Most likely, the extent of their carnage would be the destruction of one jet and a few hundred deaths. All of this would be regrettable, of course, but it would hardly inflict much damage to our transportation system.

If we were serious about protecting airline passengers, you would not be allowed into the terminal at all unless you and your luggage had been pre-screened. I can only think of one viable way this would work. It would be to require passengers to check in at smaller screening stations scattered across metropolitan areas or at least several hundred yards from the terminal. After passing screening at a local screening station, the passengers and their luggage would be shuttled to the airport aboard an approved security bus. This would probably add half an hour to an outbound commute. On the other hand, there would be no need to check in at the airport. In effect, you would move most TSA personnel out of the airport and put them in local communities.

These screening stations would have to be numerous so that small numbers of people would be arriving at a station at any given time. You would probably have to go online and book an arrival time at a local screening station. I imagine you would have to electronically send the station your eTicket, credentials and the license plate of the car that would be dropping you off. These would need to be verified before you were let into the station.

Of course, air cargo needs better screening too, and Congress is reputedly working on that goal. It seems unthinkable that Americans will give up commuting by air. I once wondered if the price of oil went up to $150 a barrel whether we would even have an airline industry. With prices now around $110 a barrel the answer is clear: yes, and we will happily pay whatever additional money it costs for the convenience of traveling long distances quickly by air.

Given the criticality of our airports, it is time to do more than the half measures we are currently doing to protect passengers and airport property. At best, you can only breathe a sigh of relief now once you are past the security checkpoint. If you are like me, you feel very vulnerable while inside the terminal itself.

It does not have to be this way.

Shedding a tear for the exit of mobile lounges

I spent last week, as I typically do two or three times a year, in Denver, doing the nation’s business. I arrived home this afternoon. As has been necessary for ninety percent of my flights in and out of Washington Dulles International Airport since my first flight in 1985, I exited the plane and headed for a mobile lounge to get back to the terminal.

You hardly see mobile lounges anymore. Dulles International Airport is probably the last major airport where most of its passengers need to use a mobile lounge to get to and from their gates. I suspect most passengers consider the mobile lounges archaic and a damned nuisance. It’s enough just getting through the often intimidating security lines at Dulles. After that you go through the additional hassle of getting to your gate via a mobile lounge. Typically, you must wait in the mobile lounge for a few minutes before it takes you to your concourse and gate.

Mobile lounge at Dulles International Airport

For about a year now, travelers needing to get to the B concourse have had the option of taking a walkway to the terminal. An Aerotrain system is planned for 2009. When it is complete, these mobile lounges will be unnecessary. I imagine they will keep a few around in case they need to embark or disembark passengers directly to a jet, but most of them will become as obsolete as, well, trolleys. They might as well sell them for scrap metal. (I am hoping the airport authority will donate one to the National Air and Space Museum Annex, also at Dulles Airport, so I can show my grandchildren what they were like.)

I have always considered these mobile lounges to be interesting. They were never pretty but in truth, they rarely added more than a few minutes to your commute to and from the terminal. The planned AeroTrain system at Dulles will be entirely underground. This pattern is true of most of these airport trains. While fast and efficient, they lack something. Specifically what these underground trains lack is a view.

Except for when an airplane is taxiing, you do not really have a chance to experience an airport except from inside its terminal and concourses. What is neat about a mobile lounge is that it takes you out onto the tarmac and rapidly moves you between concourses. You zip by a dozen jets a minute, from lowly commuter planes to massive and majestic Boeing 747s, which are still a major presence at Dulles International Airport. Fuel trucks and baggage cars can also be seen cruising on the tarmac. In short, you get a mobile view of the airport impossible to get any other way unless you are employed at the airport. Each mobile lounge, which can carry up to 102 passengers and is 54 feet long and 16 feet wide, comes with large windows on both sides of the lounge, offering a fast moving perspective of the airport.

Sadly, most passengers on the mobile lounge are busy talking into their cell phones or fidgeting because they are wondering if they will make it to their gate in time. Many of these passengers are inured to the mobile lounge experience. They should not be. Soon the mobile lounge experience, common to passengers at Dulles International since its opening in 1962, will be just a fading memory.

It used to be that you could visit airports for leisure. You could climb up into the terminal tower or walk out on an observation deck and take in the grandeur of the airport. All the while, you could marvel in the delicate ballet of planes taking off, landing and taxiing. If such a place exists at Dulles, I am not aware of it. Moreover, visiting the airport is expensive. Hourly parking is so cost prohibitive that only the most fanatical bother to meet their parties at the airport. Even if they wanted to meet their parties at the gate, they are not allowed beyond the security checkpoint. You typically end up meeting your party at curbside.

Mobile lounges are the next best thing for the airport tourist. To my mind, there are few better showcases of industry and organization than airports. A generation or two ago, if you wanted to see American industry, you took factory tours. Today, you visit airports. Granted, with overbooking and increased numbers of flights, sometimes an airport seems more inefficient than efficient. Yet the modern airport experience overall is remarkably efficient and well engineered. Each is its own little city. Without the mobile lounge, my perspective of the grandeur of the airport markedly diminishes.

I may be a small minority, but I will shed a tear or two when the mobile lounges are retired. They are probably inefficient and obsolete, which is why the $1.4 billion dollar AeroTrain system is under construction. Perhaps, in an effort to pay some bills, Dulles International could turn a few of its mobile lounges into tourist attractions. Then once an hour or so, tourists could take a nostalgic mobile lounge tour of our remarkable and growing international airport.

