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Flight 101:

The Lonesome Traveler

With the half-lidded eyes of a crocodile on Valium and a small smile flickering across his sagging face, the lonesome traveler creaks onto a barstool inside the Virginia Beverage Company and lifts a finger for a drink.

The middle-aged man with the dirty blond hair and purple Polo shirt waits patiently for his glass of liquid soma and plays with the multiple silver hoops stapled into each ear. His sluggish stare crawls over the brass beer vats reinforcing the decor of this microbrew-joint-meets-sports-bar-meets-marketing-research-project, but nothing takes hold.

This frequent flier looks as if he’s seen it all before: the consumerization of an airport. Big deal.

Soon enough, a shot glass of something clear and a tall glass of something red show up. The lonesome traveler positions the beverages side by side, then disappears beneath the bar and returns with four white pharmacy bottles: folic acid, zinc, and two unidentifiable vials. He gulps handfuls of horse pills, one after the other, then washes them down with the red juice. He exhales a few thick belches, but with the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” shouting from the speakers, no one can hear his guttural faux pas.

After his medicine settles, the lonesome traveler rubs an unsteady hand over his stubbly chins, lets his eyes wander up to a television above the bar—Virginia Tech vs. Alabama in the Music City Bowl; boring, even by football standards—and then downs the shot. Finally, after a few more drinks and subsequent gastrointestinal rumbles, he places a pile of bills under his tumbler, thumps a quick rhythm on the counter, and lifts off the stool, just as slowly as when he landed 20 minutes ago.

The lonesome traveler leaves the sterile watering hole with a boarding pass dangerously close to toppling from the back pocket of his Levi’s. A significantly more sober patron leans toward the oblivious 20-something bartender and asks, “Is he a regular?” The pourer, who wears his Virginia Beverage Company shirt pulled tight and his college baseball cap pulled low, fails to turn around from watching the gridiron action above and mutters, “Hell, that guy’s anything but regular.”

Flight 102:

A Brief History

During the aviation-crazed frenzy of the Propeller Age, long before it was gussied up to look like the Mall of America, National Airport drew folks from miles away who simply wanted to watch the miraculous mechanical birds take off and touch down. And the edifice the planes circled over was quite spectacular itself: an art deco monument to the bold new world of air travel.

Until National opened, D.C.’s airport experience had been distinctly second-rate. Washington-Hoover Airport, which operated in the 1930s on the soil where the Pentagon now stands, was a disaster site waiting to happen. It was framed on its east side by high-tension electrical wires, sputtering smokestacks, and an errant dump site; its runway was severed in half by Military Road, where guards would stop traffic for takeoffs and landings.

But in 1938, when Congress lifted the limitations on federal involvement in airport development, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an outspoken critic of rickety Washington-Hoover, jumped at the opportunity to build a $15 million “cutting-edge” “state-of-the-art” “spectator airport,” according to Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority staff architect Daniel Feil. “It was a very handsome…style of architecture for the ’40s called ‘federal streamlined art deco.’…People came to eat here, on purpose.”

National Airport opened its doors on June 16, 1941. It was an instant success—and, thanks to its 10-minute distance from Capitol Hill, an immediate darling of Congress. When National needed to stretch its legs—passenger counts would climb steadily and peak at 16.3 million in 1993—there was always money, somewhere, someplace, to bless the flyway with updated equipment, more parking space, and, in 1970, a new pier.

But as anyone who visited National in the late ’70s and most of the ’80s can confirm, the good times didn’t last forever. With tight budgets smothering its growth, the airport began to show the signs of middle age: cramped corridors, long lines, and decaying furniture. In 1979, Secretary of Transportation Neil Goldschmidt called National “a dump” and “a disgrace.”

When you walk into the new National Airport today and watch in wonder as architect Cesar Pelli’s cathedral-sized National Hall gobbles up travelers with millions of square feet and nearly as many chain stores, you can thank Elizabeth Hanford Dole for the experience. Dole, who served as transportation secretary in the Reagan administration, was instrumental in getting National out from under federal government control and into the hands of an independent regional authority, which would underwrite tax-free revenue bonds for airport expansion.

Almost immediately, $2 billion in construction programs began. National Airport’s renaissance—not so much as a spectator airport, but as a luxurious shopping center with wings—was under way. Today, approximately 80 percent of National’s travelers leave from gates in the brand new Terminals B and C; a meager 20 percent from the abandoned splendor of Terminal A.

