Sunday, October 11, 2009

Some nostalgic notes about EDI

It needs to be said: Edinburgh Airport is not a hiking airport. It's the typical one-terminal, two-level airport, with one building that can be crossed within a couple of minutes. It has only one parking garage and little else. It is, however, the airport where I spent about one third of my leisure time in the past few years (the other thirds on mountains and golf courses, just to be complete). So, yes, this is not an entirely objective criterion; and I need to find better ways to justify this entry. Why is Edinburgh relevant from a hiker's perspective?

I could for example argue that Edinburgh is nicely embedded in farmland which serves as an ideal outback for any hiking adventure. While the north side is blocked by the runways, everything towards the south is open and mostly accessible. It is completely unproblematic to get to the airport on foot, an outstanding feature in a world where airports are typically surrounded by dense cobwebs of motorways. You will pass old stone cottages, cross fields, and occasionally see extremely wild animals (horses, just to give one example).

For I stopover of 1-2 hours I recommend to explore the area towards the southwest - there is the Royal Highland Centre, some sort of village called Ingliston, and even a golf course next to Fairview Av. The southeast is mostly covered with huge, flat parking areas, I mean, if you like cars, why not. The parking area directly next to the M8 motorway that limits the immediate airport area to the south has a bus terminal which is served by various city bus lines, which are millions of pounds cheaper than the Airport Express.

If you have more time, try to cross the double-laned motorway. This can be done anywhere you like in a dangerous, adventurous style, or more conservatively by using the tunnel between the two roundabouts where the airport access roads meets the motorway. Feel free to walk a figure of eight around the roundabouts. If you are finished, try to hike across the fields to Ratho, a few kilometers to the south. It has a pub, a canal, and houseboats. Show me any other airport with houseboats within walking distance, please.

The shortest meaningful excursion you can make is to the main control tower, just a five minute walk south on Jubilee Rd., that means back towards the entrance. The shiny tower looks particular shiny in the dark; the lightning at the bottom makes you think that it kind of hovers above the ground. Things hovering above the ground are always fun.

The terminal building, by the way, has a few niches for sleeping, particularly on the upper level to the right. It is not perfect, but sleeping is so 2006, anyway. Today nobody sleeps in airports anymore. How did I manage to write so many things about such a small airport? It's a mystery.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Malaga is not icecream

Four times at AGP covering 8 years, and still no idea why this airport has any business of being a part of the Universe. And that's saying something, I do have a lot of respect for rat kings, for example. But not for AGP. In 2002 I preferred to sleep at the beach of Torremolinos among drunk Spanish teenagers, to escape from AGP. At some point in this night a gay couple stripped directly in front of me and started to make out. And I still say that a night at AGP would have been more terrifying. It's that bad.

AGP is essentially a monumental rectangular block called 'Terminal 2' for some reason. They do have a historical and irrelevant Terminal 1 nearby, which can only be found on Google Maps. Consistently confusing, the two gates of Terminal 2 are called B and C. The ground-side of T2 is mainly a monumental, airy departure hall and a arrival hall of unclear nature. The dominating colour is the brown shade from the stuff you sometimes find under your fingernails. I can hardly bring myself to write a single sentence about the air-side, which is boring as hell. The only power outlets are behind a stupid electric rocking horse which pretends to be a car and takes photos when fed money. There, I did it, amazing.

Surrounded is this whole thing by an unholy mess of traffic. The moment you leave the airport you are surrounded with mind-boggling dullness. You stand there for a while, try to get a grip on this spectacle of not even nihilism, and then surrender. This airport has quite obviously been invented long before anything interesting has been invented, including and particularly airport hiking.

This detailed history of the Malaga Airport nicely illustrates what we have suspected all along - shortsightedness rules airport development. This is not necessarily the end of the world. In case of AGP, however, a lack of foresight meets a lack of creativity. This is the combination of inabilities that brought us kick-and-rush football, the Big Bang theory, and the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. Ugly stuff.

AGP is currently under construction. They show a 3D model of the anticipated airport outline in the departure hall, which is a nice idea, because it makes the exploration of this disaster so much more convenient. According to this model, the new airport will look exactly like the old one. And although construction sites are of course intrinsically fascinating, I cannot quite see how the transition from one hopelessness to another identical one merits any attention. Even the tower is kind of mainstream here.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

A long note about Newark

This is so much fun. You arrive in Newark in the morning after a 10 hours flight from Honolulu, you have no shoes except flip-flops, your feet are covered with blisters from volcano hiking, you are deadly jetlagged and you are looking forward to another long flight to Europe. And it's piss weather outside. But still you feel the need to go trying to find a way to get to the Marriot without offending an army of security forces. This could be a great metaphor for the humane condition, but it's probably just a lack of sanity.

Newark (EWR) is just big enough to spend a couple of hours with interesting explorative work. I wrote earlier that the three terminals are aligned following the shape of a banana. More accurately, they are located along the perimeter of an ellipse - A and C opposite each other at the two most distant points of the ellipse, and B at the,whatever you call the spot right between A and C. I'm sure these points have totally sophisticated names, so if someone is more advanced in geometry, no offense intended. The airport actually looks kind of cute, like the fetus of an alien nestled in its terrestrial womb, that is New Jersey.

