For the Love of Airports

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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 http://www.airfields-freeman.com. 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.

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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.

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11 thoughts on “For the Love of Airports

  1. Love this. KLAS – Las Vegas has a great viewing area not far from the strip, complete with a dedicated FM channel for the Tower. KSLC my hometown airport used to have a great viewing area complete with picnic and tables and speakers on the fence to listen to the tower. Unfortunately they closed it shortly after 9/11 stating security concerns….Which was B.S.

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  2. Love this one. Airport closures and awareness is all our responsibility. I remember when Daly plowed Megis Field I was one of those letters sent to his office in protest. Any chance us aviation folks can inform the public of the benefits of our local ‘ports needs to be capitalized on. My local airport in the burbs (DPA) has a nice viewing area and social events throughout the year, even a “Run the RWY” race. The more people understand its impact, the more we can save our beloved airports. Great post niffer!!!

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  3. Great story Jen. One other group we don’t speak about much are airport managers. Too often in my travels, those men and women seem to believe it’s also someone else’s job to protect the airport … and their jobs.

    To be fair though, I don’t think most airport managers receive any kind of formal education on economic impact issues or why outreach of any kind might be important. They get it once their airport is threatened of course, but like an insurance policy, wishing you’d made the effort doesn’t count for much after the fact.

    Rob

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    • Thanks for reading Rob! I remember you did an “On the Mark” segment about this. Commercial airports typically have more resources and dedicated personnel to manage community outreach. Managers at smaller airports typically have to go it alone. Hopefully they are talking to and getting support from each other.

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      • You’re right Jen, as well as mentioning that supporting an airport with events that give the local community a look-see at the place takes work. Sometimes airports are operated assuming anything that doesn’t offer an immediate return is a waste of time.

        When I was still teaching PR, I told my students that insurance policy, called social capital, can be very valuable … but only if you start that savings account early enough.

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      • Exactly so Rob! A single charity event to benefit the local community can, if done well, go a long way towards establishing a positive relationship. Trust and open communication are important to have in place before issues arise.

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  4. Another great article as always Jen. LAX has it’s viewing area but of course it is hardly ever open. I also think it is too far from the action to be a great place for viewing. In and out burgers is famous for fantastic views of the approach. Us avgeeks in Wellington we have a cafe with a viewing area which is OK. But when the wind is blowing from the wrong direction and then the people there see next to nothing due a building block the view. Some other airports in NZ have viewing areas but the big ones have nothing at al like Christchurch. Auckland does has a viewing area which is not that great. I find myself standing on top of a car park to get a great view

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    • Thanks for reading Glen! I hope that more airports can find a way to include viewing areas. It really is a great way to connect with the community. As for LAX – plane spotting at the In-N-Out Burger is on my bucket list!

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  5. Another GREAT article. I’m so ticked off about SMA closing. I just read about it in the current and previous issues of General Aviation News and am so ticked I could scream. What Mayor Daily did to CGX in the middle of the night was a crime & he should be hanged for it. SMA is another airport with a great history to it. I was out there a year ago & had lunch at the neat restaurant in the middle of the airport, with a bunch of aviation memorabilia on display. The Air Museum there is great, although it’s on its 3rd life now. I’ve also visited the previous 2 & they were wonderful too.
    Have you seen the video “One Six Right” “The Romance Of Flying”? It was produced a few years ago and debuted at OSH. As it says on the back of the DVD box, it “Celebrates the unsung hero of aviation-the local airport-by tracing the life,history and struggles of an airport icon: Southern California’s Van Nuys Airport”. It’s a great film with a lot of input by Ret. United Airlines Capt. Clay Lacy among others. I’ve got a copy if you’d like to see it.
    Another Airport with a great viewing area is DCA-Washington National Airport at Gravely Point. This is a park at the north end of the primary runway. It’s a very popular area and 1 of my friends is the local Airport/Airline “Mr. Information”. He is there several days a week for hours & hours. He meets people and explains what all is going on. He has a scanner & prints up dozens & dozens of photos and gives them out to the kids, especially the special livery birds of Southwest, Alaska and American. He also gives out old copies of Airways and Airliners Magazine to stir interest in the kids. The hillside at LAX is another great viewing & photograph location. There is even a brass plaque there to former TWA employee Jim Clutter who got into aviation working at Port Columbus Airport in the 1950’s and later transferred to LAX.
    Sadly the airport you & I work at had a nice viewing area but closed it a few years ago. There was even a great photo location on top of an old ammunition bunker left over from the old Naval Air Station. You could climb the grass hill covering it & get some great approach photos. Keep up the good work.

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    • Hi Jetstream! Of course I’ve seen One Six Right! Love that movie! I remember the old viewing location at our airport. I believe it got removed when the south runway was relocated. They are pretty good about allowing people to watch from the garage, which isn’t a bad spot but of course you have to pay to park there. And, unfortunately, it isn’t very kid-friendly. Hopefully eventually we’ll get a new viewing location. I bring it up every chance I get! As always, thanks so much for reading!

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