Touring a New Airport on the Eve of Its Grand Opening
On Saturday October 26th, 2019, I went to an open house for the brand-new Louis Armstrong International Airport in Kenner, Louisiana (MSY). The airport was planning on thousands of people passing through the new terminal that day; originally the terminal was supposed to open at 10:00 a.m., but stormy weather had pushed the event back to 1:00 p.m.
The new terminal, set to open in two weeks, had a big PR problem: The airport planned to open before a dedicated flyover ramp from the highway had been constructed. Everyone in town seemed to know about this, and most were grumpy about it. When I told my friend Tom that I was going out to the new terminal to write something about it, he remarked, “The flyover is the whole story.” I was about to find out why.
I sped along I-10 highway past the old airport exit and then, as instructed, took the exit for Loyola Avenue. It was supposed to be three fairly straightforward stoplights, after which the new airport access road would magically appear.
I was immediately gridlocked in a long line of vehicles backed up at the initial intersection. Could this many people be coming to tour the new airport? But no, this was something else: the stoplight was out completely. In fact, as I looked around, I realized that all the stoplights in the vicinity were dark, leaving thousands of cars on four- and six-lane roads—with complicated double left-turn lanes—to awkwardly improvise four-way stops, for hours.
Post–Tropical Storm Olga had turned into a cyclone the night before, resulting in 60-mph winds that took down powerlines across the New Orleans metro area, leaving some places like Kenner without electricity well into the day.
At the third intersection on Aberdeen, a road crew was patching over a large section of asphalt, requiring one final detour. Then Aberdeen transformed abruptly into a freakishly new, futuristic-feeling approach road with roundabouts and manicured palms . . . and suddenly the new airport appeared. Or rather, two colossal unmatched parking garages dominated the field of vision. The modern new terminal withdrew into the background.
I followed a series of understated EVENT signs around the roundabouts and toward the short-term parking garage. My nine-year-old son, Julien, who had come along with me for the tour, took pictures with my phone of the hulking structures as we passed them. We parked on the fourth floor of the garage, as instructed, and walked to the pedestrian bridge connector. As we crossed over, it reminded me uncannily of the short pedestrian bridge that connects the nearby Target to its own parking garage; I had walked these steps, before.
Passing through sliding doors we found ourselves in a small, nondescript antechamber.
“It smells in here,” noted Julien. And then we were there: In the new terminal.
It was nice! It was bright, and the check-in counters swooped around in a crescent shape, presenting American, Southwest, Delta . . . and all the other airline logos receding around the bend. The check-in area looked surprisingly modest—it was hard to imagine thousands of anxious travelers milling about this space, dragging roller bags. The odd thing about this new airport being championed as a catalyst for growth is that it is, in fact, rather small.
We were given a “self tour guide” brochure, and a separate piece of cardstock paper with instructions for how to get back to the highway. (More on this, later.) We checked in with a volunteer who scanned the QR code we’ve been given when we registered for the tour, and then we were let loose. There were already hundreds of visitors disseminating through the terminal by the time we checked in, and we were among the early arrivals.
Other than the cyclone of that morning, it was a beautiful fall day, billowing low cumulus clouds racing across the sky, romantically framed by the new terminal’s windows and skylights. There was something incredibly peculiar and delightful about this, milling around the new, almost airport with so many other residents of the city, no one planning to go anywhere other than here. People walked around with selfie sticks, or holding their phones out at arm’s length while taking long videos as they walked through the terminal. It was the utopic vision of an airport, in a way: we had all arrived in this not-yet nonplace to simply appreciate its features.
But most of the features were still emergent, paused mid-construction. The computer screens behind the American Airlines check-in counters were shrouded with white plastic garbage bags. Delta’s self-check-in kiosks looked barely put together, orange safety cones still positioned around them.
I stood soaking in the aura of departure and thinking about my faltered arrival by car. The infamous, absent flyover hung over this space like a concrete specter. Would this highway glitch doom the airport to come? Or would something else—a hurricane? a pandemic?
