Podcast #176 — Why Business Travel Is Coming Back; Learning Airport History

Old cars and planes on a runway

Where’d the Racetrack Go?

Business travelers are getting itchy. They know Zoom calls can’t replace a face-to-face meeting, but they can’t meet with people who aren’t in their offices yet. We also talk about how surprisingly great the LaGuardia Terminal B renovation is, and then talk about airport history with Professor Janet Bednarek, professor of history at University of Dayton. All this and more – click here to download the podcast file, go up to the Subscribe section in the top menu bar to subscribe on your favorite site, or listen right here by clicking on the arrow on the player.

Here is the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #176:

This Week

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you again from the TravelCommons studio as Chicago and the state of Illinois completely reopen for business — no more capacity limits, no more socially distanced sitting — just in time for the summer music festival season. No capacity limits, but you have to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with 100,000 other music fans. Irene and I did that one year, check — don’t need to do it again. I think I aged out of that demographic — back in the ‘90’s. 
  • Since the last episode, I first flew down to Miami on business, and then over to New York City for a long weekend. Miami is always an interesting business destination; it’s got its own unique vibe. It starts at the airport; officially bilingual — Spanish and English, in that order — but it seems half the time when they make PA announcements, they just skip the English version. The client’s office was in the Wynwood Art District. It was my first time in this neighborhood; it had a kinda typical newly gentrified vibe — lots of first generation food places: an upscale doughnut shop, a poké lunch joint, a couple of microbrewery taprooms (always key for me). What wasn’t typical was the amount of wall art; not graffiti as much as very cool murals and street art, giving the neighborhood a bright, colorful vibe while probably painting over some otherwise dire looking buildings.
  • I stayed a few miles south in the Marriott on Biscayne Bay where some combination of my status and patience with a front desk trainee trying to solo on the property management system for the first time earned me a top floor bayside room looking out over the Port of Miami cruise terminal with 4 big cruise ships tied up, waiting for the CDC to drop their cruise ban.
  • One morning, when it felt the humidity had dipped below 80%, I decided to skip Uber and ride a Lyft scooter up to the Art District. I’ve talked, in past episodes, how much I like riding scooters. I’ve ridden scooters in Chicago, Phoenix, DC — everywhere I could find them. But last year, I didn’t ride them even though they were all around Chicago. There’s a fun, frivolous vibe about riding a scooter, but 2020 was anything but fun or frivolous and so I didn’t feel like riding them. But on this morning, with just a touch of humidity in the air and not much traffic on the streets, having a little fun riding a scooter to the office felt, once more, like the right thing to do.
  • Bridge Music — You are (funky mix) by Zapac.

