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.