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Not Minnesota Nice: Keeping drivers in the dark about which airlines are at which terminal

With the arrival of Southwest Airlines next March, the Humphrey Terminal will take on a larger presence at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

With the arrival of Southwest Airlines next March, the Humphrey Terminal will take on a larger presence at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Meanwhile, the disappearance of the Northwest Airlines brand will diminish the dominance of the Lindbergh Terminal in the minds of airport customers. MSP, in other words, will become a more genuine two-terminal airport.

But there’s a problem.

The driving public still will have to memorize which airlines are in which terminal. This is the only city I know of where road signs do not name the airlines and, thus, do not direct drivers to their correct terminal. Drivers have to guess. Let’s see, I’m leaving on US Airways. Which terminal is that?

At MSP, signs don’t name the airlines until you’ve driven snug against the buildings themselves. You could easily park your car at Lindbergh before discovering, luggage in hand, that your flight is leaving from Humphrey.

What’s a visitor to do?
The poor out-of-towner is left with a heavier burden. We recently had relatives coming for a visit. We had a nice time. A few days later, they jumped in their rental car to head back to the airport and, sweating bullets to make their plane, were confronted with the ultimate Minnesota mystery. At which terminal had they arrived? Humphrey or Lindbergh? In the joy of arrival they hadn’t noticed. Now they had a split second to choose. Where would American Airlines be more likely to locate? There was no way to know. Chances were 50-50 that Humphrey was the right answer, so that’s the option they took. Wrong. They missed their flight.

The culprit is not only the airport but the Minnesota Department of Transportation. MnDOT strictly controls those big green signs along the freeways, and it has a minimalist philosophy: the fewer words the better. You’ve probably noticed that you get more information when driving in other cities. (In Denver, if you take I-25 South, for example, you’ll be headed toward Colorado Springs; signage helps avert that outcome. Here, you’ll likely be given the road number and that’s about it.

Safety is the reason. The more things for drivers to read on traffic signs, the less attention they’ll pay to driving. MSP Airport, unlike most others, has located its terminals not along an exclusive interior road but directly off major freeways. Most cars rushing past aren’t exiting at the airport terminals. To list all the airlines on those big green signs, well, that’s a lot of reading at high speed.

TMI equals crashes
Kevin Gutknecht, MnDOT’s communications director, explains that signage is a complex issue. Size, color, letter-spacing and so on are all calculated to mesh with the time drivers have to comprehend the message and maneuver their cars. When burdened with too much information, crashes result. That’s what happened when the Dallas-Fort Worth airport overloaded drivers with messages as they approached the terminals. Signage had to be cut back to keep motorists from stopping to read in the middle of traffic. “The roadways surrounding MSP are high-speed, high-volume freeways, so signing on these roadways must be handled with utmost care,” Gutknecht said.

“We get a lot of complaints,” said Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission. “But there’s no easy answer we know of.” 

So, are we locals to be left with memorizing? And are visitors to be left with guessing?

There has to be some reasonable solution short of spending tens of millions of dollars to build exclusive airport lanes along the freeways. I’m confident that some smart MnDOT engineer will come up with a brilliant color-coded answer by March. The beleaguered airline traveler has enough worries. Stranding him at the wrong terminal for no good reason isn’t a Minnesota Nice thing to do.

POST SCRIPT: Drivers, by the way, aren’t the only airport-bound travelers left to face the Lindbergh-Humphrey mystery. Riders on the Hiawatha light rail line are greeted with announcements that the train is arriving at the Lindbergh Terminal and, at the next stop, the Humphrey Terminal. But no airlines are mentioned. Again, it seems like a guessing game.

Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons said that airline terminal information is posted in two places on every rail car, but that the agency only now has begun to consider more detailed verbal announcements.

Clip and save:
Lindbergh Terminal: Air Canada, Alaska, American, Continental, Delta, Frontier, KLM, Messaba, Northwest, United, US Airways.

Humphrey Terminal: Air Tran, Icelandair, Miami Air, Midwest, Southwest (coming in March), Sun Country, Xtra.