Following Up

  • Talking in the last episode about needing to rebuild atrophied travel muscles after the long lockdown layoff generated a few comments. Chris Christensen of the Amateur Traveler Podcast dropped me a note saying:
    • I can relate. We just got back from our first post vaccine trip to the Galapagos. First time on a plane since 2019.
  • First trip back and you go to the Galapagos! No warm-ups? Hope you didn’t sprain any of those travel muscles.
  • Jim McDonough’s first trip back wasn’t simple either. He wrote on the TravelCommons Facebook page
    • Last month, we made our first trip since January, 2020 to Kodiak, Alaska of all places, attending the decommissioning of a ship I helped the Coast Guard put into commission in 1971. San Diego to Alaska is a long way. Alaska Airlines is really nice. But I noticed my travel skills had atrophied.  Approaching TSA, I realized that the red mesh bag I usually have for holding metal objects wasn’t in my bag. Then I sat for a while at a gate in Anchorage until remembering that Admiral’s Club members can use Alaska’s lounge. I’m ready to go again, but probably not to Kodiak!
  • Kudos to both of you guys for jumping straight into the deep-end. But you gotta be careful — weak travel muscles can make you vulnerable. A few days ago, I re-tweeted a thread about a phishing attack — a very well-formatted “make sure your TSA Precheck doesn’t expire — click here” e-mail with a link that, as you can imagine, didn’t take you to tsa.gov; though Aaron Woodin did tweet back the question “If you click on the link, does it confiscate your water?” It’s a well-timed phish, especially as more business travelers are gearing up to get back on the road. 
  • And in the last episode, I talked about Irene and Claire losing track of their Global Entry expiration dates — Claire’s expired and Irene hit the “renew” button on the last day. Now you may think — Global Entry? Big deal, who’s traveling internationally right now anyhow? But remember, for $100 for 5 years, Global Entry gives you the express lane thru immigration plus TSA PreCheck, vs. $85 for PreCheck alone. Hence I always tell people to spend the extra $15 for Global Entry. So anyhow, Irene and Claire fill out the on-line renewal form, pay the $100 (which Irene immediately got back because she used my Amex Platinum card), and then nothing. Silence. Crickets. Which is odd, because when I renewed my Global Entry, I had to go to ORD for an interview and an updated photo. But for them, nothing. Our flight to New York, to LaGuardia is coming up. The night before we leave, Irene gets an e-mail — no link, mind you, just a message — “Congrats! Your Global Entry has been renewed.” Yay! Except that when she checked into Southwest, there’s no little blue PreCheck checkmark on her boarding pass. Claire got her Congrats! e-mail the next day, but again, no check on the boarding pass. Ugh. The prior week when I was in Miami, the non-PreCheck lines tailed back the length of the terminal. But, as it turned out, it wasn’t a huge hassle. We left a little earlier for MDW and no horror lines. Three days later when they checked in for our flight home, they both got the blue check on their boarding passes. So spinning my IT propeller, it would seem that the airlines aren’t pinging that PreCheck database more than once every couple of days.
  • This trip was the first time since January 2019 I’d flown into LGA in almost 28 months; that’s 2⅓ years. That shocked me; I had to go back and check my calendars and my math again, because it seemed like I was always in New York. But it’s right. Second shock — flying into the new rebuilt Terminal B, bright, airy, spacious, clean; everything the old Terminal B I flew into 2+ years ago was not. It was the low-ceilinged rat maze that, 7 years ago, then-Vice President Joe Biden said was like a third-world country — which I actually think was less of an insult to LGA and more of an insult to many developing country airports. Walking down that old concourse to catch an American or United flight, it was not unusual to have to dodge a big plastic garbage can placed right in the middle, that had a hose coming down from the bottom of a make-shift funnel made out of plastic tarp, hanging from some ceiling tiles, collecting rainwater from roof leak. No one would ever look at that and think “What the hell?” because you’d see it like once a month. But now, it’s phenomenal; they’ve done a great job. I used to say that SFO’s new Terminal 2 was my favorite terminal — where American and, back then, Virgin America flew out of. But now, it’s LGA’s Terminal B. There’s still construction going on, and getting a cab to the city is still a hassle, and a necessary one because there’s still no subway link, but once you’re inside, it’s great! Give yourself a little extra time to see the water fountain light show. And having a little downtime in Terminal B is no longer the purgatory it used to be, because there are now places that you actually sit down and eat and grab a beer; no more standing around having to juggle your bag and an Auntie Anne’s pretzel. I rarely have anything good to say about the Port Authority, but they’ve done a good job here.
  • And the TSA, another government organization I don’t often have good things to say about, does a nice job publishing the daily volumes of air passengers passing through security checkpoints. Just scanning it you can see the growth kicking up in the February/March timeframe. Though if you’ve flown anytime over the past couple of months, you don’t need to look at the numbers; you’ve felt it in fuller planes and longer checkpoint lines. The Friday of Memorial Day weekend, the end of May, checkpoint volume was up 599% over the same Friday last year, and then this past Friday, June 11, checkpoint volume broke 2 million for the first time since the March lockdowns. The numbers are still 25-30% below 2019’s, but the gap is closing. 
  • And then the keynote from Apple’s WorldWide Developers Conference gave me something else good to say about the TSA; working with Apple to let you use a digital version of your driver’s license at security checkpoints. I’ve already noticed that, at a few airports, you no longer have to show your boarding pass — they just pop your driver’s license into a scanning machine and you’re on your way. No fumbling to pull up your boarding pass and scanning it. But now, no fumbling for my wallet if I can pull up my license on my phone. Actually, better than my drivers license would be my Global Entry card because it’s Real ID while my Illinois license is not. Could save me an extra trip to the DMV if and when the TSA decides to get serious about Real ID again — which I hope is never. 
  • Continuing on our now 3-episode arc on Uber and Lyft service, the long wait times, the huge price surges. Heading out for my flight down to Miami, the 17-mile trip Monday morning Uber ride to ORD, at $74 with a 2x surge, cost almost as much as the 1,100-mile flight on American down to MIA at $100 one way. There is no rational way to explain this, so I’ll leave it here as a meditation exercise for microeconomic pricing theorists and move on. Except, ‘cause I guess I can’t just can’t leave it here, to note that I had no problem with Uber or Lyft service in Miami. And except for that one joyful morning riding a scooter, the South Florida heat and humidity had me lighting up the Uber app multiple times a day. So I’m guessing those Uber carjackings in Chicago a few months back are having some residual impact on their driver recruitment efforts.
  • Bridge Music — Two Guitars by Admiral Bob (c) copyright 2012 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/admiralbob77/35879 Ft: Haskel

