Burbank’s Throwback Airport

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One of the odd things about living in Los Angeles County is that I have options on where to fly out of for a trip.  Like … realistic options.  When I lived in Wichita I pretended I had options, because I was willing to drive 3 hours to Kansas City, Tulsa, or Oklahoma City in order to save a couple hundred bucks.  Yet nothing brightens a day like getting to an airport at the crack of stupid to get a connection to a place that you know you still have hundreds of miles to drive home.  Here in LA County, there are three commercial airports – and two more in Orange County (I think … I mean, Long Beach is on one side of the border or the other).   Chances are, I am going to fly out of the two closest to me — Los Angeles International (LAX) or Burbank.   LAX is the choice I take whenever I am flying to somewhere on the East Coast, or somewhere remote.  LAX gets you direct to most places across the country, or at most one connection away.  It’s also a pain in the ass to get to – requiring me to go through Downtown LA, and depending on the time of the day could turn a 40-mile drive into a 3-hour tour — and I am back to dreams of Tulsa.  Yet, it can be much better than my options out of Burbank — but then again, Burbank is … well … kind of awesome.

Burbank Airport even sounds cool on paper.  It’s officially known as Bob Hope Burbank Hollywood Airport.  I mean, it just sounds glitzy, doesn’t it?  Okay, it isn’t all that glitzy it’s actually pretty run down, but these days what airport isn’t.  While mostly within Burbank City Limits, it extends into a neighborhood of Los Angles.  Also, if it isn’t already city hopping with Burbank and Hollywood, it’s owned by the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority.

Burbank always had a history of being the glamorous airport in the area.  Unlike LAX, Burbank’s smaller size made it easier access for smaller planes (though a Van Nuys Airport has taken up much of that lately).  The terminal followed a Spanish styling, complete with multi-floor restaurants that supported a tower right in the center of the building.  Burbank & Glendale supported much of the entertainment industry, so like my complaints getting to LAX, Burbank Airport was just easier for those types.  Burbank even had the edge of mystery tied to Lockheed’s presence.  For most of the cold war, Burbank Airport was also home to Lockheed’s Skunkworks, and where such iconic dark aircraft like the SR-71 Blackbird and the U-2 spy aircraft were designed and built.  Lockheed even had to sue the city to get approval to fly those planes out in the darkness of night.

Burbank, as it stands now, is an airport that splits itself hard between the past and the future.  It is antiquated.  Its security area is shoved in a small area that happens to be the only spot between the gates and outside without doors that need to be secured.  Parts of it are even so small that us TSA Pre-Check people have to line up with the ‘normals’.  They’ve shut down gates and seating areas for such luxuries as a place to buy food or a place to go to the bathroom.  They’ve had to build parking structures because these days people drive to the airport … and not just take a ride-share horse-drawn carriage.

The thing is, there are a lot of things I like about Burbank.  Most of the things I like allow me to break my hard-and-fast air travel rules.  The big one is my time of arrival.  I mostly fly American Airlines, and I know that they won’t take a checked bag more than 4 hours prior to departure because … I am normally arriving 4 hours before departure.  I like getting to the airport early because I know a lot can go wrong and am fearless about sitting at a gate.  With Burbank, I’ll leave the house an hour before boarding, knowing I can get to make the thirty-minute drive, find parking, get through security, and still have time to get a bloody mary.  I nearly always check my bags, I rarely do at Burbank.  Thing is, Burbank is small and easy to get through.

On top of that, I am tending to go somewhere easy to get to.  Many times, I am using Burbank to get to the Bay Area (San Jose, San Francisco, Oakland, etc).  Southwest flies so many flights back and forth from there (usually an hour flight for all of them) that I can actually do a day trip.  That’s where I literally walk up, with my work bag, get on a plane, fly, do my job, fly back, and get home – without the pup even missing a single bathroom break.  A bigger or more complex airport would make that crazy impossible.

