Not so long ago, when I was a somewhat less worldly and intrepid air traveler, I thought that commercial airports in the United States were more or less homogenous. Same restaurants, same bookstores, same waiting areas, same restrooms.
If you’d seen one airport, you’d pretty much seen them all.
After traveling to Rye, New York a couple of weekends ago, I learned that such an assumption is patently false. Over the course of three days, I spent time in four different airports. And believe you me, they were nothing like each other.
Let’s start with the perfect airport. Nashville. Big enough to get you where you need to go but small enough to be unintimidating. Just one terminal and thus no need for a complicated elevator and subway system. Right off the interstate with easy drop-off and pick-up and convenient long-term parking. What could be better?
Certainly not O’Hare. Just the thought of changing planes in Chicago gave me heart palpitations. Yes, I’m physically fit. Yes, I have a highly-maneuverable rolling carry-on bag. Yes, I speak and read English. But with less than an hour between my first plane landing and my second one taking off, could I possibly figure out where my connecting gate was and make it there in time? I’d done my research and knew that O’Hare has four terminals, nine concourses, and 182 gates.
And yet, as is so often the case, what I feared did not come to pass. I deplaned at Gate 1-C. My connecting flight departed from Gate 3-C. Meaning that I had time not only to visit the restroom but also to stand in line for a McDonald’s double cheeseburger with extra pickles and then enjoy it at my leisure. I don’t know much more about O’Hare now than I did before I took my trip, because I saw only a tiny portion of it, but that’s okay. I made it onto the plane
headed to Westchester County, New York with time to spare.
Ah, White Plains. Perhaps the most retro airport in the whole country. Built during World War II as home to an Air National Guard unit, White Plains is the antithesis of a big city airport. Three-story, puke yellow brick with an open observation area on top. One store. One waiting room. One luggage carousel. Two TSA screening lanes. Two gates. And only four stalls in the ladies restroom.
Seventy-five percent of the aircraft that use White Plains are general aviation. The commercial airliners that do fly into and out of there are little ones. Some are even prop planes. You disembark not through a fancy “jetway” connector bridge but by descending an old-timey moveable metal stairway. Then you walk through the weather, heave your suitcase off a rolling cart and drag it across the tarmac.
And as opposite Atlanta’s Hartsville International Airport as it’s possible to be. In 2005, Hartsville overtook Chicago as the busiest airport in the world and never looked back. It’s insane. Maybe there weren’t actually a million people inside the airport the day I was there, but it sure seemed like it. I’d looked forward to my hour-and-a-half layover, hoping to shop for a new Braves shirt and grab a bite to eat. No way. Even though I arrived on a Delta flight and departed on a Delta flight, my gates were miles apart. Those miles required me to ride what I’m sure must be the world’s tallest and steepest escalator and then sprint through the airport like O.J. Simpson. Only to have my plane sit in a runway traffic jam for almost an hour after we taxied away from the terminal.
Which made it that much better to arrive back in Nashville. Where George Strait welcomed me to Music City USA over the loudspeaker. Where posters of Dolly Parton and Jack Daniels decorated the walls. Where soft Southern accents and Big Orange baseball caps were everywhere.
What they say is true. There really is no place like home.
(May 6, 2012)