As Tolstoy might have observed, modern airports are all alike, but legacy airports have their own legacies to overcome.
London Heathrow's troubles arguably stem from being in the wrong place. This sleepy airfield on the edge of London was earmarked for the capital's new airport as the Second World War ended.
But the UK blew the chance to prepare for a future 70 million-passenger mega-hub when a last minute change of heart saw plans to demolish three villages for its construction reduced to just one. It now finds itself wedged into a crowded residential zone west of London, over which arriving and departing aircraft must fly.
Given the centralisation of British governance, airport expansion has been a massively sensitive matter of national politics for a generation. The debate may finally have moved beyond the "third runway", seen as better than nothing but ultimately inadequate.
Other hubs are being proposed, including on a man-made island in the Thames estuary to the east of the city, but all such ideas look very expensive, and are invariably countered by the hard-to-dispute notion that people do not want to go to anywhere other than Heathrow. Wise people are not holding their breath.
At New York's La Guardia airport the problem is rubbish, which is a big deal: hard experience has taught New York to take the problem seriously. The city wants to build a rubbish-transfer centre near the easternmost runway but, unsurprisingly, many people near the airport do not want such a facility. Hundreds of people have signed petitions against the scheme, arguing that garbage will attract birds, which endanger aircraft and, hence, human life. No less illustrious an aviator than Capt Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, hero of the 2009 US Airways Flight 1549 that ditched in the Hudson River, has chimed in, calling the scheme "really a terrible idea".
Los Angeles International Airport- LAX - faces its own set of challenges rooted in its history, urban environment and politics. But while London dithers and New York fights over trash, LA is moving forward with what looks set to be at least a partial solution to some of its challenges.
The shortcomings of LAX are well known to frequent travellers. The airport dates to the 1920s and was upgraded piecemeal to jet-age standards during the 1960s and 1970s. With the 1984 Olympic Games approaching it was obvious that LAX was not up to the task of welcoming the world. A major update to the terminals and road connections followed and resulted in a facility that was good - if not excellent - for its time.
Unfortunately, as Celine Cordero, head of air services marketing for the City of Los Angeles's Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) unit, which owns LAX, says, with tight budgets and local politics nothing of substance has been done since the Tom Bradley International Terminal opened in 1984.
The result is a challenging experience on the ground for arriving and departing passengers: often-chaotic check-in, very long queues at passport control, and overcrowded baggage claim and customs areas in too-small terminals that show their age. From an operational standpoint, too few gates can mean complicated ground handling and secondary moves to remote parking when departure schedules do not call for a quick turnaround.
But what has finally driven LAWA and the city to action is the arrival of the Airbus A380 and, imminently, other so-called Group 6 aircraft, including the Boeing 747-8 and the biggest 777s. LAWA's response has been what it claims to be the biggest construction project in Los Angeles: a $4.1 billion modernisation scheme that will add 18 new gates - including nine dedicated to Group 6 aircraft.
When the Bradley West extension to the Tom Bradley International Terminal is finally completed, new duty-free shopping and concessions are promised to give a "taste and feel of Los Angeles", according to Cordero. Passengers familiar with the terminal will be thinking "not a moment too soon", given the grim selection of fast food outlets that passes for catering at present.
But the real issue is airside. Qantas opened LAX's A380 era in October 2008 with flights from Melbourne and Sydney, and Singapore Airlines, Air France and Korean Air have followed. But they operate from just four gates: two attached to the main Tom Bradley International Terminal complex and two remote.
Operationally, that means A380s cannot spend too long at the gate, which LAWA deputy executive director Roger Johnson admits is "not necessarily the best level of service". However, he adds, so far this arrangement has been working, as Qantas arrives in the morning and departs in the evening. It means after disembarkation its A380s can be towed to a remote hangar for holding and service. Meanwhile, others can arrive and occupy a gate until departure. Johnson sees this as suiting SIA and Korean, whose schedules call for a reasonably quick turnaround.
Everything is changing now, though, with the first fruits of the Bradley West project. One gate opened for a test phase in September and will be followed by more gates next April. The rest of the 18 new contact points open in 2014. Ultimately, says Johnson, the Bradley West development is about accommodating large aircraft. Increasing the number of gates connected directly to the international terminal, cuts down the need to use remote gates - which involve long tow-ins for incoming aircraft on international flights and then bussing passengers to the main terminal.
Towing-in has been common at LAX for safety reasons since the advent of the 777 and 747-400; narrower aircraft, says Johnson, can taxi to the gate. The tow-in itself is not such a problem for ground handling or timetabling with long-haul flights, he adds, but the new batch of gates will help with one significant aspect of ground handling. With the current arrangement, a three-point pull-back manoeuvre - which can take 15 minutes - blocks the east-west taxiway.
This ramp-space restriction highlights that, ultimately, much more is needed than a terminal facelift and the improved ground handling that will come with the new gates. LAX, like many of its counterparts in North America and Europe, simply does not have the luxury enjoyed by some of the new airports in the Far East of having been built with Group 6 aircraft in mind.
