As massive new airports open across Asia and the Middle East, U.S. airports are enhancing security checkpoints with technological gadgets to screen passengers and luggage more quickly. All these projects are often touted as "airports of the future," in which air travel will be faster, more efficient, and more enjoyable than ever before.
However, as a scholar of the history of U.S. airports, I'm most interested to see that all these shiny improvements are still struggling to solve the problems that have vexed airport managers and passengers since at least the late 1950s. Even at the dawn of the jet age, airlines had trouble moving people and bags through airports–and they still do. It's unclear that bigger airports serving ever more passengers will have an easier time than their smaller, less crowded predecessors.
When commercial jet airliners came to the U.S. in the late 1950s, they were larger and faster than previous planes, needing longer runways and more space to park and maneuver on the tarmac. They carried more passengers, which meant boarding gates had to be bigger. This led to the now-familiar design called "pier-finger terminals," with a main terminal screening passengers and collecting checked luggage, beyond which lay long stretches of boarding gates, spaced far enough apart for planes to fit side by side. Atlanta, Chicago, and Miami airports were all criticized for making passengers walk nearly half a mile from ticketing to their gates.