From February 1999
Can You Spare an Airport Design?
Let me ask you a question: When was the last time you went over
the river and through the woods to grandmother's house?
Take your time. I'll wait. I've got a flat-rate ISP.
Can't think of the last time, can you? Every time you go anywhere
these days, you use an airport, don't you?
You fly on business.
You fly to see grandma.
You fly to go on vacation.
Hell, you probably even fly to get to some place where you can go
over a river and through the woods!
You've probably never thought about it, but, as we reach the new
millennium, airlines and airports have become our nation's mass
transit system. Trains are dead. Buses are dead. And, in case you
haven't noticed, even with gas at a buck a gallon, no one drives
the Interstate when they can fly.
The numbers are startling. According to the Federal Aviation Administration,
599 million people flew in 1997, up 34 percent from ten years ago.
In the year 2007, the American Automobile Association believes 900
million people will fly, an increase of 50 percent in the next nine
What are we, as a nation, doing about this burgeoning form of mass
transit? How are we assuring that we can fly off to see granny,
or fly to a business meeting, or fly to hallowed playground where
we can go over a river and through the woods?
We ain't doing nothing. Nada. Zip.
In the 1990s, we have built exactly two new passenger airports:
Denver International and a small facility in Arkansas that's useless
unless you happen to sell widgets to Wal-mart, which is the main
customer of the Arkansas aerodrome. Oh, we've retrofitted a facility
or two--Pittsburgh and Ronald Reagan National in Washington, DC,
come to mind--but Denver International basically stands alone. And
are we planning to build any new airports in the first decade of
the 21st Century? Nope.
We are, to use the vernacular of my home town of Brooklyn, cruising
for a bruising.
If you dislike your travel experience now, you're gonna despise
travel in the 21st Century. Airport terminals will be strained beyond
the bursting point. Airport gates and ticket counters, already chaotic,
will become madhouses. Airport access roads, already choked with
traffic, will become impassable. And what passes for our inter-modal
mass transit system will be even further taxed. Only two major airports--San
Francisco International and Kennedy International in New York--are
even building or planning new mass-transit links.
I specialize in drawing draconian scenarios in situations like this.
But why bother? You can create your own horrific picture, All you
need do is imagine the airport you visited this holiday period.
Than stuff twice as many people into that vision.
That's what the immediate future of air travel looks like. Pretty
awful, isn't in?
What's most frustrating is that the parlous state of air travel
is something we can fix. And we really don't need money. We're already
taxing travelers like crazy.
In fact, our air-traffic troubles are the reverse of most of our
societal ills. Usually, we have terrific ideas for wonderful new
public works and absolutely no cash to fund them.
Not so the air system. The federal tax you pay on every airline
ticket you buy goes to the Airport and Airways Trust Fund. As of
September, the fund has a surplus of $2.2 billion.
"This fund generates nearly $600 million a year in interest,"
explains Mark Brown, executive vice president of the AAA. "Unspent,
the fund will balloon to almost $48 billion in 10 years."
Forget about the hotel taxes and car-rental surcharges you pay,
billions of dollars annually that usually go to build a stadium
for some millionaire owner of a sports franchise. Just focus on
that Trust Fund: more than $2 billion now, and $48 billion in 10
Funds we got. It's ideas we need. Brother, can you spare an airport