Why Business Travel Will Come Back

  • Last Friday, the first day of Chicago’s full reopening and the same day the TSA’s checkpoint volume broke the 2 million passenger mark for the first time post-lockdown, a business colleague and I met for some happy hour beers and oysters in a bar in Wrigleyville. We were sitting at a second floor table against an open window, looking over at Wrigley Field as fans poured out of the Clark-&-Addison main gate and into nearby bars to celebrate the Cubs’ victory over the St Louis Cardinals in what was the first full-capacity game since September 2019. Mike’s in consulting too; he’d been talking about how he was itching to get back out on the road to see his clients, on how he’s working to convince the firm’s management to lift, or at least bend their travel ban so he can see the clients again — at least the ones who also want to start meeting people face-to-face again. Zoom and Teams calls are OK, they can suffice for some things, but there are so many things you miss when you’re not there in person. 
  • In an outta-left-field sorta way, the masses of Cubs fans blocking traffic on Addison St helped prove Mike’s point. Official attendance was 35,112, not quite a sell-out, but having butts in 84% of the seats for a 1:20p Friday game isn’t bad. But similar to the “why travel to a meeting when you can video conference?” question, why go to a baseball game in person when you can watch it on TV where it’s covered by not just one crappy laptop camera, but 5-8 HD cameras with clean lenses and run by professionals? I know, it’s a stupid strawman question that we all know the answer to — it’s not just the game, it’s the whole experience. And it’s not an either/or — many times watching the game on TV is fine, and more convenient; but sometimes, you gotta get off the couch and go see the game live, in person, with a bunch of friends.
  • A couple of recent interactions(?) over the last couple of weeks drove this home. I’ve had multiple video calls with a programmer over the past month, probably 3-4 hour worth, going through some system re-architecting. After all that, I thought I had it pretty much down. Now the guy has started coming back to the office — he said working from home for 14 months was being under house arrest — so I pulled him into a conference room and started sketching stuff on a whiteboard. We stood there shoulder-to-shoulder and passed the blue marker back and forth, and in 20 minutes realized that there were 3 key facts about the existing systems that never came across in those hours of video calls and that completely changed the new architecture. But they did in that in-person 20 minutes. And afterwards, the guy said to me “Hey, that was fun. Let’s do some more of that” — a reaction I’ve never heard about a video conference… ever. And at the same time, I had the exact opposite experience — trying to explain a concept on a week’s worth of video calls that I know we could’ve handled in an hour if we could’ve been in the same room together, but we can’t because he’s overseas and can’t get through the US travel lockdown. So we trudged through the calls… and the frustration.
  • Which was pretty much the point that Mike was trying to make over honking buses and shouts of “Go Cubs Go”. “Yeah, I can have a meeting on Zoom, but I can’t have the pre-meeting ‘how are things going’ chats as we’re walking into the room, or the post-meeting ‘Can I ask you what you really meant in there’ sidebar, or pick up the non-verbal glances people will shoot at each other. The meeting’s important, but so’s the choreography that surrounds the meeting — maybe even more so — and that’s what I can’t get now. That and I’ve worked with a lot of these clients for 10, 15 years, so they’re friends too. And I miss that too.”
  • Airlines are saying that business travel is still down 70% from pre-lockdown levels, but that almost all of their top corporate accounts are telling them they plan to re-start travel later this year — but first they gotta figure out how to get people out of their sweats and back into the office.
  • Bridge Music — Garden Of The Forking by J.Lang (c) copyright 2009 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/djlang59/22228 Ft: Neurowaxx

