What happened to American airports? How they’ve changed since the Pan-Am era

Vintage postcard of LAX airport

What’s happened to America’s airports? Once shining examples of a modern lifestyle, American airports today are less-than-remarkable compared to those around the world. In several recent surveys, the only American airport that garners accolades for both its design and convenience is Dallas Fort Worth.

This illustrates a gradual decline for American airports: the country once had some of the most revelatory structures in the genre. In JFK’s International Airports heyday in the 1960s and 70s – before it was named JFK – it boasted Eero Saarinen’s revolutionary TWA Terminal, as well as one by I.M. Pei. Los Angeles International Airport was built by Californian architect William Pereira, and included the quirky Theme Building to welcome visitors.

The world’s best airports are now located in Asia and Europe: there are no North American airports in the top 10 of the Skytrax World’s Best Airports rankings, none in the top 10 in Business Insider’s rankings (though the list links to “15 Miserable Airports you never want to set foot into” – which are all American), and none in Lonely Planet’s top 10 either.

This all begs the question: why are airports important? Honestly, it’s pretty obvious: they serve as a visitor’s first impression of America and as a nexus of international trade. The point is that people judge a country by its airports, especially given the increasing importance of flight for both business and pleasure today (check out the book Aerotopolis for more information on the growing need for good airports).

I blame a lot of the cramped and stressful airport experiences on national security guidelines imposed after 9/11 on older airports that didn’t anticipate the nation’s new needs. Increasing traveler volume doesn’t help. Architecture firm Gresham Smith & Partners, charged with redesigning LAX’s Terminal 1, lists the challenges of using an old terminal for our current requirements:  “cramped security areas, bulky baggage screening machines in the ticketing lobby, and walking-path bottlenecks.”

Though the new airport regulations are stringent, they don’t prevent good design: rather, they encourage creativity within bounds. International airports are living up to their hype, providing spaces for security as well as interesting design: designboom has listed 5 of the most interesting airport structures being built – the only one in the US is Indianapolis International Airport’s midfield terminal.

There is hope, however: a decade after 9/11, airports are finally realizing that these security measures aren’t going away and that the needs of the contemporary traveler are changing. A New York Times editorial, titled, “Can Airports Be Fun?” describes SFO’s T2 as a vanguard in at least its interior design. The same is also being said about JFK’s JetBlue terminal. Dallas Fort Worth, one of the largest airports in the world, has also started a $1.9 billion renovation process.

Though we might never return to the days of Pei and Saarinen, with a renewed focus on passenger experience, hopefully American airports will soon catch up with their international rivals.

Photo by hyperjet

Ashley Lee I'm a recent grad (Wellesley '11!) trying to break into the art world. When I'm not reading, writing, or tweeting about the contemporary art world, I like shoes, soccer, and Star Wars. Like Liz Lemon, I list things in threes.

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