An airtrain like at JFK is the easy way to get from one terminal to another and to shortcut complicated walks. Interestingly, the airtrain is located on the outside of the ellipse, that means between the ground- and air-sides of the terminals. The entrances are placed right next to the security check. That's totally inadequate. People using the airtrain usually leave the airport, but to do that, they now have to go towards the airport. As said earlier, airports are not logical.

I already pointed out that EWR features a nice, well-marked footwalk connecting all three terminals. This makes for a pleasant 15 minute walk, most of the way under a roof. All three terminals have designated parking areas inside the ellipse. It is particularly recommended to check out the parking of terminal B. Two reasons: It is close to the center of the ellipse - it's always nice to be in the center. And it has a parking garage with, I don't remember, more than three levels and a rooftop. Now you are in the center and on top of EWR. How cool is that.

Right next to the parking area B, on the other side of the ellipse's center, is the Marriot and directly behind, the biggest tower of the airport. There is no footwalk, but you can probably get there by crossing a couple of multi-lane access roads, a mild violation of traffic laws. I didn't try because my feet started to hurt from walking through all these puddles on the way.

Instead, I took the airtrain to another parking garage just next to terminal C and outside the ellipse. Think outside the ellipse, should be the mantra of the EWR airport hiker. A note about security here: Always have an excuse. Security people occasionally ask where you are going. So, even if you don't know, which should be your typical state of mind, pretend that you do know. Pretend to have a car. Important: On the way back to the terminal stop lying and say the truth – you want to catch your flight. I call that lying on the fly.

This new parking garage turned out to be the real deal: The roof gives a perfect view about the hallmarks of Jersey City – a mass assembly of rusty cranes, two giant metal bridges, and the voluminous brick buildings of the Anheuser-Busch plant, a ten-story skyscraper for the days when the sky is low. Unfortunately, the plant is separated from the airport by the Pulaski skyway, a formidable obstacle for any walker, let alone in flip-flops. I still would like to do an expedition someday, maybe at night time.

Furthermore, the garage allows me to appreciate the fact that the airport has its own river. Seriously. It flows right under the building, as can be seen in this snowy aerial view - the garage is in the lower right corner. The river is protected by high fences and looks viscous as well as ugly. Google Maps shows that it somehow originates a few hundred meters north of this garage, leads to the south and all around the airport, before it flows in the Newark Bay at the eastern side of EWR. The garage is also located next to the gates of terminal C. You can watch flowing brown water, a skyway full with cars, and airplanes, from one single spot. And it's just a 10 minute excursion, significantly shorter than US immigration procedures.

As a sidenote: While terminals A and B have the famous cauliflower shape (a series of circular subterminals, each with gates around the periphery), terminal C has a fractal asparragus shape – the subterminals are sticks, from which more sticks are protruding. My question: Why? Is terminal topology an unsolved issue? Are there airport theoreticians doing actual calculations on this? Do these people go to conferences to argue about the particular advantages of cauliflower vs. asparragus? I really want to know.

What a wonderful airport.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The preliminary ranking 3/09

(In irregular intervals, I will rank the airports I've visited according to their adequacy for airport hiking. Please remember that some of the requirements for interesting hiking trips, such as a challenging topography, are detrimental to most other functions of an airport. This includes actually catching a flight, which some people still consider to be the primary use of an airport.)

Probably good: YYZ, LHR, FRA, PMI, EZE, GRU
Can't remember: MAD, ATL, STN, LYS, NUE, DTM, VIE
Definitely too small: EXT, KLU, LSC, ANF, ZOS, ITO

Forty airports. I didn't quite expect that.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A sunny November day at LAX

In November 2008, on the way back from Hawaii, I accidentally had to waste a full Sunday, from sunrise to sunset, at LAX. The night before was spent in a plane, the next night, too. The original plan was to leave the airport and hang out in Malibu, but the threat of terrorism has quietly removed all luggage storing facilities from the globe and thus forced me to stay with my 20kg of useless crap. It was a wonderful day with cloudless sky and lots of degrees in air temperature.

The 9 terminals of LAX are neatly arranged in a horseshoe structure, roughly oriented with the open side to the East. On the northern leg are, from East to West, terminals 1 to 3, on the southern leg 8 to 4. On the closed side of the horseshoe is the new, big Tom Brady International Terminal. The horseshoe is not particularly big, the total way from terminal 1 to 8 is probably less than 2km. The terminals are accessed by a two-level, multi-lane highway (called 'World Way', fittingly) around the horseshoe. And by sidewalks, which is essential. Sidewalks are the most important thing in an airport.

