Flying Low

The sales manager flew first class, which means that he had gotten off the plane fast, swept through the gate, and reached the baggage claim area within minutes of his flight's arrival at Logan International Airport from Seattle. Now he just needed to grab his suitcase, find his ride outside, and breeze through the new tunnel into downtown. Pretty smooth, right?

“Don't know yet,” says the frequent flyer, who will identify himself only as Steven. Steven has by now been joined by the coach-class lumpenproletariat standing three deep and staring glumly at a motionless baggage carousel. When his suitcase finally arrives, Steven walks outside into a welcome-to-Boston demolition derby of dueling cars, cabs, buses, vans, and pedestrians that's especially bad outside Terminal B, where his is one of several flights that have all landed at once. “White-knuckle flying usually means worrying when you're in the air,” Steven muses, taking in the scene. “At Logan, I get white knuckles after I get off the plane.”

Logan may finally have permission to build its new runway. And years of disruptive construction are near an end, producing a tunnel connection from the Massachusetts Turnpike. But with its persistent delays, cramped and crowded terminals, and baffling access roads, ours remains an airport people try to avoid. Even civic boosters grumble about what they privately dub a third-world airport that's the first impression for millions of arriving flyers.

“There's no question that Logan has a bad reputation,” concedes Craig Coy, who was appointed chief executive of Logan parent Massport in April 2002. “And once a reputation gets started, it's sometimes tough to turn around.” But Coy, whose can-do speaking style reflects a long career in the military, insists the airport's image is improving.

Massport officials cite a July 2003 e-Travel survey of 100 business flyers who rated Logan as the nation's “most-improved” airport. They tend not to mention that 600 business travelers surveyed a month later by Travelocity Business said it's still one of the airports through which they most prefer not to travel.

Without question, Coy inherits Logan's lousy reputation-not to mention Massport's legacy of patronage. But he also is the heir to $4.4 billion worth of improvements to roads and some of the terminals, and decades of political capital that went into this fall's long-awaited approval for the new runway. How Coy uses such bounty will determine whether he is that rare combination of good manager, visionary leader, and adept politician-and whether Logan will ever be a first-class airport.

In fairness, Craig Coy could walk on water to Rowes Wharf and never resolve the problems inherent in Logan's tiny footprint and proximity to residential neighborhoods. Even with the airport's new access roads, for example, people can't find their terminals or parking entrances because of confusing curves and signage. For all it's spent on consultants who specialize in signage, aviation director Thomas Kinton says, Massport is up against the physical reality that Logan's claustrophobic size leaves it too few straight sight lines to post repeating signs, or give drivers time to safely read and respond to them.
Kinton, who promises things will improve by the time ongoing construction is completed next year, says Logan's compactness explains another complaint: long waits for luggage. The problem is more perception than reality, he says. Logan's gates are so close to the baggage claim areas that passengers are waiting there before their suitcases are even off their planes. At larger airports, people walk for 15 minutes just to reach the baggage area; at Logan, they spend that time staring at empty, unmoving carousels.

But even if Kinton is right, and outdated equipment, staffing issues, and other problems only partially contribute to Logan's baggage delays, say aviation experts, the fact that people think it takes forever to be reunited with their bags gets to the problem facing Coy, who says he wants customer service to be a top priority. To that end, Massport has added a “business manager” charged in part with improving customer satisfaction.

In addition to its physical constraints, there are other largely unavoidable realities that make it unlikely Logan will ever be as comparatively pleasant as airports such as Charlotte's or Pittsburgh's, which feature bountiful shopping, restaurants, bars, and other passenger-friendly services. That's because, unlike those airports, Logan is not a hub. Nine out of 10 of its users are there to depart or arrive, not to wait for connecting flights. So it's hard to justify spending money on amenities that would make the mostly tired-looking domestic terminals more pleasant.

What Coy can control is one problem that lies at the root of many of Logan's problems: congestion. And in a speech to business leaders, lobbyists, and others, he indicated an important shift in Massport policy when it comes to attracting-or deterring-traffic at Logan.

Speaking to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Coy hailed Massport's runway victory. He noted JetBlue's decision to start flying here. Then he announced that yet another Logan construction project next spring will add three levels and 2,800 spaces to the airport's central parking garage. To this business crowd, Coy was delivering on his customer service pledge. But to people more savvy about Massachusetts transportation policy and politics, Coy was signaling-intentionally or not-that Logan is back in the expansion business.

Take JetBlue, which would likely have come to Boston back in 2001 had then- Massport CEO Virginia Buckingham not told the low-cost carrier that it would have to use the Worcester airport. Buckingham was following a Massport policy to ease the crowding at Logan by diverting passengers to smaller, regional airports. Now, under Coy, the regionalism strategy is off-and JetBlue is in. By unveiling his intention to add parking, Coy was also reversing years of Massport policy to cut Logan traffic by urging travelers not only to use regional airports, but also to take mass transit to Logan. Now it's essentially luring drivers back. Massport, which gets no direct state funding, desperately depends on parking revenues, but Coy's announcement also reflects a sharply changed legal and political environment.

Massport officials say it's a coincidence that Coy's speech came just a week after a judge cleared the way for the long-delayed new runway. To placate runway foes, Massport had spent years trying to show that it was seeking other ways to reduce delays at Logan. With its runway battle won, Massport can now get back to reclaiming the travelers it was only recently encouraging to go elsewhere.

“The ink isn't even dry on the runway decision and Coy is reversing years of talk about regionalism,” fumes Fred Salvucci, a former state secretary of transportation and Massport board member. “And the parking plan is a big mistake. It's a throwback to the kind of shortsighted policies that led to all of Logan's congestion mess in the first place.”

Massport should instead quickly implement a peak-pricing plan to make it more expensive to land at the most congested periods, Salvucci says, spreading out arrivals and doing far more than building a new runway to reduce flight delays. Faced with a federal mandate, Massport has hired consultants to produce just such a plan. But given the ardent opposition of corporate jet users and other general aviation backers-“they're rich and they're the NRA of the airline industry,” one transportation expert says-it's likely not to be implemented for years, if ever.

Massport officials say they remain fully committed not only to public transportation, but also to customer service. “For visitors, we are their first impression when they arrive and their last impression when they leave,” says Coy. If, a decade from now, Logan is again one big, unfriendly, clogged-up mess, then Coy has made the wrong impression.