Descending the main bank of escalators, and seeing other escalators running aslant a floor below, gave the impression of an M. C. Escher drawing or like a scene from the movie Inception: vaguely vertiginous, but aesthetically amusing as well. One escalator was already out of order—or perhaps it just wasn’t working, yet. On the way down Julien remarked, “It’s nice, but not as nice as our old airport. . . .” I’m pretty sure some people around us heard him; what a statement, especially when uttered by the youth. I couldn’t say I disagreed, exactly. This terminal presented itself as a new airport, but not a significantly improved one. It’s just . . . new. And it still seemed far from finished.
The piecemeal nature of the terminal was especially evident when we got to the security checkpoint, with its impressively open (if intimidatingly serpentine) holding area ready for the stampede of passengers to come. We all bypassed the security lines and filed through a half-constructed checkpoint corridor, with no fanfare. Pausing here, I noted that a majority of the checkpoints were only partially put together. Magnetometers and full-body scanners lay in fragments on the floor; computer monitors were still in half-open boxes, cords dangling out. It was here that I thought, There is no way this terminal is opening in two weeks.
In the postsecurity zone of the airport, Julien and I paused to consider our options. We could visit the A, B, and C concourses, and see the bounty that awaited future travelers. Mostly this meant the gate areas, storefronts, and eateries—themselves all in various stages of incompletion. We headed left toward the C concourse, first.
I’m sure a lot of planning and coordination went into the two public open houses, of which this day was the second. But as Julien and I ambled toward Concourse C, we couldn’t ignore the general state of disarray. It was as if the workers had dropped whatever they were doing that morning and vacated the place without tidying up.
Doors were boarded up and taped over. The Delta SkyClub took the cake, with gaudy pink insulation sheet boards leaned against the frosted glass, barring entry, for now, to even Diamond Medallion members. Some walls were primed but unfinished; strips of blue painter’s tape could be seen here and there; large information display screens were uncovered, electronics exposed. A paper towel roll stood in the corner of one half-finished shop. A five-gallon bucket lay upside down on a square of Masonite in the middle of a concourse, with CAUTION scribbled on it—directed at nothing in particular, so far as I could tell.
The place was a dump.
And then, Julien became hungry; he wanted a hamburger. But none of the restaurants were open yet. This seemed like a profoundly missed opportunity. Why not generate revenue as well as general interest around the new terminal? Why not allow commerce to take place, right before the grand opening—making the tours profitable as well as informative? Julien was pissed off at me for dragging him out to this dead zone where we couldn’t even buy a snack. As for myself, I found it refreshing and delightful to wander the terminals with no Bose headphones being hawked, without the universal stench of deep-fried airport food. It felt downright countercultural, to be honest. Like we were all a part of an elaborate flash mob or rogue takeover, repurposing the space at hand for mere ogling.
On that note, though, who deemed it safe to allow thousands of unscreened souls into concourses that will be—in less than two weeks, allegedly—supposedly secure? Any number of us could have smuggled guns, explosives, or knives into this space, and hid these things among the prolific building chaos. How did this ridiculously open “open house” fit into the black-and-white security protocols that were imminently to be enforced? Was this an actual airport or some sort of absurd replica? It’s a point of confusion that I still can’t square. Perhaps we’re supposed to just not ask. Put our trust in the honor system. I like this idea, in a way. But, then, it’s an airport—if you see something, say something, right?!
It’s possible that the airport was in fact not on the verge of opening. After all, the grand opening had been pushed back several times already. Maybe there would be ample time to sweep the concourses for security’s sake. But all the airport communications insisted that this is really it: Starting November 6, all flights would depart and arrive into the new terminal.
With regard to the timing, a curious indicator was nestled in the recesses of one of the Starbucks shops that seemed almost on the verge of being open: I noticed Horizon organic milk containers and other drinks in a small cooler in front of the cash register. Those milks would go bad sooner than later. Starbucks seemed certain that the customers were just on the verge of being there. (I found out later from Erin Burns, director of communications for MSY, that the Starbucks shops were in the midst of staff training: thus the products already on set display. Were they real or fake milk bottles? One of the ineffable mysteries of consumer culture.)
A main selling point to the public for the new terminal has been the smorgasbord of restaurant options that will be available—from the local (Midway Pizza, Leah Chase’s Place, Sazerac Bar, Cure), to the generic (Chili’s, Shake Shack, Panda Express). The local coffee chain PJ’s was present, but there was also a California-based Peet’s, in addition to the now ubiquitous Starbucks enclaves.
