Cover Story: Have airports become shopping centres with runways attached?

Passengers don't want to be reminded that they're about to fly five miles high in a glorified bus. Airports are there to help us forget, says Jonathan Glancey
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The Independent Online
Airports are at their best when they are very, very simple. From a pilot's or a busy passenger's point of view, the optimum airport is a gathering of tents on grassy fields flanked by a runway. If there is a tea urn and a tiny bar stocked with whisky (for cold days and medicinal purposes only), so much the better. This dream airport can still be found around the world and even in Britain - in the Scottish isles scheduled flights still take off from windswept beaches.

The economics of flying, however, have, over the past 50 years, transformed the airport from a function (a place where aircraft take off and land) to a parady of the modern commercial city. Major international airports are now built on a scale that would have impressed every megalomaniacal builder down the ages from Ozymandias and Nebuchanezzar to Napoleon and Hitler. Each is an ersatz city with its own walls, armed guards, internal transport system, offices, shops, monuments and chapels. Hamburg airport even has its very own red light district: signs to the "Sex Shop", presumably for "Mile High Club" fetishists, are entirely official.

Airports on the scale of London's Heathrow, Chicago's O'Hare (the world's biggest) or the new Hong Kong Airport (under construction) are, in fact, more expansive, and certainly richer, than the world's smaller cities. And, like cities proper, they have become sophisticated machines for generating money and for providing goods and services: Heathrow today is a shopping mall with runways attached. The revenue British Airports Authority (BAA) generates from shopping is legion and no new airport or extension to an existing airport is considered today without taking into account the retail opportunities on offer.

What this means, in effect, is that airports continue to grow at an exponential and unnecessary rate: the greater the profit from shopping, the more the airport authorities wish to provide. In the course of this kind of development, the aircraft themselves become a smaller and smaller part of the total operation. Even a 350-ton, 450-seat Jumbo jet is dwarfed by the infrastructure of Heathrow. In fact, in many aiports, aircraft are all but invisible to passengers, who board planes through a windowless umbilical tube at the very end of a sausage-machine process that extrudes them from airport bus or taxi through check-in, snack-bars, passport control, duty-free shops and departure lounge. The first glimpse of their plane many passengers have today is of its claustrophobic cabin.

For the sort of passenger who enjoys architecturally undistinguished airports like Manchester (or Gatwick or Heathrow), this is, presumably, a matter of indifference. Who wants to see the blasted aircraft? After all, these are little more than cramped coaches in the air (that, and an opportunity for a little more shopping when the duty-free trolley is wheeled along the aisles after "any drinks" and "hot beverages"). In any case, many people do not want to be reminded that they are about to be launched on a wing, prayer and Pratt & Whitney turbofans five or six miles into the sky.

Beginning with the airport, modern air travel is essentially a denial of flight: it is as far from the realm of Amy Johnson, Captain Bigglesworth, Dougie Bader and Chuck Yeager as it is possible to get. The Jumbo is simply a kind of travelator between the shiny shopping malls of international airports.

Despite this, there are a number of fascinating, heroic and even magnificent new airports designed by some of the world's most imganitive architects. Manchester is not one of them. Those who want architecture as well as aircraft and Knickerboxes should try landing at Stansted, Essex (the beautiful new terminal building was designed by Sir Norman Foster and Partners), Osaka (Internet-age wizardry from Renzo Piano's Building Workshop), Seville (aerospace technology in league with Moorish architecture in the hands of Rafael Moneo) or Barcelona (a truly heroic gesture by Ricardo Bofill's bombastic Taller de Arquitectura). And, should you enjoy Dan Dare design, look no further than the zany and ever-expanding Charles de Gaulle airport at Alphaville (sorry, Roissy), Paris.

These aeronautical masterpieces are a long way from Manchester and even further from the dreamy airfield where Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman say their misty, "hill of beans" goodbyes in "Casablanca". But, that was in the days when commercial aviation was romantic; today, commerce and the insatiable economics of superstore culture have made the airport the vast, sprawling parody of a city it has become. The mystery is, and we look to Manchester for explanations, why anyone says they actually like them.