Living in the shadow of Heathrow and other major airports

A reporter travels to a neighborhood just next to the runways at Heathrow Airport and tries to understand how people live there:

It’s a nice perk, if you don’t mind the to and fro of planes overhead—one taking off or landing every 45 seconds, every day, every year. They soar within a few hundred feet of the rooftops, blocking the sky like giant aluminum birds. And they make a helluva racket too. “It’s almost deafening if you’re standing underneath,” says Bertie Taylor, who photographed Myrtle Avenue for his series Under the Flight Path.

Feltham has been a transportation hub since the early 20th century, when it hosted Britain’s second largest railway yard, targeted by German air strikes during World War II. But it didn’t become the consistently noisy place it is today until January 1, 1946, when an Avro 691 Lancastrian departed Heathrow for Argentina, marking the airport’s first flight. In the 1960s, its two main runways—one located just a quarter-mile northwest of Myrtle Avenue—were extended a few thousand feet to service even bigger planes like the Boeing 747.

Noise levels are allowed to reach up to 94 decibels during the day (equivalent to a jackhammer 50 feet away) and 87 decibels at night (a gas-powered lawn mower)—though they’ve fallen in recent decades with quieter engines and smarter flight paths. Still, last year Heathrow received an average of one noise complaint every seven minutes. Noise isn’t the only nuisance. Nearby communities also receive an extra dose of air pollution from vehicle and aircraft traffic, not to mention the occasional scare: In 2008, a Boeing 777 nearly slammed into Myrtle Avenue after its engines failed.

All this sounds nightmarish—and indeed, it troubles locals. But when Taylor visited Myrtle Avenue in September 2018, curious to see what life near an airport is like, folks seemed more irritated by having their driveways blocked in by planespotters’ cars. Aviation enthusiasts from as far as Germany and the Netherlands throng to the green park near the airport fence to ooh and aah at landing Airbus 380s and Boeing 777s. One middle-aged man even stood atop his van in a nearby field, livestreaming the spectacle on Facebook.

Humans can live in all sorts of conditions, including regular noise and visitors. So what would motivate these residents to stay in this location? A few hypotheses:

1. Housing is cheaper here. The noise would bother a lot of potential homeowners so a dwelling that might be more expensive elsewhere (and this is the expensive London region after all) might be less expensive.

2. Proximity to jobs, particularly in the transportation sector. For people with jobs at Heathrow or in something connected to the air industry, this could be a convenient location.

3. They grew up in this area or have long-term connections to the industries (railways, flying) in the community.

On the other hand, perhaps some of the residents do leave when one of these factors that once pushed them to stay becomes less important. With some personal experience living near a busy railroad line, I know people can get used to noise and rumbling but wouldn’t the average resident leave when they could?

Since airports are not usually too far from dwellings these days (they might have been in previous decades but many metropolitan regions have expanded), someone has to live near the airport. Maybe even some come to like it. But, living that close with the noise and the shadows is a different experience many homeowners would look to avoid.

Bringing in tourists just to see the airport

Airports are often considered gateways to other tourist activities. Yet, they can be tourist destinations in their own right:

Hughey’s at the vanguard of a new phenomenon: terminal tourism. Programs adopted or being considered by a number of airports allow people beyond security checkpoints so they can meet arriving relatives or just hang out. It’s a bit of a return to the days before the 9-11 terrorist attacks, when airport security was more relaxed and you didn’t need a ticket for a flight to get inside. The programs are taking root as airports expand options to fill passenger dwell time, as it’s called — those often mind-numbing hours between when people make it through security and when their flights take off. Now many airports feature live music and art exhibits. There are spas, microbreweries, playgrounds, gourmet restaurants and wine bars.

Pittsburgh was the first airport to open up to non-travelers, in 2017, and Tampa started doing so last month. Seattle-Tacoma is evaluating a pilot it tested earlier this year and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, the nation’s busiest, may seek approval for a trial run. The idea is under consideration in Detroit and Austin…

Some view it as a potential money-maker; officials with the facilities in Atlanta and Detroit figure they might see additional revenue from parking and concessions. A survey of visitors during Seattle-Tacoma’s trial showed people stayed an average 2.5 hours — though they spent only an average $10.29.

