Connecting Point A to Point B

We all remember our basic exposure to geometry and the concept of labeling various points with letters. In pragmatic America, it hasn't taken long for the concept to leak into our language, with "Point A" now synonymous with a departure location and "Point B" meaning our destination.

In the case of a trip involving air travel, Point A should be our house or office or wherever we are when we launch ourselves physically out the door for business or pleasure. Correspondingly, Point B should be grandma's house, a hotel or the boarding ramp of a cruise ship -- wherever our bags are going to be opened next (excluding security searches and customs).

But somewhere along the way, commercial aviation has hijacked these definitions and created instead an artificial world in which Point A and Point B are both at the airport.

It's a "Well, Duh!" statement to say that most of us don't live at airports. In fact, airports are really just transfer points in a journey, a place we change our mode of transportation from a car or bus or van or train to an airplane, and vice versa.

That's what an airport should be. What we've created, however, is something quite different.

It would be easy to say that our European friends have it right. After all, when an American arrives at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris and realizes there's a major train station (the TGV high-speed system) literally bisecting the terminals, the concept seems, well, foreign. So, too, does the system at Frankfurt, which flies in the face of American aviation unilateralism: They not only have the effrontery to mix rails and wings, they exacerbate it with a bus station in the terminal.

Of course, while not all of Europe's airfields are multi-modal transportation centers, there are enough examples to make our American preoccupation with the stand-alone airport seem very myopic, if not downright dumb. All that steel, all that concrete, all those shops (and all those public funds) and not a train in sight.

Examining U.S. Airports

The best (or worst) example has to be Denver International.

Built a mere decade ago miles to the east of the overcrowded Stapleton field it replaced, there's little argument a new airport was needed for the area. But, the shortsightedness of using nothing but a highway to connect the city of Denver to their new aerospace Taj Mahal is staggering. The need for a system of light or high-speed rail between the airport and downtown was, and is, painfully obvious, but it was never made a required part of the project -- despite a major investment of our federal tax dollars.

Worse, even though there's a main Amtrak line only six miles south of Denver International, putting a railway station in the basement of the multibillion-dollar facility was never seriously pursued.

You have only to stroll through the beautiful interior of our reborn Union Station in Washington D.C., to understand that a train station can actually feel and operate like a major airport, with shops and services and soaring interiors and irritating PA announcements along with ticket counters and Starbucks. There is no natural law that would cause space-time to collapse if Denver International had an Amtrak station in the basement, or (heaven forbid), a Greyhound bus station.

True, Washington Reagan, Chicago O'Hare, Atlanta Jackson-Hartsfield and San Francisco International have already extended local light rail service to or adjacent to their terminals and others are working on similar connections. Newark International, for one, can carry you on its terminal-hopping monorail to a real, live Amtrak station a mile away.

But the average design of the American airport pays homage only to the idea that an airport is a stand-alone facility, devoid of rail and bus terminals, and dedicated to the proposition that all journeys begin and end here. And, quite simply, we've got to change that thinking -- if not for ourselves, then for the survival of our airline system.

With the airline industry in a massive catharsis of redefinition, the basic American concept of an airport should be replaced by the multi-modal concept of creating transportation centers designed to facilitate, not originate our essentially multi-modal journeys. That means an institutional recognition that an airport is merely a structure through which we pass on our trip to our ultimate destination, and as such it should be built to serve that purpose!

In other words, we need convenient driveways through the terminal, not a light year from it. We need train stations in the basement and bus stations in the same location. We need rental car pickups in the terminals, not a half-state away (or at least rental car facilities that are connected by smooth and fast rail). We need van services that don't require a 50-mile hike to reach, and we need an ethos among airport managers and boards of convenience for the traveler, not convenience of the airlines, as the primary credo.

Second, we need to treat the van or car and even cab services that pick us up or deliver us to our doorsteps as full partners with even the largest airline, instead of regarding them as barely tolerated parasites -- which is too often the treatment they receive today nationwide. Bags, for instance, should eventually be checked at your doorstep and retrieved at your hotel.

It's our system, but as of now it's fragmented and chaotic as a result of disjointed and uncoordinated thinking during a half century of aviation development. Now, however -- as we redefine what an airline is -- it's time to focus on what our airport facilities are really there to do: serve us.