Iconic Airports: Where Are They Now?

Yesterday, I went out to JFK Airport with no flight to catch and no visitors to greet. It was the annual Open House New York event, where private buildings and homes all over the city open to the public for a few hours, and it was a last chance to see the iconic TWA Flight Center before it is turned into a hotel. (You can see our photos from last year here.)

Native New Yorkers, retired flight attendants, tourists and architecture enthusiasts flooded the airy terminal, closed since TWA ceased operations in 2001, taking photos and sharing stories about the good old days of air travel. The mid-20th century was the high point in airport design; its airy and futuristic buildings can be appreciated by any modern day traveler who has ever had a layover at La Guardia.

We looked at some of the most iconic airport architecture in the U.S. and their current status. Is your favorite still flying?

%Slideshow-100872%DCA Terminal A – Washington D.C.’s first airport opened in 1941, and was considered to be the most modern in airport design at the time. In addition to its status as historic landmark and aviation icon, it’s also an archaeological site: the airport was built on a former colonial plantation and the birthplace of George Washington’s granddaughter.

Status: The original terminal was restored to its original look in 2004 and 2008, with the interior currently undergoing a massive renovation. You can still see many parts of the original lobby and building as it looked when President Roosevelt dedicated it. Check out some vintage postcards of the airport from the Boston Public Library.

IAD Main Terminal – One of Swedish architect Eero Saarinen’s airport designs, Dulles was designed in 1958 and dedicated in 1962, the same year the TWA terminal opened. The architect called the building and control tower “the best thing that I have done,” and inspired the design of Taiwan’s international airport. The “mobile lounges” were one of the most innovative concepts, carrying passengers in relative luxury from the terminal right to the plane

Status: Dulles wasn’t a popular airport from the beginning, as it didn’t allow jumbo jets until 1970 and the distance from the city is still off-putting, but it’s now one of the busiest in the country and is continuing to expand. The mobile lounges are still around, but the new Aero Train is more commonly used.

JFK Pan Am Worldport – The 1960 “flying saucer” was designed to bring the airplane to the passenger, sheltering the planes under the overhang for all-weather boarding. It was opened for Pan Am and renamed the Worldport in 1971 when it was expanded to accommodate the Boeing 747, and was the biggest passenger terminal in the world for several years. After Pan Am went bankrupt in the ’90s, Delta acquired the terminal and used it for many long-haul flights.

Status: Although it is on the list of the most endangered historic buildings and beloved by many airline and architecture enthusiasts, it looks like the Worldport is permanently grounded. While Delta just completed a major renovation of their other terminal at JFK, they need the room for airplane parking, and the flying saucer is already beginning to be demolished.

LAX Theme building – The distinctive Theme building is a perfect example of 1960s futuristic architecture, resembling something out of the Jetsons and actually inspiring the cartoon’s design. Part of the original ambitious plans for the airport was to connect terminal buildings with a giant glass dome, with the Theme Building serving as the main terminal, as in the picture above. One of the most famous buildings in the world, it’s photographed more than the Eiffel Tower.

Status: The Theme building has been a restaurant since 1997, and you can visit Encounter for a meal even if you aren’t flying. The free observation deck is open on weekends only if you just want to watch the planes taking off.

LGA Marine Air Terminal – For a passenger who arrives at one of La Guardia’s many dim and low-ceilinged gates, it’s hard to imagine that an Art Deco beauty is part of the same airport. Opened in 1940 and funded by the post-depression Works Progress Administration, the Marine Air Terminal originally served the glamorous Clipper planes, carrying 72 passengers on long transoceanic flights with sleeping berths and a high-end restaurant. The second World War made such flying boats obsolete, and the terminal sat unused for several decades.

Status: It’s now the main hub for Delta’s shuttle service to Boston, Chicago and Washington, even after a massive renovation to Delta’s other terminal at LGA. While it might have less modern facilities, it’s the only terminal to feature an original mural dedicated to flight (with a secret message).

LGB Main Terminal – The first trans-continental flight landed at Long Beach in 1911, but the Streamline Moderne terminal wasn’t built for another 30 years. The modernist building was considered avant garde at the time, but now feels classic and a bit romantic among airports, the kind of place you can imagine passengers boarding with hat boxes and cat eye sunglasses. Much smaller than nearby LAX, JetBlue made it a west coast hub in 2001 and put the California airport back on the map.

Status: Last year, LGB was fully modernized to make it more green and “resort-like,” with outdoor spaces outfitted with fire pits and cabanas. The renovation uncovered more of the mosaic tile art by WPA artist Grace Clements, then 28 years old, and covered by carpet for 70 years.

Washington Dulles finally gets its underground train system working

Ever flown through Washington Dulles airport? Well, then you’ve probably spent some time being shuttled between terminals on their horrible “mobile lounges”.

