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We've Come a Long Way from a Construction Trailer Terminal and a Waiting Lounge in Your Car

by on January 29, 2019 4:30 AM

In Happy Valley, airline travel in the 21st Century means an airport with a baggage carousel, three airlines, a control tower and a place to buy coffee, sandwiches and souvenirs. It doesn’t have jetways yet, so we still have to deal with the elements between the terminal building and the plane, but this is a huge improvement from years ago when the terminal was a construction trailer and the “waiting lounge” was inside your car.

As I write this I am sitting with my son in ORD (that’s airline lingo for Chicago O’Hare airport), waiting for a connection that will hopefully land here in Chicago, and then take off for Salt Lake City with the two of us onboard. We’ve been delayed and re-booked, and have several hours before the scheduled departure.

I’ve plopped in a chair next to a power-port, my son next to me, and we’re hunkered down for the long haul with our laptops and phones. We already had a healthy meal at the Chili’s and now we’re making the best of our time here in the Windy City (current temperature 1 degree Fahrenheit with a -10 wind chill).

To my left is a video screen that is playing a continuously-looping advertisement for the biggest expansion in O’Hare’s history – at a cost of $8.5 billion. The man in the video is Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The video loops every two minutes and seven seconds (I timed it) which means if I spend the rest of our layover in this seat I’ll have heard it more than 100 times.  

According to the video, more than 80 million travelers pass through O’Hare each year and it’s the best connected airport in the nation (Does Atlanta have anything to say about this?). The mayor exhorts me and my fellow travelers to visit to pick our favorite design for the new expansion. He’s also exhorting the poor TSA agents 20 feet to my right who have to listen to this during their entire work shift. (Can you say hostile work environment?)

The funny thing about this video? Your input was needed by Jan. 23. It’s a few days past that now, yet the video lives on. Maybe the federal government shutdown (just being lifted as I write this) has delayed its removal?

In any case, I was unaware of this major expansion project at O’Hare but it brought to mind the huge improvements over the years in our own airport in Happy Valley. As we took off from State College we flew over the old Mid-State Airport, whose use pre-dates my arrival at Penn State. Back then the airport terminal was the construction trailer I mentioned above. One airline – Allegheny Airlines – flew in and out. You went downtown to a travel agent to get a ticket which was printed on a computer punch card. After checking in at the trailer you waited in your car for the plane to be ready to board. No terminal, no control tower, no eatery, no souvenirs. All gloriously quaint compared to the modern marvel the University Park Airport is today.

And travelers themselves have adopted new innovations. It seems that neck rolls similar to the ones football linebackers used to wear are acceptable fashion accessories as you make your way through your flying experience. Visually they’re not drastically different from the scarves people double up and loop around their necks to protect against the cold, so they only provide an odd contrast when worn with a t-shirt.

As airlines have attached fees to your checked bags the urge to carry everything on the plane with you is popular. Meaning you are no longer checking bags at the airport curb when you get out of your car. Instead you are schlepping those bags with you all the way to the gate and onto the plane. And those bags can get a bit heavy. So your luggage has grown wheels. First two wheels, and now four wheels are all the rage. Travelers rolling bags here, there and everywhere as they carry their necessary possessions with them rather than paying to have the airline move them – or in rare cases lose them.

Along with this newfound desire for the modern air traveler to save money by “carrying-on” comes revised boarding procedures since overhead bin space – which has always been at a bit of a premium – is now a highly-coveted part of air travel. Hence we have the “boarding group” innovation. Most traditional assigned-seat airlines no longer board their planes by row numbers – now passengers are assigned group numbers based on how important you are to the airline. The lower your boarding group number, the sooner you board the plane and have access to that limited overhead bin space to store your belongings.

Boarding Group 1 is now the manna from heaven when flying. You walk onto the plane and gaze down the aisle at a glorious expanse of empty overhead bins in which to deposit your bags. A wonderful experience. Boarding Groups 2 through 4 follow in short order and comprise the rest of the airlines “priority” passengers. Boarding Group 5 is now the first group for the rest of us — casual travelers without first-class money, no great mileage accumulation, or no airline credit card. By the time you reach Boarding Group 7 or above you are often being told by a public announcement that there will be no room in the overhead bins for your luggage so you will need to gate-check your bags. Although the fees will be thankfully waived.

I think a small fiscal windfall that results from all this herding of passengers in groups is that stanchion manufacturers should be doing a bang-up business. The Disney-fied lining-up of America is creating a great need for black upright posts with retractable belts to engineer how we flow through these airport spaces. Somebody must be making a buck here.

Interestingly, in the midst of all this innovation in modern air travel there still exist pieces of technology harkening back to the dawn of computing. It’s very common to hear the sound of dot-matrix printers whizzing away at airline check-in and gate counters, and to watch airline employees collecting and tearing off sheets of continuous pin-feed paper with micro-perforations. It appears Epson and Okidata still have life left in that market segment.

Well, based on the large video screen down the hall it appears our time here in ORD may be coming to a close and we will soon be on our way to SLC (Salt Lake City), modern travel producing a much-delayed but desired result. And although they do have jetways here in Chicago unlike Happy Valley, they don’t heat them. So as you stand in one waiting to get on your plane, and you can see your breath and feel the mucus in your nose begin to freeze, you know there are still some innovations in modern travel you’d like to see.

Happy travels!


John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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