The romance of flight is often associated with the dramatic landscape of tarmac and runways, where planes prepare for take-off. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman say their last words to each other in a weird foggy glow on the taxiway in the closing minutes of Casablanca. A Lockheed 12 aircraft looms behind them, promising adventure. This is a threshold of escape -- a point of departure for the characters, an apt space of closure for the film. Woody Allen paid homage to this scene -- if also making it the subject of postmodern pastiche -- in his 1972 film Play It Again, Sam, recast with Diane Keaton and Woody Allen, and a modern San Francisco International Airport standing in for the exotic airfield of Casablanca.
When I began working for United Airlines at the airport outside of Bozeman, Montana (BZN) in the spring of 2001, the tarmac pulsed vividly with romance prior to boarding. After passengers gave their boarding passes to agents like me, they would trundle down two flights of stairs that then emptied onto the windswept asphalt, our Canadair Regional Jet waiting for them fifty feet away, gleaming in the sunlight. Ramp workers, festooned in fluorescent vests, were positioned on the tarmac to guide the passengers toward the aircraft’s door-stairs, and to prohibit errant passengers from suddenly sprinting across the open expanse. There was something about the sight of passengers staggering out to the plane, in all types of weather and against the steady whine of the jet’s auxiliary power unit, which brought a spirit of adventure to this utterly routine practice.
But perhaps there is another aspect of the glamour of air travel, one that coincides with “the disappearance of the staircase in favor of safer, more weatherproof indoor jet bridges.” BZN is a small regional airport, and at that time Northwest and Delta had the only two jet bridges, installed for the larger Airbuses and 737s that flew to Minneapolis and Salt Lake City. Our smaller jets, bound for Denver, could be efficiently accessed and serviced on the apron in what is called a “hardstand.” (Horizon Airlines was in the same boat as us, with their small Dash-8 regional planes that hopped over the Cascades to and from Seattle several times a day.)
During the second year of my tenure at the airport, construction had begun on a new jet bridge for our United flights. A laconic French-Canadian crew set up shop on the tarmac and started to work on this strange new growth, a long metal tentacle dangling off the old familiar terminal corner. When the jet bridge was complete, I learned how to maneuver it on its jerky pivoted arc, how to extend and retract the tunnel, and how to project the accordioned flexion of the weather canopy over the top of the aircraft. There was a shrill klaxon that went off intermittently whenever the jet bridge’s main power was turned on; this caused an eerie ambience of emergency to hover around the tarmac, even when nothing was wrong. I learned about the auto-leveler, that little rubber-edged disc that hangs over the edge of the jet bridge and touches the plane: as the plane fills with passengers and luggage, and so gets heavier, the disc turns ever so gradually, keeping the jet bridge level with the plane.
Because our planes were regional jets, we actually had to use a small metal bridge designed to fill the gap between the jet bridge and the small plane -- so, a miniature jet bridge that extended the jet bridge. This required an extra stage of training that was quite nerve-wracking, for the heavy connector was cumbersome and sharp-edged, and could easily damage the fuselage if jostled or hastily set up.
Then there was the new mayhem of the last-second gate-checked carry-on bags, an everyday micro-drama that seasoned travelers know so well. A small elevator with a two-shelf cart waited in the jet bridge, for those bags that would not fit in the undersize overhead bins on the scaled down aircraft. Passengers deposited these bags (often uncertainly) on the cart on their way down the jet bridge; it would then be lowered to the tarmac after the last passengers boarded. As ramp workers we perpetually had our pockets full of those neon tags that say “Gate Check” or some such phrase, which we attached at the last second to people’s roller bags and many-strapped backpacks, signaling to our compatriots in Denver to yank these bags off first and hustle them up to the jet bridge as the passengers deplaned. (Larger airports attach plastic chutes to their jet bridges, down which slide strollers, children’s car seats, and other gate-checked things to the baggage handlers below.)
I can still conjure the clanging vibrations of the metal stairs that lead down from the jet bridge to the tarmac, the empty thud of its floor as I sprinted down from the boarding area to check with the flight crew to see if they were ready for their passengers. I recall the lilt of the carry-on cart and the awkward angle of pull required so that it wouldn’t clip my ankles or spin out of control near the plane. The jet bridge is rife with so many low-tech moments -- when all the elaborate communication systems must be assisted by face-to-face affirmation, when the precision of jet flight is aided by wobbly plastic wheels, simple inclines, and human muscle power.
Reminiscing, I recently looked down on the Bozeman airport from the satellite view on Google Maps. I noticed that the terminal now has several more jet bridges hanging off of it. Free-range tarmac boarding and deplaning looks to have become a thing of the past at this airport, another myth of the Wild West rendered obsolete.
It’s ironic that Woody Allen used SFO to echo the famous tarmac scene from Casablanca, since by 1972 airports were well into the jet age, with bridges outmoding tarmac boarding. In fact, SFO was the first airport in the country to install jet bridges, in 1959. On the other hand, plenty of airports still board their aircraft in the original crude way, passengers schlepping across the blasted asphalt on the way to their planes. These two forms of boarding co-exist, but tarmac boarding has become but a signal of regional esotericism or infrastructural destitution, rather than a necessary and seductive encounter with the hot, loud realities of air travel.
It may sound like a minor matter among the more pressing concerns of safety and security, new aircraft systems, and airline mergers over the past fifty years. Running to catch a connection, no one laments finding a jet bridge upon arriving. Today, that familiarity and expectation has made the jet bridge disappear into the background, an unconsidered if vaguely necessary space. But like the smartphone touchscreens its passengers fondle while queued up inside it, the jet bridge is hardly a transparent interface. It shapes our experiences of flight.