These people movers really are a pain in the backside – they are slow, uncomfortable and a really good way to show just how backwards US airports are, especially to international passengers. And I’m not even the first person here on Gadling to write about how much I hate them.

Next month the damn things may finally be put to rest, as the Dulles AeroTrain is expected to enter service. Like many infrastructure projects, the AeroTrain has been plagued by delays, mainly because of safety requirements.

The automated trains had to operate (without passengers) for 30 days, without any accidents or other “mishaps”. Sadly, the first attempt at a 30 day trial run only lasted 18 days. But now it finally cleared its final hurdle, and may actually be ready for business in January. Fingers crossed!

A week at the Dulles customs area – cocaine, porn and $35,000

Traveling often sucks – but a sure way to make the end of your trip even worse, is to get one of those cryptic red messages scribbled all over your customs form when you pass through the immigration line.

I’ve been selected for a closer look at my belongings about 20 times, and it can be a massive pain in the backside.

Customs officials usually go through every single item in my bags, going so far as to turn on my laptop and take it to a small room where I’m guessing a forensics specialist is looking for dirty photos.

Still, I’ve never had anything to hide, so other than a major inconvenience, it isn’t really the end of the world.

That said – after reading a Customs and Border Protection press release about “a week in the life of Dulles Airport”, I’ve got a lot more understanding and respect for what the CBP does.
Here are some of the highlights of just one week:

  • Dagoberto Giraldo Perez was arrested on an outstanding DEA warrant for importing 11 pounds (or more) of cocaine into the US.
  • A Japanese traveler tried to enter the US with child porn DVDs, and another passenger arriving from Peru was carrying an insane 66 bestiality DVDs
  • A lady arriving on a flight from London landed at Dulles with $35,000 in US currency, but refused to declare it, despite repeated requests. She left the airport with $300 and will have to plead her case in a petition to claim the rest of it. There is nothing inherently wrong with carrying that much cash, but you do need to declare anything over $10,000.
  • 8 passengers were turned over to the local police on outstanding arrest warrants, mainly involving charges of theft, fraud and insufficient funds.
  • The “dumbest passenger of the week” at the customs desk was a passenger from Vietnam who failed to declare 6 pork sausages. The CBP agriculture specialists gave the man numerous opportunities to amend his customs declaration form, but he decided it would be more fun to just keep lying. He was fined $175.

Then of course, there are the usual passengers who lied on their customs forms and tried to hide items like sausages, Absinthe and Cuban cigars in their luggage. Customs agents even seized 2 bottles of vodka from a minor arriving from Germany

So there you have it – the results from just one airport, during one week.

What surprised me most, was how many passengers simply fail to understand what they are up against. It takes a very special kind of stupid to prefer lying about the items right in front of you and and being fined, than simply amending your declaration.

The US Customs and Border Protection agency has a site dedicated to educating you about the various rules and regulations regarding items you can (and can not) bring back to the country. Many of those rules are pretty straightforward, but the most important thing to remember is to not be an ass at the customs desk and to remember that lying to the agent is probably not in your best interests.

Check out these other stories from the airport checkpoint!

Galley Gossip: A question about why I’m based in New York when I live in California

Dear Heather,

Reading your comments about being on reserve in New York made me wonder; why don’t you fly out of LAX? I know quite a few people at United who commute west coast to IAD, but that’s primarily because you can’t get the great international flying anywhere else in the system and their seniority goes a lot further.

John in MRY

Dear John,

Good question, John! In fact, it’s a question that my own family and friends have asked often. But first I’d like to address the airport / city codes you mentioned in your question for our readers who are not familiar with airline lingo…

Back in 1995, my classmates and I were offered several base choices prior to graduating from flight attendant training. Because the bases were rewarded by class seniority and class seniority was determined by age, which made me one of the more junior people in the class, I only had three real options – San Francisco, Miami, and New York. My plan was to eventually live at each and every base the airline offered. That’s why I took the job in the first place. To travel. To experience new things. To live in different places.

San Francisco: San Francisco would have been my first choice, except for the fact that the base was (and still is) one of the most senior bases in the system. When it comes to working for an airline seniority is everything. It determines what you fly, when you fly, and days off. Not to mention, the cost of living in California was (and still is) expensive for a flight attendant. A new hire back in 1995 only made a salary of $17,000 the first year. And because only a handful of people from my training class were going to San Francisco, all of whom were from San Francisco, I knew it wouldn’t be easy to find a couple of roommates to share a small place in the short four days the airline allotted before we were all off and flying our very first trip. Though I didn’t go to San Francisco, I knew that one day I would transfer there as soon as I acquired a little more seniority and my pay checks were just a wee bit bigger.