At Pittsburgh International, the impetus was popular demand, said Chief Executive Officer Christina Cassotis. She was peppered whenever she appeared at public forums. “In the top five questions was always, ‘Why can’t we go back to the airport and see what’s going on out there?”’

I know there are security concerns but I cannot believe it took this long to consider this potential revenue generator given the number of cities interested in tourism. If the buildings are already there, why not invite more people in?

Some of the discussion in the article suggested airport tourists are drawn by food and shopping. I also assume the terminals provide some other nice features: watching airplanes and a safe, controlled, clean environment. In all these senses, airports are then like shopping malls with options for dining, shopping, and entertainment all within a pleasant indoor setting. And having been in almost all of the airports listed above, newer facilities are definitely headed toward shopping mall status with large shopping and dining areas plus interesting amenities for people on the go. For example, Sea-Tac offers a large glass window for watching planes.

Now, if only those struggling shopping malls could find something as interesting as planes landing and taking off to attract visitors…

The difficulties of big protests at airports

Airports don’t often attract people for protests so the gatherings of recent days highlighted a few issues:

Moving hundreds of thousands of people to downtown streets for a march is one thing—getting people to an airport is a huge transportation challenge, especially in cities that don’t have adequate transit connections to begin with. In San Francisco and Los Angeles, transit authorities were coyly reminding protesters to use trains or buses to get to SFO and LAX.

Some airports reported delayed flights because crew members could not get to work, and heavy traffic was reported around many airports. Long-term parking lots and shuttles were filled with protesters, and passengers had to wade through sign-holding crowds to get to their gates.

So many New Yorkers were using the city’s AirTrain to get to the protest at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) that security guards blocked people from boarding it until Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered Port Authority to let protesters through

The incident on JFK’s AirTrain also points to another challenge for an airport demonstration. Most airports are a checkerboard of public and private properties with both local and federal oversight. JFK’s international terminal, Terminal 4, which became ground zero for the protests nationwide, for example, is partly owned by Schiphol Cargo, the corporation that manages Amsterdam’s airport…

Globally, this type of “airport urbanism” is actually becoming the norm as airport design worldwide moves away from the fortress model of the past. While continuing to focus on security for boarding areas, new airports are adding more permeable spaces that serve both passengers and the greater public. Munich’s airport has a similar programmed plaza that inspired Denver’s.

It is unlikely that airports can be consistent centers of urbanism because many types of development do not want to locate near loud runways. At the same time, there is little reason why more airports can’t introduce more interesting spaces that give travelers, workers, and other visitors opportunities to relax, shop, and interact. For example, I really enjoyed the grand windows at the Seattle airport last August. (At the same time, that space was past security and wouldn’t be available to protestors.)

Protestors in recent years have shown more willingness to congregate in transportation corridors, whether highways or airports. Such tactics do tend to get people’s attention while also highlighting the lack of large public space sin many locales.

Watching the planes in style at SeaTac

After walking through security at SeaTac, I entered the central food court and shopping area. I was greeted with this view:

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From this gallery, you can watch the main runways as planes takeoff and land and you can do so seated in wooden rocking chairs (close to the windows). I assume many airports are designed with providing sufficient gates and access to planes in mind. Think of O’Hare or Atlanta where the concourses are long. Yet, this view took the mall court airport plan – common across many newer airports including ones I’ve seen in Tampa, Orlando, and Las Vegas – to another level: providing a large view of the most interesting work of the airport as planes travel at high speed.

An overview of the airport feature from when it opened in 2005:

The feature attraction, however, is the 60-by-350-foot glass wall that overlooks the runways and, in amenable weather, the Olympic Mountains. It’s more than just a big picture window. The panes are wrenched into a compound curve, convex in the vertical plane and concave in the horizontal. It looks more like a portal to a space warp than a mere window. The web of steel cables, struts and attachment spiders that allow the curtain wall to flex up to 11 inches in a worst-case windstorm or earthquake is all exposed to view, a celebration of virtuoso building technology…

Architect Curtis Fentress, the terminal’s principal designer, is convinced that people want to feel the excitement of travel again, and that it touches a deeper place than momentarily marveling at the apparent miracle of 400-ton cigars storming into the sky. He recalls a boyhood visit to the airport to see his uncle off to the Korean War. “We watched him wave to us from the plane,” Fentress recalls — an impression half a century old, burned indelibly into his mind.

