Have you ever flown a low-cost airline out of a major airport and had to board by bus, even though dozens of gates were clearly unoccupied, their jet bridges hanging unused? That’s likely because airline management didn’t want to pay up for the proper gates. As fun as the airport tarmac bus tour can be for aviation geeks, it’s usually a hassle. And the experience puts the utter ease of boarding by jet bridge into stark relief.
Most travelers rarely even notice the jet bridge until a bus takes its place. Or perhaps when they get stuck in one behind a huge queue of people because the gate agent started boarding too early. The jet bridge is a fairly mundane piece of technology but it’s also exceptionally convenient. At least when you don’t find yourself stuck in one. It shelters us from the elements and keeps us from having to walk up any stairs. The ultimate in modern convenience, really.
A brief history of the jet bridge
Though there were many predecessors to the modern jet bridge in the years prior, United Airlines may have had the first version that really worked like a proper jet bridge when they installed an “Aero-Gangplank” at Chicago O’Hare (ORD) in 1958. Credit for the original concept goes to an MIT graduate and aeronautical engineer by the name of Frank Der Yuen. Lockheed Martin, which built the Aero-Gangplank and various successors, licensed his concept in order to bring the jet bridge to life.
However the title for implementing the first working model that current jet bridges are based on probably goes to American Airlines. It unveiled a functioning jet bridge system in 1959 at San Francisco (SFO). Initially there were two different jet bridges, one for the forward door and one for the rear. However they quickly realized it wasn’t worth the expense of having the rear bridge so boarding from the forward left-hand side door became standard operation from then on. Having planes park nose-in at the gate was a critical aspect of the design that stuck, because it saved space.
Little change to the design
These early designs shaped the look of airports the world over, and these days the jet bridge hasn’t fundamentally changed all that much. They are simpler to operate and line up with the aircraft door, no doubt. And some of the newest versions even have glass walls – a clear upgrade over the light-tight gangways of old. But that late 50s design seems to have been just about the perfect solution because the design has only advanced incrementally since.
For further reading, this article contains an exhaustive history of the various prototypes and iterations of passenger boarding structures that eventually led to the modern jet bridge.
A last word
To be clear, there is no aviation experience quite like walking across a wide open tarmac toward your waiting plane, the wind whipping past you, a sense of impending adventure palpable. Think “Casablanca” and the old glory days of flight. This piece from some years back in The Atlantic captures that (and much more about the jet bridge) rather beautifully.
Before we board our flights, the jet bridge is the last place on earth we touch. It is there and gone, and yet remains, awaiting the next flight. When we touch down again, in a familiar or new place, the jet bridge is the first thing we meet. While we may never linger for too long within jet bridges themselves, they are nevertheless things to linger on, to consider the ways that they exist, innocuous moveable connectors with lives of their own.Christopher Schaberg in The Atlantic
These days the walk across the tarmac to the plane is usually limited to very small airports. And for most people that probably works just fine. Especially if the weather isn’t great.