The intangibles pull me in too.  Burbank was grandfathered into breaking some FAA rules.  The biggest one is the runway incursion.   The terminal is practically right on top of the runway.  It’s so close that planes land, slam on the breaks, and turn directly into the gate without any time to taxi.  Poor flight attendants have to rush through their ‘welcome to Burbank’ speech before the doors open.  Also, all the gates are at tarmac level where you walk outside to get to the plane — Southwest even loads from the front and back of the plane.  So you are wandering out there, the Verdugo Mountains looking to the East, and you are taking in this beauty of an aircraft that it seems you never get to see anywhere else.

Plus, it just feels nostalgic.  Yes, the place looks like it was upgraded with paint and drywall so long ago that it all looks like it needs new paint and drywall, but it still drips of the classic era of flight.  You could picture the people who put on suits and dresses as if they are going to a fancy night out only to climb on an oil-soaked prop plane.  You can picture the uniformly dressed stewardesses (not flight attendants, stewardesses) walking in step with massive smiles soaking in the attention.  Burbank is a throwback to days when flying meant something, not just going to work somewhere else.

Soon, though, Burbank will change.  In no small part to those FAA rules that grandfathering won’t take you far enough, a new terminal is in the plans.  Money has been set aside, designs are presented to the FAA, and posters are starting to go up to get support.  As early as 2021, a new terminal will start going up, and things will become different.

In the meantime, we still have the past to look at.

2 thoughts on “Burbank’s Throwback Airport

  1. Greg Blum

    Mitch:
    What is your take on the “Martian” movie? I did not read the book, but I enjoyed the movie.

    Is it plausible? When the supply ship bypassed testing and exploded on take-off, I started feeling like, “Heads will roll, and the Director of NASA (Jeff Daniels) would be head number one.”

    Still, I was on board until they turned the mother ship around and headed back to Mars. Great drama, but unlikely.

    As you might have guessed, I’ve been back-reading your blog posts. I was born in Nov. 1960, when JFK was elected president so my entire life has spanned the Space Age. I was not yet 2 years old when JFK made his “we go to the moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hard” speech. My love of space exploration was given a jolt when, during a family vacation to Chicago in 1969, we got to see a ticker-tape parade for the Apollo 11 astronauts on Michigan Ave. I found a flyer on the ground that would allow me to order the Apollo 11 Mission patch, which I framed an hung on my bedroom wall.

    • First of all … welcome to the Bear Feed. Hope you can survive it.
      Regarding the Martian – I saw the movie and read the book; both came out before I started at JPL, but it was right around the same time. So, keep in mind that I am no expert in the field, and while I am around and talk to a lot of smart people – really you are getting a fanboy’s response more than anything.
      The least plausible thing about the movie to me was that interior and exterior shots of JPL. Owned by CalTech and funded by NASA – there is no way any JPL office will look half as nice as they showed in the movie. I mean … low-level scientists having an office (let alone a desk made sometime after the Apollo era)? Someone said when they were showing it on-lab that they knew it was movie magic when they showed open parking spots in the middle of the day.
      As science goes, I think it’s really feasible. We have a rover heading to Mars next year that will have an instrument that will attempt to make fuel and breathable oxygen from the Mars atmosphere, like what was needed in the movie. There’s always talk around here about how sending one manned mission up there will take multiple missions to send structure, supplies, and return vehicles. Plus they always push that ‘testing happens for a reason’, to make sure things work a million miles away when you can’t just pull over and fix a problem. I think it was a pretty accurate depiction of what that situation would be like.
      As far as the political side, I think the author wanted to avoid touching that at all costs. The one clue to me that suggests why heads wouldn’t have rolled was how the Jeff Daniels character dealt with the Sean Bean character after the Ares was re-routed back to Mars. The guy basically said “I need you to help this mission be successful, after that you’re out the door.” My guess was that it was the same message. Maybe not likely in our political world of blame – but in times of great stress, you want the best experts on the problem, even if they were the cause.

      Just my 2 cents.

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