Learning the History of Airports

  • Back at the beginning of the year, back in episodes #172 and #173, I talked about a guy who lived on the secure side of ORD from October ‘til January because he was too afraid to fly. In researching this — what turned out to be not unique — situation, I came across an article written by Professor Janet Bednarek, Professor of History at University of Dayton. Her area of focus is on the history of airports in the US, which I thought would be a perfect topic for the TravelCommons podcast. So I sent her a Zoom invite, as one does these days, and had a great conversation about the history of airports.
    • Mark: Janet, the history of airports. How did you get into that? As a professor of history, you think — what am I going to focus on, the American Revolution, the Civil War, airports? Yes, airports! Perfect!
    • Janet: I originally trained as an urban historian focusing on city planning. But my first paid job was as a historian with the United States Air Force. And so I had to pick up aviation history, especially military aviation history. Then in 1992, my husband and I were moving to the Dayton area; my husband was an air force officer. This job came up at the University of Dayton if somebody could teach urban and aviation history. I began to think — where do those two things intersect? They intersect at the airport. And it was clear to me that not a lot of people had written about airports. And so I thought — wide open field, here we go. When they first talked about building airport, the planners talked a lot about how do we integrate them within the city. They were literally talking about the downtowns. And so if you go back to the 1920s, for example, You will see these fantastical schemes for building airports on top of bridges, on top of a ring of skyscrapers. Even in the 1930s, Norman Bel Geddes came up with an idea of an airport that was floating out in New York Harbor on an island.
    • Mark: Boris Johnson was trying to do that for London when he was the mayor there
    • Janet: On one case, you want to be as close in as possible, but there is the noise, there’s the danger. The other side of it is when airports actually started being built in the 1920’s and 1930’s, they’re being built largely by local interests and they’re interested in the cost, and the further you go out from the center, the lower the land costs are, but they would often try to find it on transportation lines that were already there. The Dayton Airport, for example, is not far from an intersection between what was the National Road Route 40 and the Dixie Highway. But the airport is not far from there and businessmen from Dayton knew to get there because there was a trap shooting club that operated literally right at the edge of the airport until a couple of decades ago. So they knew how to get there and where it was.
    • Mark: That’s interesting. I’ve got a gun range on a flight path of stuff coming in. Okay.
    • Janet: Yes. The Atlanta airport and several other places were where racetracks had been. You could drive there because, obviously, we had to drive there to race your cars around. So it was areas where there was already some accessibility but the land was cheap. Atlanta and I think Minneapolis-St Paul airports — there were race tracks there originally.
    • Mark: So if we pivot, what do we think about looking forward out in the future?
    • Janet: In the United States, building new airports is still extraordinarily difficult and finding the places for them would be very very difficult because, well, let’s think about Denver. They went out and they bought 50 square miles out in the middle of nowhere. Noise complaints went up after DIA opened up.
    • Mark: So you’ve got to wonder, I remember taking some of the first flights into DIA and you went over nothing other than a herd of buffalo. So were the buffalo complaining?
    • Janet: Yes, but it was people who had moved out to that area expecting peace and quiet and now airplanes were coming in there. There’s literally nowhere you could build an airport where there aren’t going to be some complaints about it.
    • Mark: Yes, in that way probably explains the multibillion dollar upgrade to LaGuardia and what they’re going to start at O’Hare, and what they did down in Atlanta with the runway extension.
    • Janet: Yes. Right, expanding and improving the airports that we have I think is what’s going to happen into the future. I mean, if you think about it in the United States, we built very few airports since the 1950s. Most commercial airports that exist in the United States were in place in one way or the other either as a private field or military field by World War II
    • Mark: That makes sense
    • Janet: Completely greenfield airports are relatively rare after World War II
    • Mark: I thought that LaGuardia in that new terminal had gotten security right. When you looked at the whole setup, that was really nice.
    • Janet: After 9 /11, airports had to wedge security in there. A lot of what airports have done since then has been trying to redesign themselves so that the security becomes a more convenient and seamless experience because right after 9/11, it was all improvised and it was wherever you could put it. And no one knew how long those security protocols we’re going to last. So who wants to spend millions of dollars redesigning? But now that it’s fairly clear that these security protocols are going to be forever now, within the last five or 10 years, I would say airports have begun to spend the real money to redesign so that the security fits.
    • Mark: It becomes integral as opposed to a bolt-on. And I think people are saying to themselves, look, it’s been 20 years, it’s about time security stops being an afterthought. Let’s face it, It’s an integral part of the experience.
    • Janet: Yes, Let’s start applying some lessons learned here.
    • Mark: Yes, because there are a lot of them. Thanks to Dr Janet Bednarek, Professor of History at the University of Dayton. Janet, thanks very much for taking the time to talk with us on the TravelCommons podcast.
    • Janet: My pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.

Closing

  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #176
  • I hope you all enjoyed the show and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
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