This post originally appeared on DC Metro Moms on November 1, 2008
A Tale of Two Airports
“What year are we in — 1993?” I asked my husband as we stood waiting at the old terminal of Reagan National Airport for Northwest to produce our bags. Two tired carousels sat glumly like rides in the section of the amusement park no one wants to go to anymore. One silver slug was at rest while the other chugged along empty, a magnet for weary travelers awaiting their belongings. A decade and a half ago, I might have been just as impatient but much less wrinkled and without a toddler on my back in the Ergo.
For someone who claims to want simple, natural toys for her son and who takes him to a Waldorf school so that he can learn to revere seasonal cycles and natural processes like harvesting grain, I still have a pretty low tolerance for wasted time and tired technology. Now that we’re all as addicted to the internet as those IRC geeks in my college computer lab were in the 1990s, I have a certain expecation for things happening fast and looking good.
Having just come from my hometown of Detroit and its snazzy six-year-old McNamara Terminal, Reagan National’s “Historic” Terminal seemed like joke, a has-been crouching under its inside-out-bundt-pan roof.
It wouldn’t always have seemed this way. Back in the day, Detroit Metro was a sad, dingy thing of an airport. If my 20-year-old self would not have believed I’d turn into a frumpy mom with bad posture, I’m sure I would have been just as incredulous to learn that Metro would birth itself a shiny new silver terminal with a flashy red tram that would speedily whisk passengers to the middle of its two long arms. And in the current economic fill-in-negative-word-here ____ (that affected Michigan earlier and harder than a lot of other places), who would have thought that Detroit Metro would gleam brighter than the Reflecting Pool?
From my first post-college job in Arlington, I flew in 1997 back to Detroit, where my parents were moving out of my suburban childhood home. I left before the weekend through the old terminal of National (not “Reagan” for another year), traveled through unrenovated Detroit Metro’s Smith Terminal, and returned on Sunday night through the new terminal at National, impressed by the cathedral-like yellow arches and endlessly high rows of glass squares. Like a kid trying to make it in the big city, I felt like I’d finally given up the Midwestern ghost and landed in the fancy new town where I belonged.
But nowadays, if I want to fly nonstop (which seems especially important with toddler in tow), trips “home” are usually with Northwest, departing from the small circular older terminal with just nine gates. The airport website calls this wing the Historic-with-a-capital-H terminal and says it will “undergo a renovation project to restore the terminal to its 1941 design and architecture.” Yikes! Could the baggage claim get even slower and less efficient?
The irony of comparing Detroit Metro’s streamlined age-of-a-first-grader McNamara Terminal to National’s outdated Historic Terminal is that it’s a whole lot faster and simpler to get through the small cruddy one. We were worried about running late for our flight to Detroit until we remembered we which terminal we’d be leaving from. “Oh,” figured my husband, “it will only take us a few minutes to get to the gate.” By contrast, on the way back to DC, we almost missed our flight, having totally underestimated Detroit Metro’s serpentine lines, first for luggage and check-in and then for security. My mom later reminded me that in 2002, days before my wedding and just a few months after the new Detroit terminal opened, my parents actually did miss their flight; once they’d gone to the wrong end, they couldn’t get all the way back to the other in time.
They also told me that another new terminal opened recently at Detroit Metro. The airport web site has a “What Others Are Saying” press page that makes it sound like the new North Terminal is hottest spot in town. (I wish I could make a witty comparison to a fancy restaurant, but I would have to do research for that, and then I wouldn’t look like the honestly clueless dowdy mom I truly am).
The current issue of Wondertime has a travel story about the appeal of McNamara Terminal’s red tram for one mom’s kids, and certainly my son knows that a trip to his grandparents means both a ride on the train and a glimpse of the fountain where water seems to jump in streams like dolphins. What kiddie delights could they have cooked up for this new terminal? I might have to take another airline (and actually travel somewhere beyond my hometown) to find out.
Back at Reagan where the luggage was taking its time, I took my son out of the Ergo so that I could go to the bathroom. When I came back, he charged at me from his dad’s pantleg as I approached the kiosk with a bank of telephones for rental car companies. A phone fanatic, he wanted to “call” his cousins. I handed him the receiver attached by a twisty silver cord directly to the wall. He looked at what he had in his hand and asked, “Where are the buttons?” I pressed the Braille for the local Dollar Rent A Car office and offered a half-hearted beep-boop. He happily babbled while I grimaced at the still-empty groaning baggage carousel and the Halloween warning to “beware of low-flying pumpkins.” The phone was a nice diversion, and I should just admire that he can make anything interesting. But I also notice that his chat about the Detroit airport and its attractions is more animated than that of his hometown airport. One advantage of the old terminal is that the window of Gate 2 looks out onto the Metro train tracks, so that’s a draw. But the baggage claim is on the interior, with views only of tired behinds when you’re 34 inches tall.
Just as I decided to document the desperation on the scene and snapped open the shutter –- or rather turned on the digital camera that has only a screen and no viewfinder –- up creeped the first bags, each of which had cost passengers $15 or more to check. “I’m done,” announced my son, handing me the phone to hang up. And as our overstuffed green suitcase heaved itself up the conveyor belt to tip down amid its newly fallen comrades, I told him, “So are we. Let’s go home.”
i fly this route for work all the time. i couldn’t agree more! i love flying out of the northwest terminal at national, and while the detroit airport is beautiful, it’s a hassle. the train, security, etc. ah, the irony.