Bonus: this area seemed to particularly fascinate small children. This is no small feat in the harried realm of traveling.

What is the economic benefit of O’Hare Airport to the Chicago region?

Noise complaints may be up but local officials say O’Hare Airport has a big economic impact:

Chicago estimates O’Hare contributes more than $38 billion to the economy of the six counties and sustains about 450,000 jobs directly and indirectly. Airport expansion could generate an extra $18 billion and create 195,000 new jobs, the city projects.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, in a speech to the City Club in June, attributed recent economic successes to O’Hare and Midway International Airport. “Out of the 10 major metropolitan areas (in the U.S.) last year, Chicagoland had 12,000 businesses created,” Emanuel said. “That’s No. 2 in the United States.”

I’m guessing these statistics won’t quiet the critics of the new noise patterns yet it should remind the region’s residents how an airport might indirectly help them all beyond providing easier and cheaper access to points around the globe.

O’Hare Airport now officially world’s busiest airport again

Occasionally status anxious Chicago can breathe a little easier: O’Hare was just certified the world’s busiest airport.

While 2014 traffic at O’Hare was down by 0.2 percent, it lost less traffic than the Atlanta airport, where traffic declined by 4.7 percent, according to new FAA data. O’Hare had 881,933 arrivals and departures; Atlanta had 868,359.

But the Atlanta airport is likely to retain the title of busiest airport for passenger traffic.

City officials have said international passenger volume have helped O’Hare totals. In the last 18 months, O’Hare and Midway airports added six new international airlines and dozens of destinations, according to the city.

O’Hare regains bragging rights to the title it had mostly owned since the dawn of the Jet Age, when it surpassed the number of flights at Midway Airport, which had been the leader.

As a transportation center, this looks good for Chicago. Yet, there are two more negative signs: Atlanta may still have more passengers (which number matters more?) and flights were down (Which may have more to do with airlines consolidating as well as trying to cut costs by filling existing flights). Additionally, the lead over Atlanta isn’t that big. I’m guessing this means the competition will continue for years to come and I am curious to know if Chicago and/or O’Hare have some plans in the works to keep their regained lead.

Aurora fire illustrates need for redundancy in key infrastructure systems

A fire at an Aurora FAA facility caused all sorts of airport problems in Chicago and across the country:

The FAA said it’s working “closely with the airlines that serve the Chicago-area airports to minimize disruptions for travelers” and expects to “continue to increase the traffic flow at those two airports over the weekend.” FAA officials did not respond Saturday to requests for more information.At least 778 flights had been canceled Saturday out of both airports by just before 3 p.m., according to Flightstats, a website that monitors air traffic.

O’Hare was able to operate at around 60 percent of its usual Saturday capacity, said Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Because of the fire at the Aurora facility, O’Hare’s control tower can’t receive or send to other control centers the airlines’ automated flight plans, so airlines are having to fax them to O’Hare. That’s requiring two controllers to staff every position at the main O’Hare tower, and had to close the auxiliary north tower at the airport, Church said.

While this is certainly an unusual accident, it illustrates the fragility of some of our key infrastructure: the behind-the-scenes equipment and people that keep airplanes flying and airports operating. As many have noted, flying has become quite hum-drum in the United States in recent decades and this is partly due to the general efficiency of this system. No one likes delays or lost luggage or maintenance problems but it is still pretty remarkable the number of flights in the air on a daily basis and the relative ease of traveling across long distances.

What we need are some redundancies in these key systems in case something does go wrong. As the article notes, the whole system isn’t shut down because flight plans can be sent by fax. But, there isn’t a quicker way – like digital photos or digital scans – to do this? Can’t this be done with one person? But, building redundant systems might often cost significant money upfront, a luxury many systems don’t have. At the least, this incident in Aurora should lead to some rethinking of what can be done better in the future if a key facility breaks down.