Between Places

The chocolate raisins at Grove’s Natural Snacks are excellent. That much I have concluded from repeatedly spending time between flights here at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport. The hard part is not buying too much of it. When I pass through the airport, I limit myself to two scoops. I never have a problem finding this particular concessionaire, since I have been here often. It is in Concourse C, at the top of the escalator, just to the left. Perhaps one of these days I will try the chocolate pretzels, but right now, I stick with what I know.

I know little airport secrets. If you want a decent meal at this airport, your best bet is to take the underground subway to Concourse E, the International Terminal. In Concourse E at certain times of day, you can watch a pianist in a tuxedo playing at a Grand Piano. The piano is parked at a bar in front of the food court. Here, among the tangle of international travelers and soldiers looking bound for Iraq, you can chow down with fast food from Panda Express and hear a pianist play, probably for the thousandth time, As Time Goes By. If a pianist is not present, the piano also works as a player piano.

Time does indeed go by here at Hartsfield International but after many passages through the airport, it starts to feel like something of a second home. This is my third pass through Atlanta Hartsfield so far this year. I will connect through here again later this week on my way home. This trip has me bound for Tallahassee, another city where my agency has an office and which I would likely not otherwise visit. A few weeks ago, I was sent to Madison, Wisconsin. Since there are no direct flights to Madison from Washington Dulles International Airport, my trip required a connection through Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Here was one of those major airports I had not really become acquainted with before. I expected it to look shopworn, but the airport authority has done a nice job maintaining the property. The dancing neon lights above the movable walkways between concourses that are synchronized to New Age music were a nice touch.

Invariably when visiting a hub airport, instead of rushing to my next flight, I have two and a half hours to kill. I think this is because relatively small and prosaic destinations like Madison or Tallahassee have fewer flights. So here, I wait. Having little else to do to kill time, I ride the trams between concourses. I look around. I take in the atmosphere, for a large airport is really a city in itself. I like the little viewing area of the taxiway at Concourse A. I like looking at the fancy international gates in Concourse E. Delta Airlines is the 800-pound gorilla at this airport, of course, and they keep expanding their international destinations. You can fly directly to Africa from Atlanta. If you need a nonstop flight to Moscow or Prague, you can find them at this airport too.

I keep hoping that someday one of these airports I frequent will offer free wireless internet. I might as well wait for a pony. Airports are expensive endeavors. Even with the landing fees, ticket taxes and hundreds of eateries and concessionaries pumping in revenue into the airport authority’s coffers, more revenue is always needed. The good news for us data consumers is that this market is consolidating. Soon you will be able to purchase one wireless airport service and use it everywhere. Some airports though have yet to catch up with the times. Washington Dulles, for example, has no wireless service at all, but is touting its availability next year. I realize there is a lot of renovation going on at my airport, but wireless networks are commodities. It should not be that big a deal to add a wireless internet service. Moreover, since the Washington area is one of the most wired places in the world (and in fact, the Internet’s hub rests a few miles away in Herndon) it seems odd that this airport remains relatively in the digital dark ages.

The hottest seats at Atlanta Hartsfield are often on the floor. You will see travelers with their laptops plugged into any outlet they can find, and they are not always next to chairs. So they end up on the carpet or on the tile floor, transfixed in their computer screens and oblivious to the noise and chaos around them. Hartsfield is becoming more computer friendly however. More eateries are providing countertops with electrical plugs in them.

The repeated airport announcements warn us that the security level is Code Orange, but no one cares. We are inured to recorded announcements. For many of us airports are way stations. Yet there are most of the comforts of home here, all available for a price, of course. In most airports now, you can get a neck massage if you need one to ease your flying anxiety. Near Concourse E here in Atlanta, if so inclined, you can pray in an interfaith worship room. The Starbucks are ubiquitous, of course. Most of us are docile, but you will see the occasionally intent businessperson or flight attendant scurrying with unusual haste down a concourse. Other passengers looked ticked when people block the escalators with their luggage. Get a clue people: walking passengers may be in a hurry to make a connection. They need space to pass on the left. As for the restrooms, Larry Craig would have plenty of opportunities to try out his widened stance. While I have no idea whether some are hotspots for kinky homosexuals, there is plenty of room to do a toe dance with your bathroom neighbor if so inclined.

Some part of our obesity epidemic must be related to so many of us traveling through airports. There are simply too many temptations to resist. Here in Atlanta, chocolate raisins are my weakness. At Washington Dulles, I often succumb and buy a Frosty at the Wendy’s in the Concourse D. At Denver International, I invariably find myself in Concourse C, so it is up a level to Wolfgang Puck’s to find something tastier than fast food.

At some point, like now, I find myself parked at my gate more than an hour before my flight, too cheap to pay for Internet access, but lugging my ultra heavy IBM Thinkpad, which my employer says I need to drag around. I often feel like Sisyphus toting that thing. So here I sit on my ass and pass time blogging. Usually I am determined to blog on some weightier topic. Tonight, I just feel like chronicling one of my many passages through these air portals. Increasingly airports, like them or not, are becoming a part of my life. I might as well write about them.

For the record, this is my seventh airport voyage of 2007. It should also be my last. I will be glad to be done with the travel for the year. At least this trip offers the benefit that I get to stay in my time zone. Tonight I will arrive at the Courtyard Inn in Tallahassee and post these ramblings for your amusement. I will be kept busy all week, so this may suffice for my blogging until the weekend.