For the Love of Airports


By Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz (Mariordo) (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

I love airports. I mean I really LOVE airports. I vacation at them. I go out of my way to drive by them. And, of course, I work at one. So when I heard about the scheduled closure of the Santa Monica airport, and read stories about the closure of other airports like Meigs Field, it really tears my heart out. Surely my airport isn’t at risk of being closed. It couldn’t happen here, could it?

img_6278The sad truth is, it could happen anywhere. Check out This website lists defunct airports by state. I was surprised to learn that there used to be several airports nearby that no longer exist. As much as I hate to admit it, sometimes closing an airport is the right thing to do – if there are true safety issues that cannot be corrected or if there are other more suitable airports nearby. But too often airport closures come down to one main reason: lack of community support.

When airports try to explain their value to the community they often do so in economic terms. They talk about the number of jobs created, or the amount of revenue generated. These are important factors and worthy of consideration. However I don’t think those statistics really resonate with most people, unless they happen to work in one of those created jobs. In the end it comes down to this: people are more likely to value a place where they spend time.


Gratuitous stairs truck photo. Oh – and an airplane as well.

Notice I said “spend time” – not “travel from.” There are lots of people who live near airports who won’t ever have the occasion to fly commercially. For those who do travel, the experience is often filled with the stress – not exactly ideal conditions for developing a bond with the airport itself. That’s why I believe public viewing areas are so incredibly important. If those areas include walking paths or a playground, that’s even better. The more ways that can be created to invite the community in, the more people will visit. The more people visit, the greater the chance that some of them will decide that airports aren’t so bad after all.

img_6174The only airport I have visited with an official viewing area is CLT. It is perched on a hillside overlooking the center runway and it is one heck of a busy place! When I was there the benches were almost always filled with people of all ages. Not only do they get to watch airplanes take-off and land, but they get a chance to see what goes on behind all those tall fences.

Smaller GA airports are generally more accessible to the public than big commercial airports, but most people don’t know this. So the GA airport nearest me hosts 5Ks and kid-friendly festivals to encourage the community to stop by. And it works! I know several people who have attended these events and were surprised by how much they enjoyed the experience.

img_5609I realize that creating public viewing spaces or organizing community events isn’t easy. Airports are tasked with the very important responsibility of ensuring the safety of travelers. This can be extremely challenging. Additionally, space at airports is often at a premium. It can be difficult to find room for viewing areas or playgrounds. But I think the potential reward is worth the hassle.

The burden isn’t entirely on airports, however. Those of us who love and value aviation have a responsibility as well. We have to educate those who aren’t familiar with the industry. We have to clarify misleading news reports and refute the latest sensationalized stories. And we should invite friends and neighbors (especially kids) to go with us when we head to the airfield.

Will these efforts stop people from wanting to close perfectly good airports? Of course not. But the more airports are able to connect with the communities around them, the more likely they are to be valued by the people in those communities.  And that means better chances that your favorite airport will be around for years to come.


Radio Active

fullsizerender-61As you may recall, I have been training to help the Ops Department manage the deice pad on frosty mornings. This process involves driving around in an ops vehicle, giving taxi instructions on the radio, keeping a log of all the traffic through the deice pad and acting as a follow-me when needed. If that sounds like a lot to learn, it is! At this point I’ve gotten pretty good at telling the different RJs apart, I’ve memorized the call signs and ICAO codes for each airline and I can successfully manage the log. I’ve ridden along and watched the deice pad management process enough times now that I have a decent understanding of how it works. So what’s the next step? Talking on the radio.

img_7586Say What???

Yes, you read that correctly. Me. Talking on the radio. To pilots. And deice crews. And even Air Traffic Controllers. It’s unthinkable. It’s ridiculous. But, it’s absolutely true! And it’s actually kinda cool! As a recap for anyone who many not be aware, I am not a pilot. I do not work in ATC. I have zero experience talking on the radio. And if you told me a year ago that I’d be doing this I’d have laughed hysterically.

LiveATC and Radar Contact

One of the biggest things that has helped me prepare to talk on the radio has been listening to others do it. I discovered many years ago and was instantly addicted. I like to listen to the feeds from LAX, ORD, ATL and CLT. These days I find myself listening to ground controllers a lot. There are many similarities between what a ground controller does, and what we do when we manage the deice pad – we clear pilots to push back, give taxi instructions and hand them off to other frequencies. img_7523

Another wonderful resource has been and, more specifically, the Radar Contact podcast. I’ve been listening to the show for awhile now – it is very informative and I’ve learned a lot. When I realized that it was time for me to start talking on the radio, I was pretty darn nervous about it. What if I screw up? What if I say something wrong? Then I went back and listened to the episode “Making Mistakes on the Aircraft Radio.” Although the focus is on pilots, it was a good reminder for me as well. I don’t have to be perfect on the radio. I just need to be as clear as I can and not beat myself up if I make mistakes. img_7594

So Far, So Good

I haven’t done a whole lot of radio work yet, but what I’ve done so far has gone OK. The airplanes got into and out of the deice pad successfully and everyone seemed to understand me. When I get nervous I tend to talk quickly, so I try to force myself to speak slowly and carefully. I’ve learned that it’s OK to ask questions if I don’t understand or if I miss a piece of information I need – like what gate the plane is pushing back from. I promise I’m being good and sticking to standard phraseology. I won’t lie though, there are some things I wish I could say…

I CAN say: “Southwest 123, push back at your discretion, give us a call when you are ready to taxi.”

I CAN’T say: “Hey Southwest, just how fast do you taxi anyway?”

I CAN say: “American 456, taxi eastbound via the ramp.”

I CAN’T say: “Please don’t retire the maddog! Please! Please! Please!”

I CAN say: “Delta 789, contact Ground on 121.9 and let them know you’re on the north side of the pad, ready to depart.”

I CAN’T say: “Hey – can I borrow your stairs truck?”


You never know what interesting things you might find sitting around the office