Information on International Airports

On the heels of my semi-nostalgic paean to Boston’s Logan Airport came several protests. At issue was my declaration of Logan as closest to the city center of any major international airfield. Logan’s southern boundary — the granite seawalls along runways 04L and 04R, and a wide swath of landfill call Bird Island Flats — rests about two miles from the rooftops of the city’s financial district.

Key to my assertion were the words “major” and “international,” vague as those qualifiers might be. To those of you with sentimental attachments to San Diego International, a.k.a Lindbergh Field, I appreciate the letters but I’m not backing down. Lindbergh indeed is an inexpensive taxi ride from the heart of San Diego (about the same two miles, Rand McNally tells us), but with half as many visitors as Boston, most of them traveling domestically, the comparison isn’t fair.

I’ll put SAN into the same category as Washington National (I still can’t say Reagan), La Guardia, and maybe Chicago Midway. All are nestled tightly — some would say perilously — in urban areas, but are restricted to a chiefly domestic clientele embarking on short or medium-haul operations. To compare: among the liveries rising above Logan’s Terminal E are those of Lufthansa, Aer Lingus, British Airways, Swiss, Alitalia, Icelandair, Virgin Atlantic, Air Jamaica and Air France. For a while we had Korean Air. Before the attacks of 2001, BA was departing thrice daily to London, and American was on the verge of launching the first-ever nonstops between Logan and Tokyo.

And no, by the way, there’s no regulatory criteria for the use of “international,” though a single trans-border service seems to go to the heads of airport authorities. In Fargo, North Dakota, one finds Hector International Airport, though I doubt you’ll encounter anything more exotic than a commuter jet or two arriving from Winnipeg. To pick on San Diego again, which also claims the suffix, a scan of its 18 resident airlines reveals that only AeroMexico wears a foreign flag.

Writing from Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan, Salon subscriber Ari Katz reminds me that the Tashkent airport, recently overhauled by the same contractors who helped build Kuala Lumpur’s gleaming new terminal, is only six miles from the city center. This fact is confirmed by my Uzbekistan Airways timetable (three times weekly to JFK, by the way). The airline also notes in its description of the country’s points of interest: “…colourful fabrics, exotic fruits, and endless desserts with caravans of camels.”

I can’t speak for the Uzbeks (and who am I to criticize their dining habits?), but I take it the residents of San Diego live in the shadow of Los Angeles much the way Bostonians bow to the dominance of New York. Since I’m feeling your pain, I’ll go ahead and mention that Lindbergh is, if nothing else, “a city-centric, sparkling gateway to America’s Finest City.” Unfortunately I have no idea what that means, and in the interest of full disclosure I’ve never been to San Diego, but it’s a quote from a local Web page, where you also learn that SAN is the nation’s busiest single-runway commercial airport.

Judging the prowess of an airport by its runways, or lack thereof, is sometimes tricky, length and placement taking precedent over number. London-Gatwick sees 70 airlines and 30 million passengers a year with only a single strip. Boston handles roughly two-thirds those numbers with five. Tokyo-Narita, one of the world’s busiest ports of call, operated for many years before a second runway was opened, while Osaka’s Kansai International was completed in 1994 with only one. One meaning two, of course, as each individual strip is bi-directional (something we covered here months ago), but let’s keep it simple. Each lay of pavement is, for purposes of our discussion, a single runway.

Although short runways aren’t hazardous, strictly speaking — planes will adjust payload to ensure regulatory (distance) parameters are met — they can entail weight restrictions and other logistical snags, especially during inclement weather. At National and La Guardia, the longest stretch of asphalt is only about 7,000 feet, prohibiting the use of fuel-laden widebodies heading long distances.

