Want to scare the living daylights out of a business traveler? Just give him or her an itinerary that includes a city with a newly opened airport terminal.
This spring's disastrous opening of the 30-years-in-the-planning Terminal 5 at London's Heathrow Airport wasn't exceptional. It was the way of the airport world. In the last 15 years, travelers have taken it on the metaphoric chin when new aerodromes opened in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Athens, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Denver International, the last from-the-ground-up airport built in the United States (it opened in 1995), suffered through years of baggage troubles until a costly, high-tech luggage-handling system was abandoned. And 13 years later, the iconic fabric roof may still leak on passengers during a hard rain.
So you can imagine why I suggest you curb your enthusiasm over the news that four U.S. airports will open major new facilities before Election Day. Starting tomorrow, when a much-needed terminal opens in Detroit, business travelers will have to endure the debut of important buildings at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport and Raleigh-Durham International Airport in North Carolina. In Indianapolis, the entire airport is being moved down the runways and into a new terminal.
The rapid-fire openings are an accident of timing, and the remarkably similar design conceits-arched roofs meant to evoke wings and flight, and towering glass walls to let in natural light-reflect the current thinking in airport-terminal architecture. But what may go wrong at each of these airports is likely to be unique. After all, no one predicted the baggage chaos in London, the runway meltdown in Bangkok, or the initial lack of transportation options in Hong Kong and Athens. We'll know how well each facility works only after we use them.
Meanwhile, a brief preview of what's coming in the next six weeks.
North Terminal at Detroit Metro Airport
The grungy, dilapidated terminals in Detroit are being serially replaced. The $1.2 billion McNamara Terminal opened in 2002 and eventually shook off its opening snafus-malfunctioning trams and atrocious housekeeping-to become a relatively efficient and passenger-friendly hub for Northwest Airlines and its SkyTeam Alliance Partners. Tomorrow brings the $430 million North Terminal, designed to house most of the other carriers serving Detroit. It'll be cozy compared with the mile-long concourse and 97 gates of the McNamara building, but the North Terminal won't be small: 824,000 square feet of space and a half-mile walk between the furthest of the 24 jet gates.
Best features: Restrooms immediately after security checkpoints; a nice fountain; a copious amount of power receptacles at key passenger points; and even strategically located workstations with stools.
Bad news: As the airline industry shrinks, six of the new gates aren't leased.
Terminal 5 at Kennedy Airport
The slow and painful revival of Kennedy Airport as a world-class international airport gets another boost on October 1 when JetBlue Airways opens Terminal 5. The building was built in record time by New York standards (less than three years) and will give JetBlue nearly three times as much space (635,000 square feet on 72 acres) as it occupies now. The $743 million project encompasses 26 gates, three concourses, and 55,000 square feet of retail space, all of it needed since JetBlue handles about 30 percent of the 47 million passengers flowing through Kennedy each year.
Best features: Travelers will be able to use touchscreen monitors at the gate to order meals that will be delivered to them by one of the terminal's food and beverage outlets (there will be nearly two dozen). Since Terminal 5 was designed after 9/11, security requirements are an organic part of the layout, not a jury-rigged afterthought.
Bad news: The iconic terminal that Eero Saarinen designed for T.W.A. won't be part of T5's debut. Saarinen's now-empty masterpiece will eventually be restored, repurposed, and connected to the JetBlue facilities, however.
Terminal 2 at Raleigh-Durham International
The fast growth of the Research Triangle has been mirrored, at least in fits and starts, at the airport. One example: When the first phase of Terminal 2 opens on October 26, it replaces the old Terminal C, which is just 20 years old. But Terminal C became superfluous when American Airlines abandoned its hub there in 1995 and the subsequent tenant, Midway Airlines, went bankrupt and then tanked after 9/11. When the $570 million project is completed in 2011, there will be 32 gates, copious security space, and about four dozen shops and restaurants spread out over 920,000 square feet.
Best features: Phase one will encompass 19 gates, three baggage carousels, and seven security checkpoints, not to mention a number of local vendors among the 26 shops and dining options. That's a fully functioning airport terminal by any standard.
Bad news: Phased development of terminals often means years of picking through a construction site masquerading as a working airport.
The New Indianapolis International Airport
Two days after Raleigh, Indianapolis will try to move all of its passenger operations to a completely new terminal. The $1.1 billion project is situated on a greenfield site nestled between the airport's two main existing runways. It's designed to replace the city's 50-year-old terminal and will offer 1.2 million square feet of space and 40 gates. There'll be a new parking facility, too, and passengers will be able to take a moving walkway direct to their rental cars.
Best features: A Civic Plaza with a 200-foot-diameter skylight designed to echo the shape of Indianapolis' most-recognized downtown public space and a dedicated parkway that connects to I-70, the region's major thoroughfare.
Bad news: An overnight, all-or-nothing shift from the existing building to the new terminal, which guarantees that every passenger flying into or out of Indianapolis will be displaced at once.
The Fine Print.
The new JetBlue terminal is connected via an enclosed skywalk to J.F.K.'s existing AirTrain, but none of the other three airport projects has a public-transportation component. However, Indianapolis says the median of its new airport roadway can accommodate a light-rail system.