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In-Town Airports

Our discussion of in-town airports refuses to die, pulling in emails from around the globe. Proud citizens from San Diego to Tashkent have written to boast, if that’s the correct word, of their airport’s proximity to downtown. Now, from reader Donn Walker, comes this: “Just wanted you to know that you overlooked one major airport smack next to a huge city’s downtown: Phoenix Sky Harbor. It’s exactly two miles east, which makes it, unquestionably, the country’s largest airport located smack next to a city center.”

I have to be careful if I choose to quibble with Mr. Walker, since he’s a public affairs manager at the FAA. Besides, his submission of Phoenix as a “huge” city notwithstanding, he’s right. Phoenix Sky Harbor happens to rank fifth busiest airport in the world.

If that sounds remarkable, it is, and it comes with a caveat: PHX is home to lot of small aircraft traffic — regional jets and turboprops — which boosts its standing when takeoffs and landings, called “movements” in the business, are the yardstick. Using raw passenger totals (37.4 million for 2003), Phoenix is nudged down to 11th in the world. Again startlingly high, but again with an asterisk: remember that PHX is a hub (home city for America West), and a large percentage of visitors are in transit. You may want to revisit our earlier discussion of these different statistics.

Josh Fruhlinger, writing from Baltimore, points us to one city that has not one in-town facility but two: Tegel and Templehof airports each are a short distance from the heart of Berlin. At least for the time being, as both are slated for closure by 2007 when Brandenburg International (BBI) opens on the grounds of the old Schonefeld airport, in the former Communist half of the city. “After reunification,” explains Fruhlinger, “Berliners found that they had too many airports, just as they had too many opera houses and art museums.”

Between the two World Wars, Germany more than any other country nurtured the growth of commercial aviation — to say nothing of the Luftwaffe — and Templehof was its showcase. The central terminal, rebuilt in 1939 to the standards of pure Nazi grandiosity, is an enormous semi-circle that could pass for a national museum or the seat of some Imperial parliament. It remained the world’s largest airport building until the 1950s. During the famous airlift of 1948, US Air Force planes flew round-the-clock missions into Templehof, carrying food and supplies to blockaded West Berliners.

What this encourages, of course, is a contest over not which major airport sits closest to the city it serves, but which sits furthest away. Tokyo comes to mind, where the airport is so distant that it takes the name of completely different city. Officially it’s New Tokyo International, but everyone calls it Narita, after the centuries-old city of 90,000 in which the complex was built. (Take the train, as cab fares from Narita can run well over $100 each way for the 40 mile journey). Tokyo is also served by the nearby Haneda airport, which handles mostly domestic traffic.

Equally provocative, meanwhile, has been our discussion of rural airports co-opting the “international” designation….

“The smallest airport I’ve ever seen with ‘international’ in its name,” writes Tom Ovendale, “was the one in Wagontire, a tiny community in southeastern Oregon. As I zipped past on a trip several years ago, this ‘International Airport’ was a dirt airstrip. I’m not even sure there was a terminal of any kind. I didn’t even see any planes. They sure had a big sign, though. Damn proud of that airport.”

The lack of aircraft in Wagontire reminds me of the emptiness I encountered at the airport in Timbuktu, Mali. You might remember my visit there in the fall of 2002, and my descriptions of Timbuktu’s spacious terminal and control tower, all done attractively in Sudanese-style architecture (think Santa Fe, but with more goats). “Everything seemed to be in place,” I wrote, “save two things: people and airplanes. Not a single plane, military or civilian, public or private, was parked anywhere. A glance through my binoculars revealed the control tower vacant as well. The effect was so eerily hushed one wondered if anybody had ever been there.”

