I often describe myself a short term pessimist and long term optimist. I try to think positively about people and the world. I’ve been traveling almost constantly since 1965 and I’ve seen a lot of changes in the places I’ve lived and visited. I’ve come to think that airports are metaphors for their countries.
Last Wednesday I took the red-eye from Saigon to Seoul, had an 11 hour layover in the airport and then continued on to Seattle. It was midnight when we left Saigon but the Illy espresso bar was open. The cafe was stylishly modern and the clientele a mix of Asian, European, and American types. It could have been anywhere. It’s that way in most international airports these days. I can remember when Tan Son Nhat airport was a couple of one story wooden buildings. Now it’s all glass and marble high rise with luxury brand boutiques and world cuisine. It’s 36 years since the Vietnam War ended and the victorious communist north has fallen in line with the rest of the capitalist consumer world. I wonder what Uncle Ho would think?
In the last year I have been in a dozen airports – Saigon, Hanoi, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Siem Reap, Pnom Penh, Johannesburg, Capetown, Doha, Seoul, San Francisco, and Seattle – maybe more. If airports are any indication America is a third world country. It is embarrassing. The buildings are rundown, the baggage systems are slow and inconvenient, signage is confusing, there are few moving walkways, distances to gates are long, escalators are narrow, elevators are hard to find, and information services nowhere to be found. On top of that baggage carts are small, poorly designed, cost $4, and can’t be taken to most of the areas in the airport whereas carts in other countries are sturdy, free, and can actually be used to get your luggage to the taxi stand or curb. Foreigners arriving in America don’t understand. The cart dispensers require dollars or a credit card, the instructions are all in English, and there is no place to get either money or change. It’s embarrassing.
In the Seattle airport the baggage carousels are so poorly designed that the bags have to be lifted up and out of a revolving tray. I watched a half dozen women try to get their bags over the lip of the carousel last week only to lose their grip and watch their bags continue around again. Most modern baggage delivery systems are flat so that the bags can slide off the belt – but not in the US.
If you want to see the best in airports you should visit Seoul. It’s beautiful, it’s functional and it’s designed to meet traveler’s needs. In the transit area, if you’re connecting to another flight, there is a hotel. There are free showers, lounge chairs that let you rest (sleep) comfortably, a massage service, airline lounges that only charge $20 bucks, plus all the usual luxury brand and world food choices. The boarding lounges are large and recognize that jumbo jets carry lots of passengers that need to be accommodated before and after the flight. The chairs in the lounges are cushioned and flat, so that passengers can stretch out if it’s uncrowded. I’ve never understood it but US airports are designed as if there is a security concern if people want to sleep so the chairs are designed to be uncomfortable for more than a short rest and don’t allow one to lie down comfortably.
There’s a lot to be said for building from the ground up. It was easier to rebuild in Europe after the war because it was from the ground up. And, it is easier to build a new airport than to remodel an existing one, but when the light rail systems in Seattle and New York were built recently neither one connected conveniently to the center of the airport. In Seattle the light rail passengers disembark and have to walk with their luggage through the parking garage to get to the actual airport building. Now really.
As I watch the ridiculous Republican candidate debates and hear them all talk about how America is the greatest country in the world I wonder how many of them know the truth. America is actually in decline. Our airports are just a metaphor for the decline. Our roads and bridges are falling apart, our train system is bankrupt and in shambles, our cities are crime ridden, the NY subway system is 100 years old, and there are homeless people in parking lots and doorways all over the country. Let’s stop fooling ourselves; America is in decline and if we want to reverse the trend we need to bite the bullet, acknowledge the cost, pay the taxes and start to fix things. Just do it.