Runway alignment also goes a long way toward how efficiently an airport handles flights. Nowhere illustrates this better than my hometown field, Boston-Logan. Allow me to borrow from an op-ed piece I authored for the Boston Globe several years ago…

On a bright sunny day with clear skies from Maine to Florida, passengers waiting at La Guardia airport are startled to learn their flight to Boston will be held up for almost an hour due to “weather problems” at Logan. Just before the new departure time, the delay is extended for the same mysterious reason. Finally the flight takes off, but fifteen minutes from landing, somewhere over Providence, the captain’s voice comes over the PA. ”Unfortunately, due to airport congestion at Logan, we’re gonna have to enter a holding pattern for the next 30 minutes.” There’s a collective groan from the cabin. A forty minute hop has become a three-and-a-half hour hassle.

This scenario is repeated dozens of times every year. Flights into Logan, whether originating in New York, Los Angeles, or anywhere in between, are often subject to extended waits and holding patterns, even in good weather. The problem is runways. Specifically, their orientation. Logan’s airside complex is not, shall we say, meteorologically correct. Aircraft take-off and land into the wind, and when that wind happens to blow in from the Northwest at a velocity of more than about twenty knots, Logan can use only one of its five runways — namely runway 33L. This is the “weather problem” that so befuddles passengers.

Like much of Boston’s infrastructure, its airport, erected on harbor fill and hemmed in by skyline and sea, was planned decades ago for a capacity long exceeded. Today controllers are forced to marshal a dizzying ballet of takeoffs and landings using an antiquated design. Even when two or three runways are simultaneously operational, anything other than optimal weather can bring on havoc, as Logan’s runways are not only short, but intersect at several locations. Takeoffs and landings need to be carefully staggered, and any combination of fog, snow, wind, ice, and peak-hour flight schedules has passengers cursing and scrambling for cell phones.

The economic and environmental impact of is enormous. A large jet can burn 500 gallons of fuel languishing in queue for takeoff. In a holding pattern overhead, 1000 gallons is not uncommon. As the effects trickle down, they become harder to measure: connecting flights must be rerouted and rescheduled causing delays in other cities; meetings are missed; appointments are canceled; hotel rooms go empty. Not to mention the mental stress put on flight crews, air traffic controllers, and the traveling public.

The Massachusetts Port Authority has proposed construction of a so-called STOL (Short Take-Off and Landing) runway to serve as a relief strip. Situated along the airport’s southern edge and aligned to deal with those troublesome northwesterlies, it would be used solely by the smaller regional aircraft that make up nearly half of all movements on the property, freeing up 33L for mainstay jets and greatly reducing delays.

What seems a simple fix has become a ten year battle between airport officials and nearby residents. From the vitriol spewed forth by anti-runway activists, you’d think Massport is planning to build a whorehouse next to a high school. Critics have whipped up opposition citing noise, pollution, and safety concerns — the very things the project is intended to alleviate. This “expansion” of Logan is not designed to invite more airplanes into the airport, but to more efficiently handle those already on hand. The most recent court decision has given Massport the go-ahead to build, but after years of protests, appeals, and constant slinging of misinformation, I’ll believe it the day I see a plane touching down.

If you’re curious how single-runway airports like Gatwick or Osaka handle similar climatic trouble, they’re normally compassed with prevailing winds in mind, and tend to be longer. Extra length can sometimes compensate for performance hits during tailwind or crosswind conditions.

Of the in-town facilities mentioned thus far — La Guardia, National, Logan, Midway and Lindbergh – all have a reputation among pilots as challenging places to fly. Making things more complicated, crews are have to follow specially tailored departure profiles when departing over close-in neighborhoods. At Washington, throw in a cluster of no-fly zones over government buildings and you’ve got a fourplex of stress: small, intersecting runways; noise abatement; and G-men with rockets making sure you don’t stray toward the White House.

Okay, I’m getting sensationalist, which is something I hate to do. Having to handle a high workload at a congested airport is a case of multitasking that all crews are trained for and confront with extreme routine — a long way from anything dangerous. It’s all relative, and pilots scale their tasks by complexity and effort just like anybody else.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.