This Is What It’s Like When Skateboarders Take Over an Abandoned AirportAll photos by Garrett Martin Travel Features
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was hitting its peak as one of the most popular videogames of its day when the third installment came out in 2001. Among the 13 levels that players could grind and ollie through was an airport, the kind of familiar semi-public space that tempts skaters by being impossibly off-limits. For over 20 years skaters and gamers have dreamed of making that level a reality and turning an airport into a skate park, and earlier this month Red Bull’s Terminal Takeover event made it possible for the second year in a row. Skate teams from around the Southeast recently joined a group of skating influencers at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport to see what kind of tricks they could pull off in an airport that’s no longer in operation but still looks and feels the way it did when its last plane flew out just before the pandemic. That weirdly abandoned space meant this was part Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and part Walking Dead, but also entirely awesome, while also showing how, unlike most cities, New Orleans doesn’t rush into tearing something beautiful down just because it no longer serves its original purpose.
Like everything in New Orleans, the old airport terminal at Louis Armstrong has history. For 60 years it greeted visitors to the Crescent City, whose first and last sights would be the terminal’s distinctive parabola lobby and an almost 10 foot tall statue of Louis Armstrong himself, horn pressed against lips and pointed towards the sky. Since opening in 1959, the terminal has been expanded and updated several times over the decades, hosting such airlines as Delta, American, United, and more, and welcoming hundreds of millions of passengers. It was part of the fabric of New Orleans, in the distinct way that only airports can be. And then, on Nov. 5, 2019, after one last British Airways flight left New Orleans for London, it all shut down, with a brand new airport opening right down the road the next morning.
The Atrium Lounge and Dooky Chase’s airport outpost might’ve closed over two years ago, but you still see their menus and names on the wall when you visit the terminal today. You can still see the signs for Delta across the terminal and throughout the baggage claim, with bag tags and emergency paperwork lingering in the drawers of the check-in desks. That vaulting parabola roof and its elaborate window remain sights to behold, and Louis still plays his trumpet nearby. To its credit New Orleans loves to preserve its architecture, and instead of knocking this terminal down as soon as the new one was ready, they’ve kept it in shape while trying to sell it to a company that would make use of its gorgeous lobby. Amazon was reportedly a suitor before backing out.
Its future is unknown, but the airport still occasionally welcomes guests. You’ve maybe seen it recently in a movie or TV show; it’s often used as a shooting location. Twice now Red Bull and its platoon of skaters took up in the airport over several days, trying out incredible feats of skating while filming video for the Terminal Takeover contest. The footage will make its way to Red Bull’s Terminal Takeover website in the middle of May, where viewers can vote on what team made the best video; the winning city’s skate scene gets a $5000 prize.
I’m a travel writer. I’m in airports all the time. I’ve never had skaters whiz past me in one before, though, or try to skate up the curve of the baggage carousel like it’s the side of an empty swimming pool. Terminal Takeover must be a dream come true for the skaters, but even for somebody like me, who’s petrified of stepping onto a board, it was something of a dreamlike spectacle. It turned the unique but ultimately mundane setting of an airport into an absurd playground, resulting in a surreal and unforgettable experience.
Skaters grinded on the edge of baggage claim conveyor belts and did kickflips over an airport golf cart. A BMX biker slid down the handrail of an escalator, got air off a small ramp on the floor, and then hit a taller ramp nearby where he twirled his bike in the sky like a propeller. Some skaters were allowed to skate out where the airplanes used to taxi, even skating down a derelict skybridge still attached to a gate and onto the tarmac below. One skater pushed three empty newspaper boxes together in hopes of grinding across them; after 20 failed attempts, sometimes losing his board upon hitting the boxes, sometimes nailing the grind but crashing during the dismount, he finally pulled it off, to the excited cheers of the skaters and journalists who watched the whole ordeal.
At the center of it all was that parabola lobby with that oversized Satchmo standing nearby. Overlooking a small skatepark that had been erected in the middle of the room were two tall escalators. They were both covered with a flat surface and turned into two particularly tall, steep downhill ramps. It was the first thing every skater wanted to hit when they walked into the building, even if its height made some of them nervous.
Yazmeen “Yaz” Wilkerson couldn’t wait to try out those escalators. She credited them as the perfect start to a day full of action. “Your heart is racing, your adrenaline is pumping, it sort of warmed me up a bit,” she said, in between runs down an almost empty Delta terminal.
Another skater, Eunice Chang, was initially apprehensive of the escalators, noting that really tall ramps aren’t usually her thing. She was surprised by the actual sensation, though. “It’s a lot more mellow than it looks,” she said. “Going down was the easy part. Coming back up on the other ramp was a lot scarier.” Chris Chann, a skater from Los Angeles, noted that it felt like Disneyland. “It’s like a roller coaster. When you get to the bottom you feel the kick,” he said, immediately after gliding down one of the ramps. “You never get to skate an escalator like that,” he noted.
Those two ramps might have gotten the most attention, but both Chang and Wilkerson called the Delta terminal their favorite of the four spaces they skated in that day. This long, straight hallway was filled with rails and small ramps for the skaters to use, letting them chain together sequences like they were playing Tony Hawk. “The ground is so smooth and it just feels like you’re gliding or like ice-skating,” Chang said. You could tell how much fun everybody was having, and even as an avowed non-skater, that joy was infectious.
Wilkerson succinctly summed up how Terminal Takeover felt for her—and, presumably, the skaters at large—with two words: “Fuckin’ sick.” After a pause she expanded a bit. “This is a thrill,” she said. “Everybody can relate to an airport. It’s sick to see this space being used in a different way. Skateboarding is always about reclaiming public spaces, and when you think about an airport, it’s more like a private building, so just the fact that we can change it with the help of Red Bull is sick.”
The next day I was at the new airport next door, waiting for my flight back home. Without even realizing it I found myself scanning the busy terminal for ersatz ramps or rails that skaters could do tricks off of. Reclaiming an abandoned airport apparently wasn’t enough; now I had thoughts of grinding and kickflipping through a swarm of travelers stuck in my head like a song I just couldn’t shake. I may not skate, but I know what looks cool, and few things I’ve ever seen have looked cooler than a bunch of skaters slicing through an airport that looks like it was still regularly hosting flights. If New Orleans can’t find a buyer for its old airport who will maintain its one-of-a-kind architecture, they could always just turn it into an official skate park.
If you want to see Terminal Takeover for yourself, keep an eye on the Red Bull website for when the videos are uploaded in May.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.