I had a love/hate relationship with O’Hare Airport in Chicago, where I grew up. On the one hand, even as a child I saw it as a gateway to adventure, the portal that you passed through if you wanted to get not only to other places in America, but also Paris! Tokyo! Bombay! (as it was known in my youth). On the other hand, O’Hare was a monster — busiest in the country (before Atlanta passed it up), hard to get to, hard to navigate.
Since then I’ve come to know and hate other monster airports; London’s Heathrow and New York’s Kennedy spring to mind. But I’ve only come to love one: our own Lindbergh Field (more properly: San Diego International Airport). Sure, it’s not very international, and people have been moaning for decades over its inability to expand. But I love how close it is to my house (just 20 minutes when traffic’s good). I love its splendid setting. I’m almost always happy when I’m there: setting off on a journey or picking up a loved one or knowing that I’m safely home again.
As if all that weren’t enough, the “Terminals to Tarmac” tours offered by the airport authority have made me like the place even more. They’re free. To take one, all you have to do is sign up online (and be able to take off a couple of hours on a Thursday afternoon or a Friday morning, the only times the tours are offered.) I first took the tour back in January of 2008 and learned a lot that I didn’t know then. With the expansion of Terminal 2 almost complete, I was grateful to join another of the excursions last Thursday afternoon.
Once again, our tour guide was a highly knowledgeable airport staffer — this time a veteran named Jim Payne whose day job normally involves negotiating with airlines. At the commuter terminal, we all piled into a “VIP tour” bus with him and drove to Terminal 1, where we disembarked and strolled through the terminals on foot. Then we got back on the bus and drove most of the perimeter of the airfield, along roads that normally are not open to the public.
Once again, I learned a lot. Perhaps most fascinating was Payne’s contention that if the runway had been angled just 10 degrees to the right, it would be long enough to accommodate much bigger and heavier aircraft. Moreover, he claimed that it was set up as it was (decades ago) to avoid just two private buildings.
We learned that tankers bring all the jet fuel to a dock downtown. Then it’s piped along Harbor Drive and under the field to a tank farm on the east side. Two millions gallons of the stuff can be stored there — only enough to fuel four days worth of planes (which on average burn through 800 to 1500 gallons an hour).
One disappointment was that was didn’t get to see Terminal 2’s new food court, which is located on the far side of security. Nor did we go into the new USO facility, which Payne described as being almost sumptuous (and the largest of its kind in the US). But other parts of the expansion were accessible and impressive, most notably the new outdoor check-in facilities at the west end of Terminal 2.
Payne shared plenty of other interesting tidbits, including the facts:
— that Southwest accounts for 37% of Lindbergh’s traffic.
— that the commuter terminal looks headed for extinction, because the airlines aren’t ordering any more turboprops and small jets — the only ones that can physically fit into that space.
— that planes have to take off to the east about 3% of the time — and almost always because of fog.
For me the sweetest moment came when we were driving around the field, and our bus driver called out that we were about to see something cool. He stopped the vehicle, and we watched as an Alaskan Airlines jet roared in our direction. Just as it was about to pass, the wheels lifted off the tarmac. We were closer to the take-off than you can get anywhere these days. It stirred a faint memory of watching planes take off from O’Hare when I was a child, and it still felt thrilling.