Want to be a hero this holiday season? Get yourself home from the airport.
The airport pickup, a sweet tradition we all remember from “Die Hard 2,” has become a heavy obligation in an era of travel and traffic stress. Your parents say they don’t mind coming to get you, but they planned the Thanksgiving menu, hauled out the folding chairs, peeled potatoes and procured the pumpkin pie. They have to brave the airport’s busiest days, too?
For the traveler, an airport pickup can feel like magic. You stroll off the plane, roller bag whizzing along behind you, and there Mom or Dad await curbside to whisk you home.
Now consider what they went through to get there. There’s a slog through traffic snarls on perpetually-under-construction roadways. The death-defying merges to enter the airport. A purgatorial wait in the cellphone lot until they get confirmation that your flight landed—oh, hold on, the plane is circling again, 15 more minutes. Now the gate is blocked, 15 more…did anyone bring a granola bar?
And then you’re finally off the plane and it’s time to pull to the curb. No sooner does Mom brake than—SCREECH!—the airport traffic warden is whistling at her to keep on moving or risk a ticket.
One big knot
Our terminals and roadways are teeming. Passenger loads at many North American airports are at or beyond 2019 levels. Meanwhile, competition for curb space outside arrivals and departures has grown intense with Uber and Lyft vying for space with taxis and limos—not to mention your family’s Ford.
Compounding the misery are airport construction projects that can mess with those trying to reach airports in San Diego, Salt Lake City and San Francisco, among others.
At New York’s John F. Kennedy International, Terminal 1 is under construction, as are Terminals 4 and 6, and some airport roadways. Not to mention the Van Wyck Expressway, one of the main arteries for getting to JFK.
“You shouldn’t even think of driving there,” says Sam Schwartz, a consultant and former New York City traffic commissioner better known as Gridlock Sam.
The airport really doesn’t want cars there either, as evidenced by rising parking costs and ever-stricter crackdowns on curbside space hogs.
“I wouldn’t pick up anybody,” Schwartz says. He’d rather pay for someone’s airport ride. (The former taxi driver votes for a yellow cab.) “My daughter knows not to even approach me.”
Traffic in the U.S. is up, with more of us driving to work, running errands and summoning delivery vans to our homes.
“We know congestion levels have only gotten worse and worse throughout the country,” says Scott Monroe, a senior director in Fitch Ratings’s Global Infrastructure Group, who adds that he hopes his in-laws read this article.
Some airports are trying to fix road congestion, Monroe’s colleague Seth Lehman tells me while in the car en route to Newark’s airport. Others, like Dallas Fort Worth International, cover so much square mileage that there’s plenty of room on the road. But late-arriving flights mean your meeter-greeters, as airport hands dub them, could drive in aimless loops for ages as your plane circles overhead.
Among those on the pro-pickup side is my colleague, Carry On columnist Dawn Gilbertson, and little wonder why: Her home airport is Phoenix’s Sky Harbor, ranked No. 1 in the country. (Plus she’s a much better mother, daughter and friend than me.)
A pickup is clearly the right thing to do when you have elderly relatives who may struggle with baggage or lack the smartphone skills to summon an Uber. But if you can order a burrito from your phone, you can hail a ride-share car.
Real-life movie scenes
“What about romance?” you ask. Toronto’s Pearson International Airport recently opened a flower shop in its international arrival hall, where the airport’s chief executive, Deborah Flint, says she likes to observe happy reunions.
“The airport is that magical place,” she says.
But few things tamp the flames of passion more than sitting bumper-to-bumper on the 405, trying to get onto Century Boulevard and into LAX.
Giving an airport ride is a classic early-stage romance move and a setup for eventual disappointment, as Billy Crystal’s Harry asserts to Meg Ryan’s Sally in “When Harry Met Sally…”: “Eventually things move on and you don’t take someone to the airport, and I never wanted anyone to say to me, ‘How come you never take me to the airport anymore?’”
Yes, you deserve someone who picks you up from the airport, as United Airlines posted online recently. But your someones deserve even more.
Seize your power and let them off the hook, this year and every year. Set a new expectation: a cold drink waiting for you when the cab drops you at home.
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Write to Nikki Waller at Nikki.Waller@wsj.com
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