Flight 103:

Shelter From the Storm

After countless false alarms from the District’s weather prognosticators, the first significant snowfall of the winter hits National Airport. (OK, just this once: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. There, happy now?) In the terminal, the arrivals/departures monitors are peppered with cancellations, but the mood inside the massive building is calm.

Outside the 58-foot-high observation window of National Hall, the air is as clear as clam chowder. You want to close your eyes when a Delta 727 cuts through the clouds and prepares to touch down on the ice-slick runway. A parade of plows slugs through pools of pink de-icing chemicals dripping from the planes.

At Gate 30, a pilot waiting to command American Airlines Flight 1975 to Las Vegas via Dallas takes a seat among his passengers in the waiting area, pulls his cap off, and rubs his eyes. Tucked into the top of his hat is a picture of a woman and a baby girl, both dressed in pink.

Anxious passengers swarm the wall-length banks of pay phones like predators; people slouch, cradling the receivers, luggage on the floor, their feet kicking Gymboree and National Zoo Store bags closer to the wall. In the Virginia Beverage Company, well-dressed young professional types sing along to some Motown and re-create poses from a Dockers ad. The lonesome traveler is nowhere to be found.

Ann Stretch, director of airport services for Travelers Aid, is calmly watching the weather get worse. She snuggles down into the warmth of her heavy winter coat and says, “An airport’s like a little family,” adding that because “people kind of check their brain at the door when they travel,” employees here are able to enjoy a we’re-all-in-this-together vibe.

I’ve heard retail lifers say the same thing, but I keep my mouth shut. Stretch, who enjoys chirping the feel-good mantra “We’re all as different as the smiles on our faces,” represents the new-school vision of an airport: comfortable, accessible, marketable. She would probably make a tremendous manager at Lord & Taylor. Her smile never fades; her attention to you never loses focus.

Under Stretch’s protective umbrella, air travel feels blissfully risk-free. The dread you often sense circulating in old Terminal A—that the very idea of sending a couple hundred souls up in the air in some kind of metal contraption is so fraught with terror that you should at least build an airport to honor that terror—is nowhere to be found.

Outside, the snow continues to fall.

Flight 104:

In the Beginning

When I was 10 years old, I took my first solo flight, from Boston’s Logan Airport to LAX. Extremely pissed at my parents for putting me on a plane all by my lonesome—and certain that my doom was imminent—I began crying uncontrollably. I was seated in the first row of coach next to a man whose hygiene skills did not involve soap and water. He cradled a notebook in his lap; he scribbled furiously.

As we taxied out to the runway and waited for our shot at liftoff, I sneaked a glance at the man’s notebook and spotted the line of prose he had just composed: “The boy next to me is crying.”

Uh-oh.

Instead of clawing and scratching my way to the exit, though, I experienced two rather remarkable changes, one arriving quickly after the other: (1) I realized that the safety regulations mandated for an L-1011 were the least of my worries, and (2) I immediately stopped weeping. And that’s when my flying fetish truly began. Or, rather, as soon as the plane landed in L.A.

Airports and airplanes, terminals and runways became paradises loaded with possibilities for me; I loved the sense of never knowing what joy—window seat! free snack!—or what doom—aisle seat, free dinner—hovered in the near future. And when puberty started riding in the shotgun seat no matter where I went, a trip to the airport was an opportunity to mingle among the mysterious opposite sex and wonder, just wonder.

But the romantic airports—or at least the notions thereof—that seemed to fill my yesterdays, well, today they feel like bloated outlet centers.

After ending her welcome-wagon speech with a plug for As Kindred Spirits, a New Age crafts and jewelry store wedged between DC Magnets and the Gap, Stretch leaves with a perky goodbye and continues spreading her sterling diplomacy. As she walks by the stores, she checks out the tchotchkes perched in each window.

I’m still planted in a seat in National Hall, architect Pelli’s notion of an efficient, state-of-the-art terminal, gazing out the observation window—framed by white tube-ladder columns and split by colorful etched-glass artwork—onto the runway. I’m hoping for a mighty storm, a prolonged blast of Mother Nature to transform this sterile port into something other than a second-rate Tysons Corner.

For the last 24 hours, Channel 4 weatherman Bob Ryan has been Chicken Littling about killer cloud patterns gamboling in from the prairies. With the threat of a major brouhaha capable of turning D.C. into Ice Station Zero—and airports in Chicago and Detroit already shuttered by snow—the wide terrazzo walkway in National Hall’s nave should be harried.

Wishful thinking. Everyone is calm; everyone is collected; everyone has plenty of room to swing a Bath & Body Works bag. In the sunshine of the Visa card, no one has seemed to notice the nasty elements.