Miami: The majority of the people in my training class wanted to go to Miami, whether they had enough seniority to hold it or not, and most of them did not. The base was (and still is) the second most junior in the system. Of course the weather is always nice, the beaches are beautiful, single life, for me, would have probably been a lot of fun, and the cost of living in 1995 was not bad, not bad at all. I remember seeing an ad in the newspaper for a one bedroom apartment near the beach for $500 a month. It seemed like a dream, a dream that I could actually attain as a flight attendant. Miami was the base for me – but there was just one other place I wanted to go to first.

New York: An hour after my silver wings were pinned to my blue lapel, I was whisked away to the airport where I quickly boarded an airplane that flew to New York. At a window seat I sat, and I’ll never forget looking out of that window at all of those twinkling lights down below as we descended into La Guardia Airport. It was a beautiful sight. Nor will I forget freezing my you-know-what off as I stood outside the deserted airport in the middle of December, two large suitcases lying at my feet, with absolutely no idea what to do next. A not so beautiful sight. I chose New York because I just wanted to go to the one base I knew I’d like the least, just to experience it, and then transfer out as soon as possible. Since I knew most of my classmates would get stuck in New York, I figured it’d be fun to experience flying life with all my new friends. As bad as it seemed at the time having to share a small house in Queens with six other full-time flight attendants, two commuters, a Border Collie named Monica, and Boris, a Russian yellow cab driver who lived in the basement, those were some of the best days of my life.

It’s been fourteen years and I’m still based in New York, even though I live in Los Angeles. Here’s why…

Seniority: New York is the most junior base, yet we have, I think, the best flying. Now, fourteen years later, I’m holding pretty good trips, like transcons from New York to the west coast. That’s one long and easy flight. If I were based in LA, a very senior base, I’d be stuck working up and down the west coast, multiple legs a day, and because flight attendants don’t get paid until the aircraft pulls away from the gate, you do not want to spend very much time on the ground, which is exactly what happens when you work multiple legs a day – waiting in the airport between flights, boarding, deplaning, etc. A flight attendant can easily be on duty for twelve hours but only get paid for eight of those hours when working this type of trip. I work a reduced schedule, so I have to make the most of my days at work. That’s why it’s very important I hold good trips in order to be able to drop them.

Reserve: Reserve, to put it quite simply, is hell. There’s is not one flight attendant I know who enjoys being on reserve. When on reserve, except for a few scheduled days off, you are on-call to the company for a month. Because New York is a junior base, my chances of holding off reserve are good. In fact, I’ve actually held off for a year until this month, and now I am just 15 people from holding off again. For me, it’s much easier to commute to work than to be on reserve, and I do hope to be off reserve again soon. Fingers crossed.

Because I love New York – There’s just something about the energy in New York City, an energy I can’t explain, that does not exist anywhere else. The moment I step off the airplane and walk into the JFK terminal, I feel alive, and creative, which is good when you write about what you do for a living. I love New York so much, in fact, that I even enjoy the brief drive through Manhattan in the dark on the way to Newark airport after being called out for a 5 a.m. sign-in on reserve, which has already happened twice this month – two days in a row. Let’s all pray it doesn’t happen again.

And that, John, is why I’m based in New York. Thanks for the question, and if you, or anyone else, have another question feel free to email me at Skydoll123@yahoo.com

Happy Travels,

Heather Poole


Photos courtesy of (Vintage airline poster) www.allposters.com, (New York City) Morrissey

Virgin America Now Selling Tickets

Finally, Virgin America has started selling tickets! One-way tickets between SFO and JFK are roughly $139-$199 which — considering the amenities on board — is pretty cheap. Here’s the upcoming route map:

  • San Francisco (SFO) to Los Angeles (LAX)
  • San Francisco (SFO) to New York (JFK)
  • New York (JFK) to Los Angeles (LAX) begins August 29.
  • San Francisco (SFO) to Washington D.C. (IAD) begins September 26.
  • San Francisco (SFO) to Las Vegas (LAS) begins October 10.
  • Los Angeles (LAX) to Washington D.C. (IAD) October 24.

To purchase tickets, head to Virgin America’s website.

Here are some other VA facts:

  • Virgin America is the first U.S. airline with mood lighting.
  • There are 3000 MP3s onboard every flight.
  • You can plug in to 110v power at every seat. (!!)
  • You can order fresh food when you want it, from the screen at your seat.
  • Red, the in-flight entertainment system, has over 25 pay-per-view Hollywood movies on demand.
  • Virgin America is a cashless airline. Place your order, swipe your card, and you’re done.

Also: Our sister site, Engadget, got a sneak peak at the planes a few months ago. Check out their wicked photo gallery.

(Thanks, David!)