Airport Passage Evokes Space Travel

Feb 11, 2016

The exit from the Kalamazoo-Battle Creek International Airport's arrivals terminal, from the non-secure side
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

You might have already heard the “Why’s That?” question for February. WMUK Underwriting Manager Anders Dahlberg asked it in a promo for “Why’s That?” last summer.

"Why is it that in order to leave the Kalamazoo-Battle Creek International Airport you have to go through that weird airlock?"

After that promo aired, some of you got in touch to say that you knew what Anders was talking about and wanted to hear an answer.

Anders says he’s wondered about the passageway out of the arrivals terminal since the airport finished renovations in 2011. Returning from a trip, he and his fellow passengers made their way to the exit.

“And everyone from the flight sort of looked at each other and wrinkled their faces in wonderment and all sort of asked the same question: What is this?” he says.

They stood before a row of spotless glass doors. Step close, and they flip open. There’s a short passageway with closed doors at the other end.

“It’s just like what one would imagine an airlock is on the space shuttle or something where you wait for the doors to open and then go in, they close behind you and then the ones in front of you open up,” he says.

Anders says he’s never encountered doors like that at any other airport. What are these ones doing here? To find out, I got in touch with David Reid. He’s worked at the airport since the mid-1990s and was appointed director in 2014. Reid says the airport has fielded lots of calls about them since their 2011 debut.

“It was a real education process at the beginning, it’s not intuitive, and so we had a lot of folks that backed away from door, not quite sure what it did,” he says.

It’s no wonder. Reid says Kalamazoo was the first airport in the country to install these doors.

“We actually manned the door for a couple weeks – a couple months – to kind of help with that education process,” he says.

Reid calls them FlipFlow doors – that’s the brand name. They’re made by a company called Record. Reid says he’s okay with “airlock” as a nickname.

Reid says like any airport, Kalamazoo has to control who gets into the terminal – not just through the entrance but through the exit.

In big airports, Reid says, it’s common for a staff person to watch the exit all the time. But he says that gets expensive.

“If you go to a door such as what we have, it’s fully automated, it detects not only objects left behind but wrong way movement. It just replaces having to have a person sitting here and that cost so it’s far more efficient,” he says.

Reid and I go to the arrival side to give the doors a try. They open when we step close and shut if we step back. Once we walk through them they close for good.

Inside the passage it’s quiet and surprisingly bright for an enclosed space inside a building. The glass is immaculate, as though no one else has come through. Reid says the airport staff cleans it more than once a day.

American Airlines pilot Jeff Fell came through the doors after a mid-week, mid-afternoon flight. Fell says he flies in and out of Kalamazoo a lot. He knows the flip-flow routine. But he says he’s seen the doors give people pause.

“Everybody thinks it’s one person at a time, but you can put two or three so that’s a little confusing,” he says.

But Fell says it’s also fun.

“They feel it’s a little Star Trek-ish too, you know, like a 'Beam me up, Scotty' type thing. Like I’m going into this little airlock,” he says.

WMUK’s Anders Dahlberg, who asked our question, says he sees the doors serving a role besides security. And that’s as an icebreaker. Strangers who have traveled for hours in silence will ask each other about the airlock.

The way air travel normally goes, Anders says, “You go in, you get on your plane, you come off and out you go through a very similar experience, and that this is different is what makes it interesting.”

Tell “Why’s That?” what in the region has caught your attention.