In any case, the storm is already tapering off, and the view of our city has become spectacular: To the northeast are the Mall and the monument and the Capitol, and you can just make out Freedom standing rigid atop the dome, searching west for signs of trouble. Chubby planes, long planes, small planes, big planes land and set sail in precision order, and a flurry of food and baggage trucks crisscross the airfield in Keystone Kops fashion.

When a United Airlines 727 taxis by—and I really try to figure out the natural physics of the whale—the 10-year-old in me returns in full bloom. I am convinced, for an instant, that there’s no conceivable way that the beast can fly.

Behind me, the Disney Store is filling up.

Flight 105:

Where’s the Benetton?

Pelli’s brainchild, National Hall, was christened in 1997 with a bottle of dreams that it would become not only a traveler’s safe haven but also a local shopper’s constant destination. By the merchants’ names alone, you would think that you were window-shopping at just about any suburban mall: The Cheesecake Factory, the Gap, Auntie Anne’s Soft Pretzels, the Disney Store, Waldenbooks, Cinnabon.

You can watch a pilot practice his chip shot in the PGA Tour Shop, then wisely change his mind and opt for something frilly that fits into a petite Victoria’s Secret bag. A cute brunet couple—both of whom still apparently cling to the hopes of an Izod comeback—play with computerized knickknacks in Brookstone.

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The most telling clue about life in the safe, stupor-inducing new National is the Foggy Bottom Brew Pub. It’s the only place to light a cigarette in Terminals B and C, and the only saloon in the new joint with even a hint of charm. And it is plopped at the end of an out-of-the-way wing dedicated solely to Continental Airlines flights.

National Hall shopkeepers are tight-lipped about the hall’s thus far nonexistent business boom. But the minimal draw on local wallets is no secret. “Hell, we were busier before Thanksgiving,” one store manager says. “They were promising how good Christmas was gonna be, but it was awful. Business has just not been good.” Another merchant agrees that the goal of attracting repeat business “has not panned out.”

On the other hand, Steve Wilner, a major partner of Brewhouse Concepts, which owns Charles Mann’s All-Pro Grill in Terminal C, says business has been “spectacular,” but mainly because “we’re the only real adult beverage place past security” for Gates 35 to 44. Plain and simple: If you’re doling out the hooch, you’ve got a chance. If not, well, best be getting to the airport chapel for a little retailer’s prayer.

Maybe you can’t blame a 2-year-old building for not registering on the character scale. And maybe in 50-plus years, reporters will be gushing about how much charm National Hall once had. Still, the future is very impatient. In the downstairs baggage claim area, an ominous poster draws considerable attention, and for good reason: It’s introducing VentureStar, “a reusable, single-stage-to-orbit” “new generation launch vehicle,” which looks like a fancy iron flat on its back.

Who knows what will be left when VentureStar starts carting folks around the solar system? Probably not me. And probably not you.

Flight 106:

Theory and Practice

Whether they’re monuments to the jet age, palaces of bland consumerism, or cozy small-town depots, airports have managed over the years to attract a fair amount of scholarly attention.

“Every airport everywhere around the world has a different feeling,” writes James Kaplan, author of The Airport: Terminal Nights and Runway Days at John F. Kennedy International. “Mainly they are places to get into and out of as quickly as possible….There are many small airports full of charm and a sense of place…but in these cases the charm and the location have specifically to do with the smallness; one is still conscious of the fact that one is getting on or off an airplane. The moment largeness comes into play, so does functionality on a large scale, and distance from the act of flying, and thus anonymity. What is specifically absent from major airports is any sense of place: An airport is a no-place on the way to someplace.”

National Airport, which now looks like the cross between a museum of modern art and a Best Buy, has taken Kaplan’s view one better: It may be a “no-place on the way to someplace,” but you sure can shop the shit out of it.

David Brodherson, a historian of art, architecture, and urban planning who will take part in the National Building Museum’s “Flying High: Aviation and the American City” symposium Feb. 12, says that airports have always featured consumer amenities. It’s just that they used to cater only to the narrow stratum at the top. In essence, Brodherson says, you can blame the airfare wars for spectacles like National Hall. Whereas “Joe Six-Pack,” as Brodherson likes to label today’s average traveler, was once a stranger to the airport, now he’s a preferred customer.

Lower the fares, build a Cheesecake Factory, and they will come. “Airports, from the very outset, were conceived surprisingly quickly to be just like train stations,” Brodherson says. “In a sense, if you can’t bring the airport to the city, bring the city to the airport—put in the doctor, the hairdresser, the wonderful bar, the hotel.”

