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Goodbye L.C. Smith Terminal

Aviator C

(Thanks to Rob Hahn for the photos)


On Wednesday, Septemeber 17, you will be reading a post from Rob Hahn about Southwest moving our operation into the brand new North Terminal at Detroit Metro (DTW) that day.  The new building is state of the art, and I know our Customers and Employees will LUV the new surroundings.  Having said that, I am probably one of the few people who are going to miss the old L.C. Smith Terminal.  So, while everyone is gushing about the new facility (and rightly so!), I am going to say a few nice words about the old structure.

To me, airport terminals should have a certain “look” that began with Le Bourget in Paris (now the Musée de l'Air et de l'Espace).  The look is defined by a multi-story building on top of linear public areas.  This design was especially refined in the terminals of the 1950s.  Some of the best examples are Dallas Love Field, the old Atlanta terminal, Paris Orly Sud, Portland Oregon (the current building sits around the original one), San Francisco’s Terminal Two (formerly the Central Terminal), Denver Stapleton, and the L.C. Smith Building at Detroit (even more now come to mind).  I have been fortunate enough to work in all of those 1950s gems, except for Stapleton and San Francisco (but I did fly out of all.)  When these facilities were built in the late 1950s, the 707 and DC-8 were just around the corner, and business travel was leaving the Pullman cars for DC-7s and the later jets.  It doesn’t take much imagination to imagine these buildings as “modernized” versions of big city railway stations, and the amenities they offered were very similar with large sit-down restaurants, barber shops, shoe shines, and common waiting areas.

But why is the L.C. Smith Terminal special to me?  As some of you longtime readers know, I began my airline career with Delta at the DFW Airport.  At the time, all new Delta employees were hired as temporary employees (with no benefits, whatsoever) in Cabin Service, which both provisioned aircraft and cleaned the aircraft.  To get to the ramp, ticket counter, or cargo, you first had to be promoted to a permanent Cabin Service Agent, and then later, you would have to be promoted out of Cabin Service to the higher paying ramp or counter.  In a station like DFW, that could take five or six years.  I was young, single, and impatient, and after three months transferred to DTW Air Cargo to do an “end run around the system” because cold weather stations always had openings on the ramp, counter, or cargo.  The L.C. Smith ramp was the first airport ramp area where I could move about independently, as opposed to being stuck on a Cabin Service lift truck.  For an airplane geek like me, DTW was a very interesting place in 1976.  The ramp was full of North Central (which later became Republic before merging with Northwest) Convair 580s, Allegheny (now US Airways) BAC-111s, British Airways VC-10s (not DC-10s but the British VC-10), 707s belonging to Pan Am and American, and DC-8s of United and Delta.  I don’t want to bore you with my entire career itinerary, but I moved away from DTW by Thanksgiving

In later years, my wife, who is from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and I would sometime fly into DTW and then drive to Fort Wayne.  After Delta bought PanAm’s European routes in 1991, it operated PanAm’s former nonstop A-310 flight from DTW to London Gatwick, and that was a great alternative to Atlanta and Cincinnati for nonreving to the UK.  In fact, we had four or five hours to kill before our London flight left, and I had an epiphany inside the L.C. Smith Terminal.  Then and there, I decided I wanted to work for Southwest at some point.  We were sitting in one of the waiting areas on the mezzanine level overlooking the ticket counters in the main lobby.  We had a panorama of most of the other airlines, but right below us was the Southwest counter. 

Of all the counters in that building, the Southwest counter was the only one where it looked like people were enjoying their work, and I was so impressed that I began thinking about SWA.

So what will I miss about the old building?  One thing is the baggage claim area, especially the part that Delta occupied. 

Parts of it still look like it did on the day the building opened.  The lighting and ticket counter areas (except for the back walls) look like a page out of 1957.  (In later years, Southwest and other carriers had to build ticket counters in the middle of the lobby.)  The old restaurant (I think it was run either by Dobb’s House or Sky Chefs) was down a hallway behind the ticket counters, and it offered great views of the ramp.  The mezzanine where Southwest “came to me” offered a quiet respite from the madhouse below.  I’ll even miss the smell of the building.  There is a certain smell that says “1950s airport," and L.C. Smith has it.  In fact there are a couple of parts of the original, unremodeled North Concourse at Love Field that have what I call the “1950s Musk.”  The funny thing is that these buildings smelled that way when they were new, and that’s why the aroma is so powerful to me.

As I was writing this, the Detroit News had a story about movie companies wanting to use the L.C. Smith Terminal, and I hope they are right.  (Billy Crystal used Detroit’s old Tiger Stadium to represent the 1961 version of Yankee Stadium in *61.)  The new North Terminal will be a showcase, full of great amenities, and we are proud to be a tenant.  But, the first time I arrive there, it would really be nice to look out and see activity (besides wrecking balls) over at Smith.