HENDERSON: Airport terminal, one long year later

October 31, 2009

As an all-too-frequent flier, I’ve had a chance to get the full-love experience of the new airport terminal numerous times in its first year. The summary is that it’s both tolerable, and I have no choice. The management seems to know this.

I can park in what seems like Terre Haute, also known as the Economy Lot. The price was an intolerable $7 per day, now $9 per day. The nice competition that was a hallmark of the old terminal is gone. No concierge services can be found in a convenient nearby competitive lot. This is somewhat assuaged by the fact that when my car battery died while I was out West, a subsequent jump-start was easy to find from lot personnel—and I was on my way quickly.

There are kudos to the Transportation Security Administration for frightfully fast (yet thorough) security clearances, especially compared with those at other small airports, like San Diego and San Jose, Calif. In those airports, the lines can be measured in terms of furlongs per fortnight. We’re lucky here. If the design of the old terminal was bad in this regard, it’s been improved.

There’s free IndyAirport WiFi—and it works nicely. I like the benches where I can plug in my notebook, charge my phone, and log on to various sites. The downside is that the WiFi has no security whatsoever, and most people don’t realize just how vulnerable their privacy is on such hot spots.

But the midfield terminal is losing money. Quelle surprise, as the French might say. Travel is down. Flights (landings make up a large fraction of the airport’s revenue) are often packed like cattle cars and the airlines have no choice. The revenue cut from vendors inside and outside the security perimeter is at the breaking point. A simple bagel with shmear from Shapiro’s is nearly as expensive as a McDonald’s Big Meal four miles away.

If the economy doesn’t improve, something else is going to happen that’s a potential convenience of design of the midfield terminal: usage tollgates. In the terminal, as in many of today’s modern hotels, you pay for everything.

The economic troubles have rattled the cage at the Indianapolis Airport Authority. Randall Tobias, president of the IAA board, resigned in April as, ostensibly, the house he’s building in Carmel prevents him from serving on the IAA board. This seems strange, given that one has to drive through Hendricks County to get to the terminal. Board member Mike Wells left in 2008. Then John Kish, executive director, left for projects in Evansville. The IAA hired John D. Clark III, the controversial head of Jacksonville, Fla.’s airport, as his replacement.

Now the grapevine says parking, expensive as it is, may be outsourced. Perhaps the move is anti-union, or a strange way to squeeze a few pennies. My preference would be a nice and convenient $6/day spot somewhere off the Ameriplex Parkway or near State Road 67. It would have to be nearly as fast to get to the terminal as the current fleet of tortoise-like buses that service the huge Economy Lot.

I was always suspicious of this “investment,” now at more than $2 billion, in the first place. Yes, the terminal is pretty, and it no longer leaks rain. Yes, the security lines are fast. No, the prices for retail goods and food aren’t delightful—just under the pain point. No, there is no competition for parking, and it’s getting pricier. And, yes, management will have a legacy of huge expenses to deal with.

I’m reminded of a cartoon in which a doctor is on the phone talking to his wife, while a patient sits on the examination table listening in. The caption says something like, “OK, dear. I know tuition is expensive, but we’ll find the money somewhere.” The poor fellow on the table is wondering what he just came down with. So am I.•


Henderson is managing director of ExtremeLabs Inc., a Bloomington computer analysis firm.


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