Brodherson agrees that airports have gone through a metamorphosis physically. Culturally, though, he argues that the difference between Terminal A and the new mall-airport is just a matter of size: “Airports have gotten bigger; the scale has changed. The airplanes, too, have gotten bigger, better, faster. The airports are now big, oversized warehouses for gently processing people. That results in more Gaps, more bars, more variety. That’s only been an attempt to coddle people. Culturally, not much has changed, but physically, that’s the greatest change.”

Flight 107:

Kodak Moments: Terminal A

This is the promise of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority—the major administrative body overseeing National, BWI, and Dulles—regarding National’s Terminal A, now on the National Register of Historic Places: “[T]he rehabilitation of the terminal is to provide a high level of passenger service and design quality, while ensuring the rehabilitation and new additions are sensitive to the historic building’s original character.”

Nowhere does it mention that the terminal’s jewel—the main waiting room, once the toast of an aviation-loving nation—is one of the most romantic places in D.C. Neat rows of cracked black leather tulip chairs stare out of the 30-foot-tall-by-200-foot-long window. It may seem silly to get misty-eyed over a 57-year-old edifice, but compared with the new terminal, this playground feels like the Coliseum.

In 1970, the “banjo” complex (so named because it’s shaped like a banjo) was added to the south end of Terminal A. In the primary ticketing and baggage area, slick models of commercial airplanes hover above rickety luggage carousels. Kids sleep face down on the thin brown carpet. Stewardesses seem to still exist; flight attendants do not. It feels as if the people here are the less fortunate, longing to enjoy the Good Life of National Hall.

Walking past security, down the neck of the banjo, you finally come to the Temple of Doom, a cavernous circular room with eight looming gates begging for customers. There is a stand-up sign in this room that announces: “Welcome to the New National Airport. What a Departure! Please Pardon Our Appearance During the Renovation of Historic Terminal A.” I search the room for a “Coming Soon! TCBY!” sign, but, alas, I’m probably a few days too early.

The kitsch architecture of Terminal A succeeds; the economics of Terminal A do not. Plain and simple: In the name of the almighty buck, it’s time to get these people a helluva lot closer to Legal Seafood.

Flight 108:

The Empty Beer

“Come on in! Best bodies at the airport!”

Shawn, a bartender at Virginia Beverage Company, is playing the carnival barker, grinning ear to ear and pointing up at a television screen displaying ESPN’s daily dose of women’s bodybuilding. Shawn claims this ploy packs the place with businessmen most days.

A mother and her daughter—both of whom cling to bulging bags from the Disney Store—wander to the bar and order sodas. The girl asks her mother for a dollar to take to the Sweet Factory store in National Hall, but before the parent can scrounge through her purse for some change, Shawn has slammed a crinkled dollar on the bar.

“You wanted a dollar, I gave you a dollar,” he says.

“Oh yeah?” the woman laughs. “Well, I want a thousand dollars.”

Next to the bar, mingling among the people waiting for flights to Miami and New York, a CNN crew is interviewing random people about the impeachment hearings. Does the public care about such matters? “Not really,” says the young blond reporter, walking away slump-shouldered and looking just as bored as everyone else.

Flight 109:

Backstage at Disneyland

When I first meet Fritz, the bartender at the Samuel Adams Brewhouse in Terminal A, he has just finished a whispered phone call and is telling a near-empty bar: “I just heard that someone was killed on the runway.” And he’s right on with the death rattle: A United Airlines employee was killed—more like cleanly decapitated, according to Fritz—when he knocked his head against an overhead doorway while steering a baggage tractor into a terminal; he was pronounced dead at the scene.

With short red hair and a mustache to match, Fritz, 39, has been in the “guest services industry” “too many damn years.” He’s a company man who considers Terminal A home, but says that if Brewhouse Concepts boss Wilner asks him to transfer over to Charles Mann’s, he’ll do it.

“In Terminal A, we see so many of the same people all the time,” Fritz says, taking a cigarette break. “We’re the ambassadors. This is a comfort zone. The people come here, and we want them to have a good time.We’re not the $2-an-hour bartenders that Friday’s’ are.”

For the airport to function on such a comfy level, the characters punching your tickets or carrying your bags or, in the case of Fritz, getting you nice and soused for that three-hour flight must emit an easy-going, customer-is-always-king attitude. You see it on Ann Stretch’s face; you hear it in Fritz’s voice. It’s almost a form of lobotomizing travelers: Make them comfortable, make them stay, make them buy. In the process, air travel gets stripped of its romance as well as its pain.

