Although you have retro places like the TWA Hotel to give a taste of how things used to be, time marches on. And with that, things change. Technology changes. Social norms change. Changes due to safety or cost.
A while back we wrote about 10 things you just don’t see in hotels anymore. The same can be said for airports. I mean, when was the last time you saw or experienced these?
Meeting/Leaving People At The Gate
Before 9/11, meeting people at their gate when their plane landed was a regular occurrence. Or if you were visiting people, they would accompany you to your gate before you got on the plane.
Well, that’s not entirely true. A handful of airports are now allowing people beyond the gate (some as pilot programs, some apparently permanent), but I don’t know if it will catch on in a majority of locations.
Suitcases Without Wheels
When I was growing up, my parents had a full set of Samsonite luggage – 2 hard sided suitcases, a hard sided makeup bag (that was always my responsibility to hold) and a soft sided shoulder bag. I’m assuming they got it around the time they got married, in the late 50s. We didn’t travel a lot when I was a kid – one vacation per year, tops – so I guess they never needed to upgrade. Anyway, the luggage was hot pink and it weighed a TON. And, worst of all, it didn’t have wheels.
But if you think about it, when was the last time you went to an airport and saw a suitcase that didn’t have wheels? Backpacks, sure. Duffel bags, yeah. But an actual suitcase? Probably been a while, huh?
Travelpro has an excellent piece on the history of rolling luggage that puts the advent of them to the early 1970s. By the 1990s, you never saw suitcases, neither hard nor soft-sided, without wheels anymore. Even my American Tourister suitcase, which is a personal-sized bag that fits under the seat, has wheels.
Having airport employees to help you with what you need to get done is slowly being phased out. Years ago there was someone to check you in (now you can check in electronically) and weigh and take your luggage (even now, airports are working on self-service bag drop). Some snack bars are self-service, save for actually paying for the stuff (and give it time…give it time…). And there are all kinds of oddball stuff in vending machines that allow you to buy things without any human interaction at all.
In the age of COVID, less personalized service was advertised as less chance of spreading the coronavirus from person to person. But really, these changes already happened way before COVID. Just like self-service checkout at a supermarket, it’s a way for businesses to function with fewer employees on the books.
A Pleasant Experience
The airport experience is no longer enjoyable. Even before the airline disruptions of recent years, unless you had paid for a First Class ticket or TSA PreCheck service, you probably had to wait in a long line to check in, followed by another long line at the TSA checkpoint. Going through Customs may also take a significant amount of time. Many people compare the entire experience to being herded like cattle.
On top of that, the people working at the airport aren’t particularly pleasant. Oh, they may be professional and they may get the job done. But they’re not necessarily pleasant or nice. TSA workers, in particular, tend to be rude and irritating.
I get it; in general, people are not as nice to each other as they were decades ago. But airline employees giving eye contact and cracking a smile are a much more rare commodity nowadays.
There was a time when smoking was allowed pretty much anywhere in airports. Then that changed and you could only smoke in designated smoking sections within the airport. Then you could only smoke in “smoking rooms.” Not long after that, you could only smoke outside. Nowadays there may be designated smoking sections outside, or you’re only allowed to smoke X number of feet away from the entrances.
There are a handful of airports in the U.S. that still allow indoor smoking, but they are few and far between.
CNN Airport Network
Headquartered in Atlanta, CNN Airport Network was a spinoff of Cable Network News (a.k.a. CNN). Established in the early 1990s, the network, at its peak, was broadcast in nearly 60 airports in North America. It was shown at 2,400+ gates and reached roughly 323 million travelers per year
After 30 years of service, here’s why CNN Airport Network ceased operations in March 2021.
Stairs To Get On/Off Your Plane
Nowadays most commercial airports offer “jet bridges” for passengers to go from the airport to the plane and then back again (and ALWAYS via the left-hand side of the plane. Here’s why that is). But that wasn’t always the case. For decades, when you (dis)embarked from a plane, you used stairs.
Jetways started to come into use in the late 50s and became increasingly common in the 60s and 70s. You may still have to use a set of stairs to get on or off your flight if your plane or airport is particularly small (or your airline isn’t willing to pay for jet bridge use), or if you can’t taxi all the way to the gate for some reason. But it’s very rare.
This isn’t so much of a thing you see, but a thing you experience. Years ago, airports were, well, pretty boring. They were aesthetically basic and generic, and there wasn’t a whole lot to do, save for a couple of locally-owned restaurants and small shops.
Then airport owners (even wonder who owns airports? Read this) and managers discovered there were all kinds of ways to manipulate passengers (that’s part of the reason why airports have carpeting). Their best manipulation was to get you to spend more money. So they introduced popular name brand shops (Ron Jon, Sharper Image, etc.) and restaurants (Shake Shack, Bahama Breeze, etc.) instead of mom & pop owned coffee shops and the like. In fact, they even changed the design of airports to subconsciously entice you to buy more things.
You won’t be bored in most airports nowadays because they’ve done their best to make you buy buy buy while you wait!
Really, do we see functional pay phones ANYWHERE anymore? Not many. With so many people owning cell phones, pay phones are becoming less and less of a needed commodity. You can still find pay phones here and there, especially in larger airports. But they were just about everywhere prior to the 21st century. When we went to the TWA Hotel (here’s a review of our first visit, in 2019 – we stayed in 2 different rooms that time), we saw they had a bank of pay phones- ROTARY ones! Not surprisingly, they had a bunch of other retro, kitschy stuff, too.
Feature Image (Memphis Int’l Airport, 1973): Euthman / Wikimedia
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