The restaurant facades were bold and brassy, even if they had no burgers to feed Julien on offer yet. It struck me as we walked past the restaurants, with their chairs upside down on the tables and the bars stocked and poised for pouring, what a paradox it is—here especially—to focus on local fare in the terminal. We know it can’t be anything other than overpriced simulacra, that New Orleans airport food is always going be just that: airport food. These household names will never live up to their original corollaries in town—they’re not supposed to.
The value of the local is strange throughout the new MSY. On the one hand, the airport wants to identify clearly as our airport. There is built-in artwork inspired by live oak trees and the Mississippi River—indeed, according to the guide pamphlet, the very architectural design of the building was “influenced by the winding curves” of the river. Likewise, the “dark wood elements in the concourses” are supposed to conjure our place on the planet. But . . . dark wood? It doesn’t exactly engender any specific regional sentiments, much less precise ecosystems.
During the multiyear construction, there were no open calls for public artworks in the new terminal. The art that’s here feels corporate, at best. The center feature of the main terminal is a monolith, an elevator bank adorned with a massive live oak photograph printed on its back—and thus facing the escalators and the first-floor pavilion. On the wall behind the baggage carousels, the curves of a winding river have been imprinted on a metal grid. As far as I could tell, this was where the art started and ended in the new terminal.
Yet there were other unintentional art objects strewn throughout the concourses. Some empty white accessory display or shelf systems in the middle of the concourse resembled mysterious svelte sculptures. Two red mobile lifts were parked askew in a corner, available to look at and ponder. A dark green “2 TON” hoist rested, chains flaccid, behind orange caution tape and with some sort of blanket draped on the ground below—not just left there, but looking almost positioned. These were Duchamp-esque readymades: not really meant to be there, not meant to be seen. But there they were, on exhibit.
We walked down the A concourse, which is dedicated to international flights. This arm of the new airport is surprisingly minimalist and utilitarian, bucking the trend of many airports, which go out of their way to spruce up the part of the airport where international flights depart and arrive. The A concourse culminated in Gate 6: a bizarre, Hitchcockian windowless corner of seats. The gate area here seemed—how to say it bluntly?—forced. I stood there for a few minutes contemplating the bleak corner and photographing its seating arrangement. Other visitors paused around me to see what I was looking at, but there was nothing really there—that was the point.
I sat down to try out the plentiful, uniform airport chairs. One could be excused for mistaking these chairs for the iconic Eames Tandem sling-seats found in many airports around the world; the general topology of these seats has been copied countless times.1 But the seats in the new MSY are nothing like Eames Tandems. First off, they are rock hard! And, of course, they contain phone chargers at regular intervals, proof that this is an airport of the twenty-first century, not the twentieth. The golden age of jet travel, whatever that was for good and ill, is long past. But god help anyone who has to sit in these seats for more than thirty minutes.
I was relishing the oddities sprinkled around the airport, snapping pictures and posting observations to Twitter. Julien, meanwhile, was now both hungry and bored. It was time to go.
It was hard not to see the whole building as decidedly generic. As we returned to the main terminal atrium, I couldn’t help but recall how I’d felt as a teen in a newly opened supermall in a Detroit suburb in the early 1990s: the Somerset Collection.2 So much open space and natural light—but all for what? Retail therapy is still therapy—in this case, an attempt to fill an unfillable hole.
It’s not clear what is supposed to be illuminated, here in the new airport. Or just what all the empty space in the center of the terminal is meant to accommodate. It was as if the city had gone on a massive retail-therapy binge, resulting in this bright yet empty edifice.
Turning toward the escalators to leave, we heard a few a trumpet notes reverberate across the space—live music was about to happen! Visitors congregated in the Jazz Garden, and a motley assortment of visitors clustered around a few tables on which we saw some aluminum troughs full of snacks. Fritos, Doritos, Lay’s potato chips, Nature’s Valley granola bars . . . and hundreds of Niagara water bottles being ripped out of their blister packs and lined up on another table. Julien excitedly grabbed a bag of Doritos, and within minutes his fingertips bore that unmistakable orange grime. The Doritos were clearly the highlight of the visit for Julien. This is what it had come to.