Outside of Terminal A, you can find National’s only female skycap, Diana, a shy, sweet woman doing her job with a quiet pride. As to why she’s the lone lady battling the boys for the bags, she can only giggle and say, “Guess ’cause I’m the only one crazy enough to do it.” When she walks by Fritz’s post, the affable bartender gives a big wave and says, “She works twice as hard as the men and makes twice the money, too.” Blushing, Diana puts her head down, keeps walking, and keeps smiling.

Meet and greet airport staffers further up the executive food chain, and you’ll find that the soothing song remains the same. Architect Feil spent the past 10 years working on National Hall, and he now bears the burden of refurbishing the past—Terminal A—with an eye to the future: “As far as I know, no [other airport in the U.S.] I know of has embarked on what we’re doing.”

Dressed in a gray overcoat, black scarf, sensible black shoes, and a brown-and-black tie, Feil is spinning, twirling, laughing, and all-around gavotting as he leads a behind-the-scenes tour of Terminal A. He’s manic about the details, about history, about “original exposed aggregate concrete panels.”

Getting more and more excited about his tour-guide duties, Feil darts outside to gush about the punched windows of National’s original stone façade, modeled after Mount Vernon and so far safe from any severe renovation plans. He opens the doors to the restored Presidential Suite, which FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower all used to entertain guests. Feil notes the “oak wood walls impregnated with resin” and “the symbol of the Army Air Corps on the terrazzo floor”; I notice the cobwebs in the classic light fixtures.

If you think a plane is loud when it flies over your house, try an American Airlines jet landing 300 yards from you. We are finally on the runway, walking toward the shadow of the main observation room. He seems completely at ease among the landings and takeoffs—despite the hopping and nonstop chatter—even as a line person directs a Business Express shuttle right at us and the sun gets blocked by the old observation building; life on the runway is getting both louder and colder.

Is that a breeze or just a propeller warming up? I turn to check for the shuttle—70 yards out, 60 yards out—but Feil, his grin getting bigger, his braces getting shinier, gently grabs my arm and pulls me closer. He poses in front of the ancient observation window like Carol Merrill, stretching that grin as far as it can go, and says this: “She cleans up very nicely.”

Flight 110: Airport ’99

Why do stand-up comics—whether they’re Borscht Belt dinosaurs or coffeehouse newbies—always rely on the airplane gag for safe yuks? Riffing about the complimentary bag of peanuts is right up there with the dick joke. But what happens to these jokes—which rely on the chance that your plane just won’t make it over the water or that your carry-on is inexplicably jam-packed with TNT—when the airport experience gets so bogged down by the mall mentality that a trip to National feels as natural as a jaunt to Circuit City?

I’m thinking about this strange constant of pop culture—along with how absolutely cold it’s getting—as Feil and airport manager Chris Browne lead me up to the roof of Terminal A. This used to be the home of the old control tower, but now a new one—which looks as if someone forgot to paint over the primer—stands sentry over National Hall. Construction mars the front of the old terminal: They are building an underground tunnel, which will lead to the daily parking decks.

Although the plans for the renovation of Terminal A are not yet final, authorities are “anticipating” that only the portions of the building built in ’41 and ’48 will remain; that leaves the Eastern shuttle hold room (already torn away from the airside façade of the main waiting room), the American Airlines south concourse pier (already shuttered and awaiting a date with a bulldozer), and the banjo complex (still packing ’em in, but ultimately ill-fated) all as future parking spaces.

“Right now, we’re in the design phase,” says Tara Hamilton, spokesperson for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. “Probably late this year we will know what the design will be. I think we’re looking at 2003, when we’re hoping the majority of the restoration will be completed.”

National Airport—its past, its future, its Gap—has left me desperate for inspiration. Or at least a laugh. National Hall—or, more like it, National Mall—has sapped the last vestiges of my 10-year-old-boy spirit. I stare into the sky and make a wish list. I can’t buy any of these dreams right now, but maybe, someday, when National Hall grows yet again, they’ll have shops for them as well:

I wish I knew a good airport joke. I wish there weren’t so many chain restaurants and retail stores left—Foot Locker! The Limited! Hickory Farms! Dare I say Spencer Gifts!—to possibly fill the new space. I wish Diana weren’t the only female skycap. I wish the Gap would go out of business. I wish I had spoken to the lonesome traveler. And I really wish bus travel were a heck of a lot faster.CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.