Why I Love Downtown Airports

Some people, my wife among them, hate airports, airplanes, and all the recycled-air and bustle of people hassle of air travel.  I’m from an rare breed that loves airports, the smell of unburned kerosene, the rush of jet engines, the liveries and types of jets coming and going.  And no type of major airport is better than the one situated right downtown.  Now before you go all urban-planning and noise ordinance on me, I’m only counting those that are already downtown, those odd airports that have had city grow up around the, the airports which sit on hyper-valued real estate and as you fly in and see acres of empty concrete with a broken-down plane here, a train of forgotten luggage carts there you think, surely this could be put to better use, could be compressed and streamlined somehow.  But that line of thinking leads to the breathless predictions in Popular Science about the urban airports of the future with spiral banked runways.  On paper, this seems like a really great idea.  But the first time you come in to land, you’re so close you can see what color shirt a guy is wearing on the ground, then suddenly you bank hard, the horizon disappears, there’s a hard thunk, a shriek of the thrust reversers, and your internal organs are compressed down into your shoes from centrifugal force you think, “Nope.  First TSA and now this?”  If you were to build a new airport, chances are you wouldn’t raze a thousand blocks to put in runways and a terminal.  But isn’t there something a bit amazing about this?

Plane 2

Arriving into an urban airport is the way it ought to be.  There’s nothing like the anticipation of flying to Rome, only to arrive amidst a patchwork of fallow farmlands and crumbling warehouses and think, “All roads lead here?”  Flying into London’s Gatwick is a similar disappointment, as you’d hoped to be brushing the sides of the Thames as you landed right in the city.  However, coming into Reagan National in Washington, DC is another matter.  Lower and lower you descend and there out the right side is the spire of the Washington Monument, the greens and rotundas, the river snaking through the forests of Virginia and Maryland and BUMP, you’re on the ground.  Same goes for coming into San Diego—you descend over the suburbs, the ground is rushing up to greet you, you are looking up at the skyscrapers of downtown, the wheels seem to skim over rooftops, and then you’re on the tarmac looking out over the harbor.  That’s how to arrive in a city.

Plane 1

PS:  One final thought on the upper left palm trees above.  Here in SoCal they like to trim back the fronds in a drastic way that reminds you of your first radical haircut, the one where you where spun around in the barber’s chair to face the mirror and you thought, OH MY GOD.  I look at these palms and think of Beaker from the Muppets.


  1. Paolo Cisneros said:

    Arriving at an airport that’s successfully managed to weave its way into the fabric of city life is definitely a satisfying experience. Being from Chicago, I sometimes worry about the impression people get of my city when they land at either of our major airports because of how isolated and tucked out of the way they are. With any luck we’ll eventually find a way to make airports a bigger, more integrated part of everyday life.

    • I totally agree. An airport should be as exciting and vibrant a part of a city as a walkable downtown or a train station or a port. Until security turned them into fortresses, airports used to be an exciting place to hang out before a flight or while waiting to meet someone. Now it’s like a series of holding pens between checkpoints.

  2. I think the Nairobi airport is right up there as one of the most exciting places to land. Even though you’re way outside of the city–which in this case is a good thing!!–you fly over the Nairobi game park and if you’re lucky, you can peek out your window and see giraffe and possibly even elephants wandering free down below. Maybe it’s just the anticipation of arriving at a new and exotic place.

    • What you see out the window on approach is a big part of the fun of flying. Coming into LaGuardia in NY you think you’re doing an emergency water landing!

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