Douglas Adams, the author of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series, had a wit that still makes me smile years after first reading his books. One of my favorite Adams lines though isn’t one of his most famous, but it may be one of his most accurate:
It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the expression “As pretty as an airport.”
He goes on to explain that the ugliness comes about because airports are full of people who are tired, cross and have just discovered that their luggage has landed in Murmansk and that this mass enmity is reflected in the design of the building itself. Adams wrote that back in 1988 from a quiet desk in the UK at a time when it was a largely accurate statement. In 2017 though, airports aren’t just bus terminals for machines with wings. They’re a lot more than that and the new design and architecture of these always-exciting places reflects this shift in attitudes. Even so, I don’t think that people spend enough time either exploring airports or giving them their just due, and so today I want to share a few reasons why I personally love airports and always enjoy spending as much time in them as possible.
The impossible is possible
Airports are strange places that seem to exist in their own parallel universe. Things that would seem bizarre or outlandish outside the confines of the terminal buildings are simply part of everyday life in airports. Why else then would people sadle up to the bar for a pint at 7am in the morning, eager to start drinking before even the sun has fully risen? My favorite oddities though are the breakfast options that suddenly seem to make sense when you’re waiting for a flight. Not content to just offer the normal morning favorites, even the most unlikely of restaurants has a breakfast menu reserved just for airport clientele. Five Guys burgers, Pizza Hut and even tapas bars serve up eggs and bacon in the mornings, one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. More than just the curious food offerings though, everyday behavior in airports suddenly shifts and the not at all acceptable is suddenly acceptable even among the flying public. In this small confined area exists people from all walks of life, but who almost always seem to fall into predictable groups. One of the strangest that I can always count on being present are people who travel in their pajamas.
If you’re boarding a 15-hour flight to Asia, I understand bringing along PJs to change into on the plane. I’ve done it, it makes sense and it’s fine. What I don’t understand is showing up at the airport at 11am for a two-hour flight to Tampa in full-on bedtime regalia, down to the full sized pillow. I understand that this ultimately comes from a lack of experience, but how are they even tired enough to go full out when it comes to sleeping? It’s not only the logic of the situation that always throws me off, don’t they want to look nice in public? I realize that we are decades removed from the days when dressing up for a flight was a thing. That’s fine, I’m not eager to wear a suit while flying either. However, you have left the house and made the conscious decision to allow other people see and interact with you. There is a social contract that mandates you at least don’t look like you’ve recently escaped from an asylum. No, you don’t have to dress up to fly but you should at least look presentable.
Airport concessions tend to not only follow similar themes, but at least in the U.S. they’re usually even the same brands. Brands that either exist only in the world of airports or which have decided to make airports an important aspect of their retail efforts. The purveyor of aromatic unguents, L’Occitane seems to follow me around wherever I go and I do confess that on more than one occasion I have bought some aromatic lotions before a long flight. That makes sense, but there are many other shops that just don’t make any sense to me. Most large airports have clothing stores full of incredibly overpriced garments ready to be thrown into your bag. What I don’t understand is why buy clothes in an airport? Unless you’ve lost your luggage then you presumably have clothes that you like and wear. I understand wanting to buy new clothes, but don’t do it in the place where it is literally the most expensive. Who goes through a long layover and emerges on the other side with a new wardrobe? It makes no sense to me and yet these stores flourish, so clearly I’m in the minority.
There are other regular shops and restaurants though I enjoy seeing and don’t typically fill me with the anger of a clothing store. Vino Volo seems to be in many American airports, the curious airport-only wine and small bites restaurant luring in soccer moms for years. I’ve stopped at these restaurants a few times, usually in search of a nice cheese and charcuterie plate and they’re fun. While I don’t think getting drunk before a flight is a good idea, this is certainly a more refined option than those horrible sports bars that otherwise seem to line the concourses. Whether it’s L’Occitane or Vino or Kiehl’s, it is somewhat comforting to see the same shops in larger airports, knowing what to expect as you travel from Point A to B.
Excitement of travel
At the heart of the experience though for me is the raw excitement of just being in an airport. It may sound a little doe-eyed, but standing there and reading through the list of departures is exciting. I see the cities listed and then I look around wondering who is going where. It still astounds me that standing in an area with 50 people, within 24 hours all of us will quite literally be traveling to all corners of the planet. If you don’t find at least a little excitement and awe at that fact, then you need to rethink why you’re traveling in the first place. Sure, we all like to take vacations and visit new places, but it’s that sense of wonder and amazement that should fuel everything in the first place. We should all want to explore, to see, to learn and discover, and that’s all so very well encapsulated in the airport experience.
The next time you have to fly somewhere don’t dread the airport experience. Instead, arrive a little early and start observing everything around you. Watch the people, peruse the shops and restaurants and do a little investigation. Find things about it to love. Almost every airport has at least a few hidden wonders to amuse and entertain. Little museums devoted to some arcane bit of history or memorials tucked away in the Siberia of long-forgotten terminals. Every airport tells a story, you just have to do a little work to discover what it’s trying to say.