Even more astoundingly overbuilt is the airport in Mandalay, the former royal capital of Burma. The Burmese government, which is to say military junta, not known for civic-minded practicality or sensible thinking, spent $3 billion to fund construction of a mammoth airport 25 miles south of the city, with a 13,000 foot runway and a capacity for 15 million annual passengers. If you build it..? I spent several hours at Mandalay one humid morning in 2001, about 18 months after the airport’s official commissioning, and saw exactly two planes touch down: a 42-seat turboprop and a rusting Soviet MiG doing practice landings.

A couple of people cited the example of Bangor International, in central Maine, which certainly sounds like a provincial outpost. I take it, however, that the writers have never seen BGR in winter, when charter flights from the UK and other countries regularly put down for fuel as part of continuing services to Florida. It’s not unusual to see two or three 757s and 767s on premises at the same time in the colors of Monarch, Britannia, or Air Europa. It’s also used for transatlantic diversions when the weather grows dodgy in Boston or JFK, and even hosted Concorde a few times. Bangor is a joint civil/military field with an 11,400 foot runway — the longest single strip between Greenland and New York City (at least one military Web source calls it the longest runway east of the Mississippi, but this isn’t so).

One of my former employers, a Boston-hubbed regional carrier owned an operated by Mainers, headquartered its maintenance and training at BGR, and I’ve spent enough time there to qualify as an honorary state citizen. Later in the 1990s, in my cargo pilot days we’d sometimes use BGR as a refueling point on routes to Brussels and London. Order 10,000 gallons of Jet-A and the workers hand out lobster sandwiches and commemorative BGR coffee mugs.

Similarly, the airport in Gander, Newfoundland, operated for many years as a caravansary for flights between Europe and the USA. Before modern jets made long-haul pairings commonplace, flights would lay over for fuel and catering while passengers stretched and shopped for duty-free. Aeroflot used to pit-stop both in Gander and Shannon, Ireland, on its services from New York to Moscow, nowadays an effortless nonstop in a Boeing (Delta or Aeroflot from JFK). I was there a few years ago on a technical stop — fitting, in a way, since our cargo jet itself was a model conceived in the ’50s — and was struck by how abandoned the place felt. A large rooftop sign – “GANDER” — welcomes luckless travelers to a forlorn-looking apron and row of vacant gates. Though I’ll reckon the snack machines were quickly sold out on September 11th, when the grounding of US air traffic brought dozens of unexpected drop-ins.

In 1985 Gander was the scene of one of the worst-ever air disasters. A chartered DC-8 carrying American servicemen home from Egypt went down seconds after takeoff killing all 256 on board, including 248 members of the US Army’s 101 Airborne division. To this day a pall of controversy surrounds the accident. Was it icing on the wings? An explosion of onboard ordnance? A terrorist bomb?

What started all this was my statement a few weeks ago that adoption of the “international” suffix is not subject to official rules and left to the whims of airport operators. Not true, informs several recent emails. The international label is, I’m now told, predicated on the presence not necessarily of foreign-bound flights, but of a US Customs port-of-entry station.

That sounds feasible, and now that you mention it, I recall once reading of the same criteria. I’d look it up to make sure, but my intern is off for the summer. Plus, I’m very touchy when it comes to Customs and Immigration procedures, having once been detained at Logan airport after mouthing off to an agent…

It was 1993, and we’d just brought a Dash-8 in from Halifax, Nova Scotia. We were tired, late, and our plane had been hit by lightning as we dodged storm cells along the coast. The Immigration officer kept us waiting, and when I complained she offered to keep us waiting even longer. I dared her, and the next thing I knew two men with guns were leading me to a holding room — my copilot and flight attendant were politely ushered through the checkpoint and on their way.

The Customs and Immigration zone of an airport operates like a kind of DMZ, a no man’s land where a person’s US citizenship is not yet applicable, recognized, or otherwise of anyone’s concern. So there, I was, man without a country in a glass-walled room with four handcuffed Haitians.

I got a call from my boss on that one. He wanted to know why I was late for my outbound departure, and I told him it was because I was no longer an American.

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.