As Alexander Pope once said, the best way to be pleasantly surprised is to expect the absolute worst. So I had one thing going for me as I prepared to travel to Hong Kong's colossal new airport. My mission was to investigate what the future of airports would hold—to find out how new ideas and technologies would help make air travel easier, nicer, more efficient. But as I was packing my bags, I realized I might be heading for something quite different from the future.
To judge from newspaper and TV accounts, Hong Kong had made a big leap backward—about 500 years backward, to be precise, to a medieval torture chamber of lost luggage and overflowing bathrooms. Passengers had been trapped on runways for hours; innumerable flights had been delayed or canceled; tons of misplaced cargo had been left to rot. The verdict was unanimous: the Hong Kong airport was an unmitigated disaster.
My ticket was nonrefundable. I took a deep breath, hailed a cab, and made my way to New York's John F. Kennedy Airport.
Not, you might say, the best possible start. In the late fifties JFK—then called Idlewild—was at the forefront of airport technology, a glistening beacon to the future of air travel graced by such marvelous signature buildings as Eero Saarinen's TWA terminal. But that was a different era, when flight was young and so were the flight attendants. Time has not been kind to New York's airports, or to any of the country's older facilities. In the 40 years since the dawn of regular commercial air travel, flying has gone from futuristic luxury to mundane necessity. Huge crowds tramp through aging, obsolescent structures. And all the malaises so firmly associated with the modern airport—the low ceilings, the lack of seats, the exorbitantly expensive, inedible food, the gnawing dread that you will never escape—are handsomely represented in the Big Apple.
But JFK is not hell anymore. At least, part of it isn't.
My trip was to begin at JFK's new Terminal One, which had just opened as the first phase of a massive $4.4 billion airport-wide redevelopment that will extend into the next decade. From the looks of Terminal One, the project is off to a good start. As you swing into JFK through an overpass, the building presents a great wall of tinted glass that becomes, once you enter, an airy white space; the sweeping curved girders that support the ceiling subtly evoke the geometry of aircraft design. Clouds drift past the enormous windows; polygons of yellow sunlight lie across the smooth expanse of terrazzo floor. You almost have the sense of already being in flight. Past the four check-in islands, which stand like tents beneath the high canopy of the roof, passengers can ride escalators up to an open mezzanine level, sit in a café, and watch the planes take off and land. In architect William Boudova's design, even the most sacred of airline boundaries seems negotiable: a wide opening in the center of the mezzanine, covered by a concave mesh dome, lets sunlight down into the post-security departure areas.
The most novel aspect of the terminal, though, isn't its architecture, but the consortium that built it—a partnership of Air France, Japan Airlines, Korean Air, Lufthansa, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Traditionally, U.S. airports have been run by municipal governments as civic endeavors, endemically short on cash flow and even shorter on pizzazz. Terminal One, on the other hand, is to be run as a private, profit-making venture. While such arrangements are increasingly common abroad, they have so far caught on only at a handful of domestic airports.
"It's not just about getting passengers into seats anymore," says David Sigman, the development coordinator for nearby Terminal Four, a privately run facility whose completion in 2001 will mark the end of major expansion. "Terminal operation is our business."
Weaned from the undiscriminating largesse of the public purse, privatized airports have to attract customers.They have to be welcoming and efficient. Passengers must not only want to come, but also to linger, and spend money in the process. The Department of Motor Vehicles look is out; the shopping mall look is in. At Terminal One, this means grand and spacious architecture that brings Washington's National Air & Space Museum to mind, as well as an arcade that includes a sporting-goods shop and a Calvin Klein lingerie boutique. Instead of fast-food stands with leathery $5 hot dogs, Terminal One's cafés sell light, wholesome food amid surroundings decorated playfully to evoke holiday travel.
Refreshing as they are, Terminal One's efforts are baby steps compared to some airports' aggressive retailing. BAA, an airport management company that now runs eight facilities here and in the U.K., generates most of its revenues from shops and restaurants. Its secret is no secret at all, except to most airport managers: offer a large selection of quality goods at competitive prices. The company's 48-store plaza in Heathrow's Terminal Four includes outposts of Harrods, Aquascutum, and Thomas Pink.
Moving merchandise may be just the tip of the revenue iceberg. Amsterdam's Schiphol has a casino; Singapore's Changi, a karaoke lounge and swimming pool. You can enjoy a manicure and facial at Vancouver International Airport's hair salon, get a massage at Seattle-Tacoma, even play 18 holes of golf on the grounds of Salt Lake City's airport.
"The entertainment world is almost our model for where airports are going," says Steve Reiss, chairman of architecture at HNTB Aviation, a consulting company that has had its hand in Boston, Salt Lake City, and Orlando airports. "I've even heard plans for movie theaters and bowling alleys."
JFK hasn't reached that stage yet, but it's oddly cheering nonetheless. I felt as though, instead of drilling a cavity, my dentist had given me a lollipop.
THIRTEEN HOURS LATER—OR MAYBE IT WAS 14, OR 12, OR 30; it's hard to tell in the hallucinatory state induced by jet lag and coach seating—I found myself in Seoul's Kimpo Airport, running to catch my connection. Cramped, dingy, and a textbook example of what happens when an airport outlives its era, Kimpo is the sixth circle of travel hell. The seventh I found by mistake, when curiosity led me to a cubicle made of what looked like smoked glass. But it wasn't the glass that was smoked, it was the air. Amid an acrid cloud so thick you could set an ashtray on it, nicotine addicts puffed furiously and dejectedly, clearly wondering why they had taken up the habit in the first place. I did an about-face and hurried off to my plane, this time unreservedly happy to be on my way.
JARRED FROM A HEAVY SLEEP BY THE SOUND OF WIND RUSHING OVER LANDING GEAR, I barely had time to say a prayer for my luggage before Hong Kong's new airport appeared below. What had been a huge pancake of dirt in the ocean three years ago was now a sprawling mini-city.