My first step was to look for a place to sleep, but as exhaustively documented at SIA, LAX is very bad for sleeping. I did a cursory search for quiet, isolated benches at terminal 2, without any success, the same in terminal 3, which is next to the West. The interior of the TBI is big, clean, spacious, and filled with more than the usual amenities, but no sleeping places at daytime. At the lower level in front of the TBI, currently a site of some construction work, I found a number of wooden benches around what could be called a little park by someone with extreme imagination. The place is very dirty, semi-dark, and above all extremely loud, as the World Way passes just a few meters higher. Zillions of CO molecules sink dutifully from the high way down to my potential sleeping benches. Their duty is to kill sleeping people, but fortunately, the same cars that emit the CO will also keep an only moderately tired person reliably awake. I was not tired enough to die. But couldn't sleep either.

At this point I fortunately managed to check-in the main part of my luggage. This freed me for further exploring. I was particularly interested in the interior of the horseshoe, which is filled with a relatively ordered mix of parking garages, connecting streets, and other facilities. From terminal 2 an aisle leads to the upper levels of a huge parking deck (P-2), which turned out to be almost empty. This would be a hard, yet quiet sleeping place at night. I made a few laps around the roof, enjoyed the sunshine, contemplated the scenery, observed a variety of planes.

From here it is easy to cross over to the other side of the horseshoe. Going down, crossing a couple of streets, up to another huge roof (parking garage P-5), and then over to what must be terminal 5, which turned out to be boring, as it always seems to be the case with Delta terminals. Same with terminal 6, and I gave up on 7 and 8, the United terminals.

My new goal was to reach the space between the power station, always a pleasure to explore, and the flying saucer of the Theme Building. Again, this was surprisingly straightforward. Parking structure P-6 is easily reached by some upper level aisle. On the north-east corner of P-6 there is an exit, which leads directly to a quiet street (with sidewalks and even crosswalks). To the left the power station, which steamed heavily while fulfilling its certainly immensely important purpose. To the right the flying saucer, at the time a construction site. It was partly deconstructed and partly enshrouded by scaffolding. I was able to see the interior of the legs of the big alien spider. I am not allowed to talk about what I saw.

I spent some time at this interesting place, contemplating the best locations to put my little portable explosive device. I was practically alone, noone bothered me thinking about my imminent world tyranny, as the sunbeams played innocently with the flying saucer. Then I abandoned my vicious plan and went back up to P-2, to do some more sunbathing.

This was a long post, but it was a long day as well. There were still some hours to kill, up there on the empty, sunny parking deck. LAX can be quite enjoyable, after all.


Short note from Newark. Although moderately interesting, the airport has quickly adapted to the Airport Hiking boom: A clearly marked hiking trail connects all three terminals (which are arranged following the shape of a banana), as well as the parking garages. I didn't have time to do more exploring, but reaching the Marriot's at the apex of the banana and some other tall buildings behind looks like a good challenge.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The reason why

The interesting thing about large airports is that they are so illogical. You would think that an airport should have a strictly logical structure that allows him to do his job in a very efficient way: to fill planes with people. The form should follow the very simple function. But instead, you will find complicated systems of stairs, spaces and hallways, an enourmous overcomplexity. Try to understand what you are actually doing, in a geographical sense, if you change terminals in FRA, and you will fail. Nobody can convince me that these large structures are the most rational and efficient way to fulfill the purpose of an airport. Here, form and function seem to be divorced from each other.

I am wondering how to explain this, in an evolutionary sense. For comparison, the topography of very big train stations are usually quite easy to understand. Not so much with an airport. The requirements for an airport probably changed too quickly over the past 50 years to allow for developing the optimum solution. Instead, airports became a complex mess of dirty workarounds and stopgaps. They became the most illustrative example for the shortsightedness of our rapidly evolving world.

My brain works very much like an airport. When I encounter a problem, I usually think in two steps: 1) Ok, it would be nice to have a radically new and elegant solution. So maybe we should tear everything down and start from scratch. 2) But it's already 11pm and I still have to do laundry. Maybe I can simply use my old solution, bend it a little, and bring it into a new shape with duct tape. And although I rarely see any duct tape in airports, they are essentially built exclusively with metaphorical duct tape.

At this point, there are probably very few people who know the topography of the large airports inside out. There are very few airport natives who can find the best way from A to B without map and compass and asking for directives. That's the goal of airport hiking - to understand and map the topography of airports. To become the masters of irrational structures and illogical spaces. To survive and thrive in an inhumane environment. We are to become the natives of the airports.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Barcelona BCN

I made my first attempts when Airport Hiking was still practically unknown. It was early 2001 and it actually was my first flight, like, at all: Berlin-Tegel (TXL) to Almeria in Andalusia, with a two hour layover in Barcelona. I didn't know what airports can be used for. I didn't know how they function. I did what I always do: I walked around. The Barcelona airport is conveniently located directly at the Mediterranean, as I saw before landing. Unfortunately, the heavily fenced runways are inconveniently located between the terminal building and the beach. I didn't get far. There are marvellous palm trees on the parking lots, and even a few benches to rest, if need be. Inside, Barcelona airport is one of the rare places where it's impossible to get lost. The terminal building looks like a fork, with four triangular spikes, which are the terminals. It's too easy. There is no challenge. I had a couple of beers, boarded my flight to Almeria, and never came back.

The beginning

Airport Hiking - it's not rocket science.