Airbus works closely with LAX and other airports on techniques for how to best handle A380 operations. As Airbus Americas programme director for safety and technical affairs Dan Cohen-Nir notes, the aircraft has been a success at LAX, which "is on its way to becoming the A380 gateway that many in the industry alongside Airbus had predicted it would be". But he points out that while runway and taxiway improvements have been made to accommodate large, long-wheelbase aircraft including Airbus A340-600s and 777-300s, "significant constraints prevail".
Those restraints, which only apply to very large aircraft, are ultimately a function of the airfield layout. LAX's four runways are in two parallel pairs: one pair north and one pair south of the terminal complex. The south runways can comfortably handle big aircraft. Both north runways are only 45m wide, but with relatively hard aprons are suitable for A380s and the like.
The north-south taxiway has been widened to accommodate these aircraft comfortably, but for operational reasons, most Group 6 arrivals are on the north airfield - which is the crux of the problem. Simply, the two north runways are not far enough apart to allow very large aircraft to wait on a taxiway in between while another very large aircraft is landing or taking off. Thus, two movements in short succession are not possible.
Hence, while Johnson is confident the airport can cope for the foreseeable future, he says that if large numbers of Group 6 aircraft arrivals become the norm then so will delays.
This summer, LAWA put out to public consultation alternatives for resolving this problem. They range from doing nothing to increasing the separation of the north airfield runways by moving the northernmost runway. Light rail connections to the airport and road improvements are also being considered.
As LAWA executive director Gina Marie Lindsey put it in the introduction to that consultation paper: "The future development of LAX requires a holistic approach that will address both the needs of an ageing airport infrastructure and relationships with its neighbours. We have two choices: either prepare now by creating a long-term plan to continue the modernisation, or limp along with an airfield designed for 1960s-era aircraft and leave the planning and improvements for others to deal with in the future, after natural demand arrives and airport facilities at LAX will be both insufficient and, in some cases, near the end of their useful life."
Between public consultation, City Hall decision-making and FAA approval of any airfield changes, the best that could probably be hoped for is that LAX might see some change in about five years. But history does not bode well for any such rapid resolution.
However, Lindsey is under no delusions as to the scale of the challenge she faces. A couple of decades of consultation and discussion have got nowhere, and it is hard to see how the restraints imposed by Los Angeles politics are going to change now. The city, she notes, has a weak mayoral system, with 15 council districts run by leaders traditionally unwilling to impose their will on each other's sector of the city. As a result, LAX plans have tended to be decided by local residents' resistance to noise and boundary expansion - which is to say that expansion has been ruled out.
The "most expansive" solution to the north airfield problem, she says, would move the boundary 100m "and we own all the land. Go figure." The ultimate challenge, she says, is to overcome "anti-growth" sentiment.
What will come of this latest push to fix LAX remains to be seen. But as Johnson and his chief airport planner, Michael Doucette, note, there has been no shortage of grand plans over the years.
Ironically, one of those has probably resolved the noise issue, almost by stealth; LAWA has bought most of the area to the immediate northeast of the airport, to bring a noisy approach zone into airport control and in hope of carrying out one particularly grand plan, of creating a stand-alone passenger-handling zone. The concept would have diverted road arrivals from the terminal complex - a traffic nightmare even by Los Angeles standards - and even included a rail link to downtown Los Angeles. That plan, however elegant it was, has still not gone anywhere.
The question is one of timing and urgency. Despite its challenges, the airport is not capacity-constrained. That day may come - LAWA projects 78.9m passengers in 2025 - but today it handles just 62 million passengers. LAX, in short, has never recovered from 9/11 and the subsequent recession; its traffic peak was 2000, with more than 67 million passenger and 783,000 movements.
When the time comes for LA city councillors to talk about money and displacing residents, many will look to Ontario International, another LAWA-owned airport, which Lindsey readily admits needs traffic. In a twist that will amuse those attempting to grapple with London Heathrow's capacity issues by suggesting fast rail connections between existing London airports, Lindsey clearly has no intention of wasting political capital suggesting a rail link between Ontario, downtown LA and LAX. In the same week as final preparations were being made to put LAX development proposals to the citizenry, California governor Jerry Brown was being pilloried for approving a many-billion-dollar high-speed rail project that even charitable observers derided as a line to nowhere.
But in the meanwhile, LAX does have the completion of the Bradley West development in its sights. And, as industry consultant George Hamlin sees it: "LAX operates pretty well most of the time."
Upgrading the north-south taxiway, he adds, should prove significant, and by fixing some of the other ground-handling and passenger-handling issues the airport can grow passenger throughput without increasing flight frequencies, which would realise the promise of the A380, 747-8 and 777.
Runways, he adds, can come later: "They're doing the right thing, to tackle the low-hanging fruit first."