As unceremoniously as the tour had begun for us, so it ended. We trundled across the gray pedestrian bridge and back to the car in the cavernous parking garage, Julien looking for a trashcan in which to deposit his empty chip bag. I couldn’t help but think about the totally generic snacks on offer back in the terminal. Not a vast platter of powdered sugar–dusted beignets, not to mention oysters—not even Zapp’s chips. Just the normal crap you get from Costco in bulk. That water was bottled in a plant outside of Los Angeles, California . . . but who knows where its actual source is. The nonspecific triumphed again. All so we can keep flying, as much and as regularly as possible.
Driving out of the short-term parking garage, we had to consult the small card given to us upon entering. The instructions were deceptively straightforward: Exit toward long-term parking; take a left at the stoplight, drive until it meets Veterans Boulevard. But the way proved meandering and strange. The road turned into rubble, and a police SUV was parked at a roadblock, past which we were waved through by an officer in the driver’s seat. Potholes riddled the way. We found ourselves at last on Veterans Boulevard, heading back toward our home in Mid-City. But the trip was prolonged and stop-and-go, as we navigated stoplight after stoplight still without power. It took an hour to get home, as opposed to the normal twenty minutes from the airport. The bookended traffic debacles felt like an omen for the new terminal.
After I’d originally registered for the event online, the instructions for getting to the new airport included a request that I use the hashtag #TheNewMSY when sharing photos and videos of the new terminal: “Photos and videos welcome!” It was clearly intended to be as much of a social-media event as it was staged as a live experience.
Looking back over the hashtag on Twitter later in the day, it seemed as though the downed traffic lights had discouraged many of the would-be visitors from even making it to the new terminal in the first place. Of course the airport staff had no control over the cyclone that morning; but it was surprising that they didn’t cancel the event, given the widespread outages and terrible approach circumstances. The airport didn’t even mention the traffic snafu on their own Twitter feed. (Probably because power was actually out at the old airport across the runway for a better part of the morning, impacting many scheduled flights; the MSY Comms crew surely had enough on their plate already.) The hashtag brought up a few dozen tweets, some praising the new terminal and others complaining about bungled bathroom doors or the missing flyover ramp. It was a little embarrassing that my own ironic tweets crowded the hashtag results.
As I was finishing writing up these notes the following morning, I had to take a break to help my friend Nathan move a willow tree out of my yard and into his friend’s truck. Waiting for them to get to my house, I listened and watched as first one, then two, then three Boeing 737s whined by overhead, well into their initial ascents. These mundane flights, another day’s departures ticked off one by one, reminded me again of our old airport.
Still very much functioning and mostly fine, the old airport moved people in and out of our region, facilitating the itineraries and cash flows of tourists and locals alike. It was a fine airport, if a bit dingy—and it was about to be relegated to the dustbin of history. Most of it is slated to be demolished, and what remains will supposedly be repurposed as a shipping and private aviation facility. In its place we’ll have #TheNewMSY, a bland if Instagrammable airport, dedicated to the future of New Orleans—flyover or no, and with more storms sure to come either way.
How long will the new airport last? Sixty-five years, like its predecessor? With rising sea levels and more frequent storms each year, it’s unlikely to be around for more than a couple decades—even though it’s blasphemous to admit as much.
For now, the scandal of the missing flyover ramp is the local obsession. In a way it’s a handy euphemism for so many problems right now. Flyover. As if large groups of people can be summed up because they live in “flyover country.” As if a dedicated ramp from the highway leading to the airport would mitigate all the other logistical puzzles and occasional nightmares that commercial flight comprises. As if we can escape our terrestrial life by flying over it, flying away from it. As if flight should ever come easy to our species. As if other organisms, even microbes, can’t also fly.
On November 19, eleven days after the opening of the new terminal, I headed back out to the airport. This time, I took my five-year-old daughter Camille with me. We were going to meet my parents, who were flying in from Detroit; their plane got in at 5:30 p.m. or so, and we were hoping to find some dinner and explore the terminal before they arrived.
