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Ask the Pilot: Logan Airport

Ancillary to Boston’s long overdue and long overbudget highway megaproject, the Big Dig, has been a massive modernization of Logan International Airport. This past Saturday, anxious to see how Logan has changed, I took an end-to-end ramble across the airport’s terminal cluster.

The walk was part business, part reminiscence. Two and a half decades ago, in my postadolescent planespotting days, Logan was a second home. My friends and I had come to know Logan’s passageways, concourses and stairwells with an almost effortless familiarity — our hands reaching for elevator buttons, doorknobs and turnstiles with the same muscle-memory intimacy used for flipping on the bathroom light at 3 a.m. And so I embarked with equal measures of wistful nostalgia and encroaching middle-age melancholy (damn 38th birthday just past). Would I recognize the place?

One thing I was happy not to recognize was Logan’s gleaming new subway station, finally completed this spring. Here, as in virtually all US airports, public transit access remains a far cry from what you’ll find in Western Europe or certain cities in Asia, where in-terminal trains whisk you into the city in minutes, but the new facility is more than welcome by those of us who remember just how frighteningly decrepit the old one was.

I’m pleased to report that during my five terminal sweep, despite being ticketless, luggageless, and wielding both a notebook and camera, not once was I stopped, questioned, or asked to present identification. Random ID checks are now a sanctioned policy of the Massachusetts State Police, the jack-booted overseers of Logan’s well being, but the property seemed no more uptight than when my pals and I used to sneak behind the ticketing podiums to pilfer whatever stickers, stationery, and souvenirs we could get our hands on. At least on the surface, it was free of that Iron Curtain style oppression that was running rampant in the days after September 11th.

Logan received a black eye — or, more appropriately, two black eyes — after American’s flight 11 and United’s flight 175 departed here within minutes of each other that sun-splashed Tuesday morning (my own takeoff sandwiched between them), destined for the north and south towers respectively. Much was made of the fact that ten of the 19 hijackers ambled through metal detectors in terminal’s B and C with an arsenal of sharps. It was a scapegoating of the worst order, but the perception of Logan as a place of porous, incompetent security became unshakeable. Raphael “Rafi” Ron, retired security czar of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International, was brought in to scrutinize and overhaul staff and procedures.

Within a year, Logan’s landlord, the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport), was championing Ron’s accomplishments in a hail of public statements that sounded like they were coming from Radio Pyongyang:

“Logan International Airport is the first airport in nation to enhance security with an innovative behavior pattern recognition program …. has trained members of the Massachusetts State Police to identify hostile intent by observing and interviewing passengers and others in the airport’s terminals, curbs, roads, and parking garages … troopers will observe passengers and watch for irregular behavior or conduct.”

Bring the kids too, and don’t miss the food court.

Who’s to say some hidden camera wasn’t craning its electronic neck, plotting and tracking my route while men in a sub-basement nervously eyed their monitors, but all was blissfully quiet for my Saturday meander. I strolled to my heart’s content, stopping to photograph the sea-life tile mosaics built into the floors of the newly finished Central Garage walkways: fish, skates, crabs, even a life-sized giant squid laid out in elegant (well, some of them) detail. It’s very Boston, but I had to chuckle. Those who’ve seen the ancient floor mosaics of North Africa, Turkey and elsewhere will recognize this unintentional 21st century tribute to the Romans.

Atop the Central Garage, I sneak a few frames of the control tower, its concrete legs buttered yellow by the June sunset. I put away my camera and hold my breath, figuring I’m about to be wrestled to the ground by a phalanx of truncheon wielding state troopers. But the only squawk I encounter is the mournful drone of a herring gull.

Logan’s tower, completed in 1973 and for a while the world’s tallest, is surely one of the most distinctive, if not exactly distinguished, buildings north of the Harlem River. Iconic and obvious, it does what few airport structures do any more: it draws your eye and tells you exactly where you are. People see those twin-trunk, 22-story pylons, and there is only one place they can be: Boston.

Some of you might recall my eulogy to the tower’s 16th floor observation deck, which for many years was the most breathtaking perch in all of New England, with sweeping views of the harbor and skyline. It’s barely two miles from the threshold of runway 04L to the heart of the city’s financial district, and since the closure of Hong Kong’s in-town Kai Tak, I know of no other major international airport (55 visiting airlines and 23 million passengers in 2003) in such close proximity to downtown.

