Mass Transit or Glamour Trip? Airports Tell Convoluted Tale

Naked Airport: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Revolutionary Structure, by Alastair Gordon. Metropolitan Books, 305 pages, $27.50.

A few weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal ran a fascinating account of the slow demise of legacy airlines, in particular US Airways. Legacy carriers—so called because they are the legacy of the pre-deregulation era, when the government set air routes and ticket prices—once enjoyed the corporate world’s version of the luxe life (an array of government regulations made it difficult for new companies to enter the market), but since President Jimmy Carter opened the industry in 1978, they’ve had to fight a losing battle against upstart, no-frills carriers like Southwest and JetBlue. In the early 1990’s, Pan Am and Eastern called it quits; in the next few years, it’s likely that US Airways or some other financially pressed airline will do the same.

The demise of the legacy carriers is about more than just airline economics. As Alastair Gordon makes clear in his breezy, engaging new book, Naked Airport, their passing is also the final step in a vast but unappreciated cultural dialectic. Since its inception in the early 1920’s, commercial air travel, and the structures that facilitate it, have been defined by two opposing forces: on the one hand, the glamour and adventure that come with slipping the bonds of earth and distance; on the other, the need to regiment and systematize a form of mass transit.

Mr. Gordon embodies this tension in the persons of Henry Ford and Juan Trippe, founder and president of Pan Am. Ford is, of course, best known for his car manufacturing. But up until the late 1930’s, the Ford Trimotor was one of the most popular commercial aircraft; Ford also built the Dearborn airport and promoted airport construction across the country. The auto magnate understandably saw air travel as little different from automobiles or trains, and he believed that the same principles of low cost and mass availability through process regimentation could be applied.

Trippe saw things in radically different terms. The product of Long Island wealth and a Yale education, he founded Pan American Airways in 1927 on the notion that air travel was a way to escape the everyday, an adventure rather than a means of transportation. He built a network of airports throughout Latin America, with his luxurious Miami facility (later Miami International Airport) as its hub. Travelers would whisk off to Havana (a favorite destination for the wealthy during Prohibition) and beyond, where, as one of Trippe’s associates reported, “People would come to see the airplane, and there would be a lot of flag waving. We were often invited in for cocktails at the hotel by high government officials.” But Trippe’s Pan Am was merely the apotheosis of the prevailing image of air travel before World War II—though not as comfortable as an ocean liner or a train, an airplane flight signaled wealth and sophistication, a way for the moneyed classes on the coasts to move about the country and the world. As Cecilia Brady, the college student in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, comments, “In the big transcontinental planes we were the coastal rich, who casually alighted from our cloud in mid-America.”

But deep within Trippe’s vision was the seed of its own destruction. The luxury of air travel drove its popularity. But as the volume of travelers increased, the shine wore off, a change that Mr. Gordon ingeniously traces through the development of airport architecture. The first airports were modeled on country clubs and classical temples (not only to make them classy, but also to ease first-time travelers’ anxieties); to 21st-century eyes, they look more like small-town railroad stations than anything air-related. But these early structures proved unable to handle the press of thousands of travelers who descended on the industry following World War II. Luxury gave way to process. Aesthetics gave way to traffic-pattern studies as the overriding design concern. Indeed, many of the first high-volume airports put into service in the late 1940’s were converted factories and warehouses.

Nonetheless, the luxe vision was far from dead. Trippe may have had elite notions, but he didn’t see air travel as an exclusive preserve of the elite. Rather, he wanted to bring luxury to everyone: In 1954, he instituted a “fly now, pay later” credit plan to help more people afford tickets. It worked. The postwar decades were the golden age of air travel. In 1945, 6.7 million people flew in the United States. The next year, that number had shot to 12.5 million; by 1956, it was 40 million. And they flew not on cramped, noisy prop planes but on enormous jets. State-of-the-art new airports, such as Minoru Yamasaki’s Lambert Field in St. Louis and Eero Saarinen’s Dulles International outside Washington, sprung up to handle the crush of passengers and the technical requirements of their jet transports. “Jet” became the it word of the day: jet set, The Jetsons, the New York Jets. Pulp novels and films centered around the allure of heroic pilots and comely stewardesses. Coffee, Tea or Me, billed as “the uninhibited memoirs of two airline stewardesses,” was a bestseller in 1967. It seemed, for a moment, that Ford and Trippe’s competing visions had been reconciled.

As with so much of American culture in the 1960’s, the moment passed quickly. The technology that people at first fetishized became part of the humdrum. Moreover, the downside quickly became apparent: pollution, accidents, the routinization of our daily lives. In airports, moving sidewalks and anonymous boarding lounges came to define the air-travel experience, along with delays, long lines and sterile airport air. “Encapsulation is a good part of the price paid for speed,” the critic George Nelson wrote.

By the 1970’s, a new problem had emerged. Terrorists and other criminals realized that an airplane isn’t just an efficient way to move hundreds of people around the world—it’s also an efficient way to take hundreds of hostages. As Mr. Gordon notes, “Between 1969 and 1978, there were more than four hundred international hijackings involving over seventy-five thousand passengers.” In response, countries turned airports into highly defended security zones, funneling passengers through X-ray chutes and subjecting them and their luggage to dehumanizing searches. To be sure, the turn to security has been worth it: Hijackings these days are rare, and even counting 9/11, a person’s chances of being involved in a violent event in the air are much lower now than they were 30 years ago. But the price has been to replace luxury with security as the defining characteristic of air travel.

As the Journal article makes clear, the rise of no-frills, low-cost airlines is the latest step in the Fordist routinization of the airport. As the glamour and individualism of air travel gave way to the efficiencies of mass transit, it was inevitable that companies still tied to the glory days should pass as well. Now it seems that no one looks forward to going to the airport, much less taking a flight. If nothing else, Naked Airport is a pleasant reminder that once, people did.

Clay Risen is an assistant editor at The New Republic.

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