The highway was a little backed-up a few miles from the airport exit, but this seemed to have more to do with rush hour commuters heading home from downtown and less to do with airport traffic. Exiting, I was prepared for the worst—but we coasted up to the stoplight and were the only car waiting to turn. The absent flyover was like a fading nightmare.
I could see how the three stoplights would likely get choked up during high-volume periods, but all in all the route was direct and easy. By the time we were centrifuging the roundabouts, it all seemed planned and tidy. As we approached the terminal, Camille blurted out, “Look at that ramp!” She was describing the minimal architectural flare that rises off the end of the international concourse—it’s the triangular roofline swooping above the windowless corner at the end of the A gates that had confounded me, when I was inside during the open house. And Camille was right: it looked like a little ramp to nowhere.
The past eleven days had seen checked baggage computer glitches, ground transportation gridlocks, and punishingly long security lines. A couple jet bridges were reported broken as planes arrived, requiring gate changes and minor delays. Screeds were published in the local paper, and a few angry Twitter threads unspooled. But, overall, the transition went pretty smoothly. I could see now that everything had, somewhat miraculously, fallen into place.
We took our parking ticket and ascended the short-term garage. (The first half hour is free!) After finding a spot, we headed toward the walkway to the terminal. Entering on the third level, I was again struck by the compactness of the check-in area. Camille was delighted by the array of escalators and wanted to ride them all.
I had looked up our dining options before we left and knew there was the Peet’s Coffee on the third level, and Parish Provisions on the first level, near the baggage claim. Neither of these was a restaurant per se, but I figured we could get something decent between the two venues. It was #TheNewMSY, after all!
I noticed a giant STEM-themed banner advertising the University of New Orleans above the check-in lobby—a missed opportunity for my school; Loyola will probably just get a little poster in the baggage claim area, like we had in the old airport.
The airport already seemed like it’d been there forever. Passengers pulled weathered roller bags through the terminal, chauffeurs with name signs were slouched on benches in the arrivals area, and security officers zipped around on those three-wheeled standing scooters, looking ridiculous.
After wandering the three levels for a bit, we ended up back at the Peet’s: I ordered a ham and Swiss sandwich, and a cup of dark roast. (“That’s all we have,” said the woman behind the counter.) We headed back two long escalators to the Parish Provisions, where Camille selected a premade, soggy-looking PB&J. We bought a bottled water with a smiley face emoji on the packaging. It grinned at us as we sat in the baggage claim area, on benches (no chairs or tables in sight), and ate our pathetic dinner. The performance stage nearby was empty; no band was playing for arriving passengers. The place was already getting dirty: black streaks from roller bags dragged sideways marred the white tile flooring.
Bags started appearing the carousel behind us and my parents arrived, looking no more or no less travel weary than usual. Leaving the airport was smooth; no hold-ups.
Everything was fine.
The airport quickly achieved something like normalcy. There would be a few hiccups later, having to do with checked baggage computers and the like, but all in all the new terminal was a staggering success, bringing in record numbers of tourists and visitors over the initial months of operation.
My mother had brought me a magazine page ripped carefully out of an Architectural Digest, which featured an interior photograph of the newest Beijing airport, Daxing International.3 It looked like a rendering, sans passengers or even any airline workers for that matter. It vaguely resembled the new MSY—if much bigger. Looking at this image, it occurred to me that terminals look great without people. There’s a strange gap between what we want airports to be, absent travelers, and what they are, when they become operational—even at their best.
When my friend Mark headed out to the new airport for the first time the following week, to pick up a family member around Thanksgiving, he sent me a photograph that he took inside the terminal, of a sign near the security checkpoint. It said: “You are your ID.” That summed it up. Airports might work better if we really were just our IDs. No bomb-carrying (or virus-harboring) bodies. No attitudes, no risk factors. Just numbers, sheer data, for the safety of everyone. Perhaps the missing flyover at the new MSY is an unconscious extension of this logic—maybe it’s not missing at all. It may sound outlandish, but what if the optimal airport was not overly concerned with the conveyance of actual human bodies? If anything, maybe human bodies just get in the way of the real goal: the unimpeded accumulation of capital. And if humans stopped needing to fly or suddenly stopped taking to the skies—what then?