North of the tower I can see the vastly expanded Terminal E. In the old days (doors opened in ’74), when multi-terminal airports were allowed the whimsy of using actual names instead of sequential numbers or letters, this was known as the John A. Volpe International Terminal, in tribute to a former Massachusetts governor. Twenty years on, E has tripled in size, rebuilt for $200 million to the specs of what I like to call Great Rectangular Modern. It’s an enormous box of a building — airy, efficient, and cheerless. Downstairs, passengers emerge from customs into a bleak, mausoleum-like arrivals lounge. Above, the departure level is a softer space of natural light and wood panel highlights. It’s the work of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, renowned architects of Chicago’s Sears Tower , John Hancock Center, and, since we’re doing airports, the tent-topped Haj Terminal in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Logan’s original Terminal A, a once stately edifice of brown masonry and five-story cathedral ceilings, is demolished now. Originally built for Eastern Air Lines, I can still remember that carrier’s blue and white “Whisperjets” docked along the piers. Now under construction on this somewhat hallowed ground is a glass-and-steel replacement to be occupied by Delta, scheduled for opening in spring, 2005. State of the art and eco-friendly, it’ll be one of the largest single-tenant terminals in America.

Between A and E, changes to the remaining four buildings haven’t been so drastic. The central atrium of Terminal C looks more or less the same as it did when TWA was a mainstay tenant, flying nightly Boeings to Rome, London, and Paris. It’s been glitzed, chromed, and mirrored, but I can pick out the vestigials at once, and stepping into C is like a visit my old grade school: left turn here; right turn there; yes, I remember (37-11-29 was my locker combination in seventh grade, and 2-3-5-1 was the keypad combo to the door at United ops that same year).

The stairwells over in B, meanwhile, are virtually untouched. The effect is particularly striking in that not only do they look the same, but they smell the same — that weird rush of time-warp sensory flashback as I step through the door. Gone, however, are the banks of foam chairs down at luggage claim, and the pornographic magazines the workers used to hide beneath the removable cushions.

Throughout Logan you’ll find the usual chain stores and restaurants, but the overall blueprint — a piecemeal assemblage of separate buildings — helps it avoid that look and atmosphere of a shopping mall, chief scourge of most modern, single-hall airports. In my travels of the past year of so, I found myself disappointed by the overhyped facilities of Dubai, Hong Kong, and Kuala Lumpur, which all share a genericism due primarily to the relentless focus on shopping. In contrast, and while certainly older and smaller, Logan still feels like an airport, and not like a mall that happens to provide air transportation should you wish to stop buying things.

In this way, Logan is somewhat reminiscent of New York’s JFK. Call it a poor man’s JFK, for the immensity of Kennedy, both in physical size and aerohistorical significance, dwarfs Boston’s parochial harborfront aerodrome. And surely Logan can’t match Kennedy’s aesthetic treasures — the world’s largest stained glass window or, need it even be mentioned, a landmark like Eero Saarinen’s TWA facility (Terminal 5 in today’s gray parlance). Yet as somebody who has punched the clock at both, I’ll vouch for at least one important similarity: the layout of terminals as independent structures, each with its own architectural personality. Anachronistic perhaps, and even inconvenient, but the end result is an airport that retains at least a modicum of character in an era when “Take me to the American Airlines terminal,” specifies nothing more than at which set of otherwise identical doors one wishes to be deposited.

At Kennedy, transit between any two terminals among its mile-wide necklace of nine requires either a shuttle ride or a hefty constitutional. For those switching carriers at Logan, Massport provides an inter-terminal bus. Alternately, those fish-floor walkways provide covered passage, though transiting from D to E one is still subject to the elements for two-hundreds yards or so.

Comparing Logan to JFK is, maybe, something only a Bostonian would attempt. Then again, overstating our city’s institutions is part and parcel of a two hundred year-old inferiority complex. We imagine ourselves on par — culturally and geographically — with perhaps the world’s most famous and important city, a metropolis thirteen times the size of our own. Residents of Boston espouse a delusional assumption of rivalry — as if our museums, public spaces, sports teams and skyscrapers could hold their own, one for one, with their Gotham counterparts. BOS and JFK, like Red Sox and Yankees. And we all know how that goes. (New Yorkers have their choice of three major airports, of course, but I must, as a proper Bostonian, ignore this fact.)

We’re not fooling anybody, aside from ourselves, but cut us a break. We need this game for the sake of our civic confidence. Besides, we like our little airport. Logan is very much Boston: the cosmopolitanism of New York on a much more human scale. And today it looks better than ever.

This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on 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 Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.