Let’s walk into the terminal at Anniston Metropolitan Airport. It’s 1983. Your flight to Atlanta leaves in an hour.

Just inside the main entrance is a bank of pay telephones. Comfy chairs are ubiquitous — some line the wall, others rest in a center waiting area. Straight ahead are video games if you’re bored.

Above your head hang a few signs. “PLEASE CHECK-IN” points to the counter. “BAGGAGE” leads straight ahead. Bowling ball-sized light fixtures drop from the ceiling. The walls are part brick, part wood panelling.  

To the left is a familiar yellow marquee — Hertz Rent-A-Car — and the ticket counter of Atlantic Southeast Airlines, one of Anniston’s two commercial carriers. On the wall is ASA’s flight schedule, listed as “Departures to Atlanta” and “Arrivals from Atlanta.” Five flight times, scattered across the weekly calendar, are on the board.

To the right is another ticket counter, this one used by Atlanta Express.

In Anniston’s sky, all roads lead to Atlanta.

That was then.

Today, the passenger terminal at Anniston Regional Airport — its current name — is vacant, locked up like an aging, nondescript rental home. Getting inside requires permission and a key. Commuter service abandoned the airport in 1996 and won’t return. But the 7,000-foot runway is active and the airport’s fixed-based operator, Anniston Aviation, does a brisk business servicing private, military, freight and charter aircraft at the city’s field (airport code: ANB). More than $2 million in upgrades and improvements have taken place at the airport in the last six years. The Federal Aviation Administration’s Flight Service Station occupies an adjacent building.

The passenger terminal, meanwhile, is one of the city’s ghost structures, a once-vibrant place built the same year the Beatles played their last concert. It may be on borrowed time.

“What this building was designed and meant to be was as an airport passenger building,” says Toby Bennington, Anniston’s city planner. “And passenger service isn’t going to return here.”

By that, Bennington means the land the terminal sits on may be more valuable if the terminal was a memory, not a relic. But that larger discussion — Anniston’s master-planning of its airport — is a topic for another day.

Let’s go back inside the terminal.

Passengers and their baggage

If you’re into Calhoun County’s abandoned buildings and unseen places, there’s no better locale than the former Fort McClellan. In fairness, Anniston’s airport terminal isn’t McClellan-like, especially inside.

Nearly two decades have passed since the last commuter flight flew out of Anniston, whose 30 years of commuter service included flights by Southern Airways, Atlantic Southeast Airlines, AL Air, Skybus Express, Atlanta Express, GP Express and Gulf Air. Since then, the city-owned terminal has flopped back-and-forth between vacancy and occupancy. Lease agreements allowed the terminal to host an RV company and a magazine publishing company; both had short shelf lives. Anniston Aviation occasionally reopens the terminal on busy weekends, such as when NASCAR teams fly in for the races at Talladega. (The Transportation Security Administration sets up a mobile screening area and creates a “sterile environment,” says Anniston Aviation’s Scott Wallace.)

Today, the terminal’s interior hardly resembles its 1980s heyday.

Gone are the wood panelling and signs for departures and arrivals. In their place are empty cubicles, painted a boring shade of gray. Imagine an abandoned 1990s-style office, all blah and lifeless. But to the city’s credit, the building’s insides are seemingly move-in ready: the AC works, the floors are clean, vandalism is absent. There’s clutter, but it’s manageable.

The exterior is a different story.

The terminal opened in 1966, and it looks its age. The front-entrance sign — the one facing Alabama 21 — could have been stolen from a scene in “Mad Men.” When you walk through the rear hallways that ferried passengers to their planes, that’s when the terminal’s former life appears.

Waiting areas behind the check-in counters still have the large windows that allowed passengers to see planes on the tarmac. A sign on the wall reads “BAGGAGE” and points to the right, where arrivals could pick up their suitcases. A sign on an outside door reads “ENTRANCE.”

Like most smaller airports, Anniston’s didn’t use jetways. Instead, passengers walked outside and climbed portable stairs into the planes. Today, the outdoor arrival and departure areas still exist; above them are concrete canopies. A chain-link fence separates that area from the tarmac and runway. A garden of grass and weeds pokes out from cracks in the concrete walkways. Up on the roof, within sight, rests the terminal’s civil defense siren that’s used only for airport emergencies, which are extremely rare. It still works. Wallace tests it once a month. It’s Metallica-in-a-closet loud, a Marshall stack cranked to 10.

The chain-link gate isn’t locked, so you can figuratively close your eyes and dream of walking through the terminal and heading out to your waiting flight to Atlanta. Alongside the fence are two rusting handcarts used to ferry luggage. Two metal signs adorn the fence. “No parking of transient aircraft,” one reads. The “Welcome to Anniston” banner that may have greeted passengers is missing from the roof.

Back inside, Bennington, the city planner, is asked what may become of this structural relic of Anniston’s past.

“To be determined,” he says, and you can see why.

Wonderful 360-degree views

Airports are pathways to the sky, and there are two ways to get there at ANB. One’s on a plane. The other is by climbing the 48 steps it takes to reach the nerve center of the airport’s control tower.

It’s not original to the airport. Built in 1995, the tower sits on the Talladega side of the terminal and gives an unimpeded, if not picturesque, view of this part of the county’s natural beauty.

Forget aviation for a moment. From here, 40 feet up, you can see unencumbered sights of Coldwater Mountain, Mount Cheaha and the Talladega National Forest. The tower’s four sides don’t correlate exactly to north, south, east and west, but they’re close. Even without binoculars, you can pick out the gaps and valleys that separate this part of the county’s mountainous terrain.

(One more non-aviation moment: the tower is the perfect spot to ask: Where are we? Bennington smiles, slightly, and explains that Anniston’s airport sits in an unincorporated part of Calhoun and Talladega counties that’s nearly surrounded by the city of Oxford. Five thousand feet of the runway is in Calhoun County; 2,000 feet are in Talladega County. Because the airport isn’t in the city’s limits, Anniston receives no property tax from tenants such as Anniston Aviation. The city’s only airport revenue comes from land sales or annual lease agreements, he said.)

The tower is literally an office in the sky, complete with three air-conditioners, two large desks, office chairs and hookups for telephone and Internet. Don’t try to bandit your way in; it’s locked tight and there’s only one door. A U.S. flag, rolled up on its pole, rests in one corner. From the tower you can see that the runway faces northeast (roughly toward Anniston) and southeast (toward Munford and Talladega). You can also see the signs that differentiate the directions: runway 5 is northeast, runway 23 is southwest. (The numbers signify the magnetic headings.) You also get a perfect view of Anniston Fire Department No. 6, its building only a few yards from the tarmac.

Now, the crazy part: The tower isn’t used on a daily basis. ANB is an “uncontrolled field,” Wallace explains, meaning pilots are directed by the towers in Atlanta and Birmingham; Anniston Aviation helps as needed. It’s safe, but it just sounds odd to airport neophytes. It’s also not some quirky Anniston thing; that’s the system at most smaller airports across the United States.

Combined, Anniston’s terminal and tower are part of the city’s past, though only one may be part of the city’s future. Today, they remain as they have been for years: off limits to outsiders, their interesting parts and lovely sights locked away from public view.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.