Anatomy of an Airport

“It is no coincidence that in no known language does the phrase ‘As pretty as an Airport’ appear.”  – Douglas Adams

As is usually the case, I completely misjudged Washington, D.C. traffic. At least this time I hadn’t missed my flight, but I was more than an hour early. There are two camps when it comes to airport arrival times. The first is the infrequent traveler who dutifully reports to the airline kiosk two or three hours in advance of their flight and waits patiently at the gate until their flight is called. Then there is the barely in time camp. They tend to travel a little more frequently and get to the airport with barely enough time to spare. I am decidedly in Camp Barely Enough Time.

As I was heading towards the security checkpoint in the glittering glass and steel structure that is Reagan National Airport, I found myself hoping that there would at least be a long security line, thus validating my decision to leave home so early. No such luck. It was one of those rare occasions when there were barely ten people ahead of me, all business travelers who had removed their laptops and shoes as soon as they entered the queue.

As I was replacing my shoes on the metal bench outside of the security area, I began wondering what I was going to do with my time. I had let my Club membership lapse, given the decline in business travel lately and I wasn’t hungry and had no desire to drink. I ambled around the CNBC shop for a few minutes, feigning interest in the latest celebrity scandal on the cover of US Magazine. I think that US Magazine must exist purely for the flying public. I never see anyone on the metro or on park benches reading it, and yet every other person seems to carry it onboard the plane with them.

I grabbed a coffee at Dunkin and took up a seat where I could watch the planes take off and land.  One of the many reasons why I love National Airport is the great panoramic view afforded to waiting passengers of the planes and surrounding area. Unlike some airports where all you can see is a dismal looking gate, at National you can see planes land with a sudden stop, full flaps up and the Washington Monument in the background. It’s one of those simple moments that makes me so happy to live in the nation’s capital.

DCA Panorama

Being practically attention deficit, I tired of plane watching in about, oh, 3 minutes. I found another seat and decided to do some people watching, an important leisure activity at airports around the world.

First to enter the scene was Mr. Busy Businessman. As usual, he was in a rush for some reason, although after watching him for a few moments it seemed he really had no where to go after all. I’ve always wondered what these people actually do for a living. Are they globetrotting lawyers or diplomats or more like Del, John Candy’s character in “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” who was a traveling shower curtain ring salesman. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but sometimes I just really want to know. I thought about asking him, but decided that Mr. Busy Businessman probably wouldn’t be the friendliest person to engage in meaningless chit-chat.

The next character to emerge stage right was Pajama Girl. It’s remarkable to think how flying traditions have changed over the years. In the Golden Age of flying, people would put on their Sunday best in order to fly the friendly skies. Nothing less than a coat and tie was even imaginable. Now apparently, pajamas, sweats and some sort of weird slipper/croc hybrid are perfectly acceptable. I’ve been on red eyes and long haul, overnight flights. I understand they can be uncomfortable and don’t allow for prime sleeping conditions (unless you’re in business or first class which is absoFREAKING awesome). That being said, I don’t get why some people show up at the airport as if they were meeting the girls for a slumber party complete with pizza and gossip about cute guys. If the choice of attire wasn’t bad enough, Pajama Girl almost always has the largest pillow in the world in tow. Seriously, the pillow could serve as a bed for a Great Dane, with room to spare. Apparently travel pillows, which bother no one, aren’t enough for some. Nooooo, Pajama Girl has to bring her IKEA futon on the flight. Sitting next to her for ten hours or so is a treat for everyone in close proximity, I am sure. Hopefully she’ll snore too.

Since five minutes had passed, I was now bored even with people watching. I decided to wander a bit. If I have to find a fault with National, it would be how the gates are organized. Unlike other airports, where you can wander around the various concourses, each of the four concourses at National are segregated with separate security entrances. In other words, you’re trapped. The worst is being in the old concourse which has little more than a Saltines and Water stand. In the concourses for the normals, you’ll find the usual stuff. American airports offer a certain sense of comfort and familiarity by the shear fact that nearly all of them have the same restaurants. Whether it be Chilis-To-Go, Freshens, or a fine assortment of Auntie Anne’s pretzels, there’s a comforting hominess to their availability. This time I opted for a different airport treat, Cinnabon.

Temple of Gooey Yumminess

I’m not exactly sure what is actually in a Cinnabon, but I am fairly certain it is a clever mix of heroine and cocaine. These addictive dough balls covered with sweet, gooey yumminess are the ultimate example of decadence. I’m sure they have tens of thousands of calories, but I have them infrequently and I am fairly positive that my airport wandering burns them all off. Definitely.

After a leisurely snack during which I pretended to check my email but was actually checking my Twitter account, I ambled towards the boarding area and stood near the gate door. It’s obnoxious, I know, but I am also a member of the Camp Stand Next to Gate Agent and Anxiously Await Boarding. I guess it’s my inability to sit still, but by that point I just want to board and get going. Plus, thanks to my airline status, I’m usually in the first or second group and I like to make sure I actually board with these groups.

I don’t know why the concept of groups or zones absolutely confounds people, but you might as well ask them to prove one of Einstein’s theorems when it comes to boarding. I’ve seen everything from a mad rush of the gate (in Rome) to a completely random and disorganized boarding process where I, Mr. Zone 1, inadvertently become Mr. Zone 84 and end up with about 1 centimeter of overhead bin space.

Finally, the moment of bliss arrived and I sat in my seat, arranged my magazines, book and iPod and settled in for the flight. It really doesn’t matter where I was going that day, as long as I’m in a plane, being hurled through the air against all laws of nature to a previously unknown destination, I am indeed a happy man.

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

9 thoughts on “Anatomy of an Airport”

  1. this post made me laugh out loud with your refs to pajama girl and business man. i *love* people watching at the airport, and like to make up stories (in my head) about their past, where they are headed and why they are going. ummmm, yah, that’s how I pass time.

  2. I still feel funny when I am not dressed for the flight. I loved how you pointed that out! I could picture Pajama Girl dragging her futon through the airport.

  3. I enjoyed the Pajama Girl description. When I was an undergrad at PSU, the girls would dress exactly the same. I never understood it. Thanks for making me laugh and flashback to my university days.

  4. Oh, pajama girl is a very familiar sight at the airport! People-watching at the airport can be a ton of fun. Nice article, Matt.

  5. I’m an Auntie Anne’s pretzel man at the airport myself.

    Great take on a usually mundane part of the travel experience: waiting at the airport.

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