Can Terminal 8 Save Our Sanity?

American Airlines' spacious new Terminal 8.Photo: Courtesy of American Airlines

Congratulations, American Airlines. You did it. You built yourself one mother of an airline terminal. My goodness, the place is huge—twice the size of Yankee Stadium. And it’s seriously pimped out: 84 ticketing counters; eight CTX 9000 luggage scanners (billed as the world’s fastest explosives-detection system); ten lanes at security, capable of processing 30 travelers in a single minute; two—two!—Admirals Clubs. According to your own press release, the new Terminal 8 is “one of the premier international arrival and departure facilities in the world.”

So here’s a question: Is it? Have you, American Airlines, managed to redefine the American airport experience, which once upon a time was merely unpleasant but has become existentially nightmarish? Or is Terminal 8 just a bigger, if not in fact better, airport experience? I decided to find out, and all it cost me was $345 and a there-and-back journey to Boston.

Let me say this right off the top: Nice lobby. It is indeed bright and airy. The ceiling curves to a height of 65 feet, and signage is plentiful. (Really like the black unserifed font on yellow background. Very Euro.) And putting the check-in counters in the middle of the lobby and not right at the entrance, so that travelers don’t march smack into a soul-crushing line—good move.

Unfortunately, that didn’t stop me from getting in the wrong line. I saw a counter labeled DOMESTIC and joined the line of people with luggage standing in front of it. Quite frankly, I was excited to see your state-of-the-art check-in desks. But then an American Airlines employee told me I was supposed to be using the automated-check-in area, which happens to be at the other end of the terminal. I don’t understand why I was singled out (Did I look like I could handle a touch-screen?), but the good news is that it took less than a minute. It was a different story at security, where you weren’t moving anywhere close to 30 people per minute (eight, maybe). I will say this: The line of benches you installed after security—the ones where people sit down, put their shoes back on, and see if that gum found in their jacket is still chewable—well, that is a great idea. Those benches, in their own small way, are revolutionizing air travel.

The Samsung mobile-charging stations were a similarly bright move. But did you, by chance, realize the sockets are too loose? My laptop plug—whose prongs, I would like to point out, are just as long and thick as any other man’s—kept falling out. This is a serious problem, because travel these days isn’t so much a journey as it is a battle against dwindling battery reserves.

Craving voltage, I forked over $50 to get into the Admirals Club (the one in Concourse C), where the sockets are both abundant and tight, and the coffee and bagels are free. Like most other frequent-flyer lounges, the place has an undeniable VIP feel, especially when sitting there watching the sun rise. That said, a good portion of the club’s chairs—the orange vinyl ones in particular—are ugly. And I can’t believe you’re charging $10 a day for wireless. Over in Terminal 6, JetBlue hands out free wireless to anyone who wants it. And at Delta’s Crown Room in Terminal 3, they offer free alcoholic drinks, obviating the need for wireless (which is also free) in the first place. What does the Admirals Club offer? A free shower. Excuse me—private spa-like bathrooms, at least one of which featured a toilet with a nonfunctioning auto flush. (Some kind of manual override—a pull cord, say—would have been handy.)

And now a word about design. Terminal 8 is bright and spacious. I’d like to say the place is beautiful, but it suffers from a certain institutional coldness—white with gray accents, a bit of stainless steel. Sounds picky, I know, but there are airports out there—none on this continent, mind you—where travelers wander around in a state of openmouthed awe over how fantastic the place looks. Norway’s Gardermoen airport, like Terminal 8, has a curved roof and glass walls that allow maximal light spillage. Do you know what else Gardermoen has? Wood. Lots of wood, which makes the interior so warm and soothing that you’re not exactly in a hurry to board the high-speed train to Oslo. Even more awesome to behold is Terminal 4 at Madrid’s Barajas airport, what with the crazy M-shaped ceiling and overhead dome skylights.

But after returning from the triumph of banality that is Terminal B at Logan International Airport, I was struck by the following thought: The true test of an airport terminal isn’t the food or the design; it’s how fast you can get out of the damn place. In the case of Terminal 8, the answer is very fast. It took me fifteen minutes to get from the plane to the luggage carousel, and, for the first time in my life, my bag was already there waiting for me. That was the high point of my day.

Can Terminal 8 Save Our Sanity?