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7.13.2006

Terminal Philosophy

People complain a lot about airports, but I actually like them–as long as I’m not running to meet a connecting flight or going through security. Airports are a microcosm of human society. If you take the time to sit and watch things going on around you, there’s a lot that you can learn about people and life.

Airport bars and restaurants almost always carry the theme of the city in which the airport is located. LAX (Los Angeles) has a nice little bar with a black and white movie theme, where you can sit beneath photos of Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart. Tampa has the Jose Cuervo Tequileria that serves Dos Equis on tap and some really good soft tacos, and Vienna’s Schwechat airport has Cafe Wien, a great place for that last really good cup of coffee before you leave. I’ve flown first class a couple of times and was granted access into the VIP lounge, but while the special treatment was nice, I missed the colorful parade of folks going by.

Layovers don’t usually bother me, as long as there’s one of these cafes or bars to sit in. I like people-watching and I doubt there’s a better place for it than in an airport. Every person has a story, someplace that they’re going, someplace that they’ve been. Family reunions, business meetings, vacations, funerals, honeymoons, you name it; every human possibility is alive in every commercial airport in the world.

Airports also create a kind of sensory overload, and there’s something I like in the way the wheels of my carry-on sound on different airport floors. Marble and granite floors create a smooth, cool sound while tile floors create a click-clack sound, and the moving sidewalks make an interesting whirl-whir sound.

If you take the time to talk to the person sitting next to you (considering that they’re not stinky or scary, that is), you can find out about places you’ve never been. Unfortunately, more and more people are walking around with iPods and handless cell phones strapped to their heads, missing opportunities to relate with fellow humans and looking like so many Borg.

One of the people I had the pleasure of meeting and working with over the weekend told me that she thought of airports as “Love Places” because they’re so full of emotions, usually happy. I liked that. So next time you have some time to kill at the airport, close your laptop, turn off your cell phone, take the Ipod out of your ears, order a beer and look around you. There’s a lot to see.

24 comments :

  1. Parnassian Strip MineAugust 21, 2007 at 11:15 AM

    Because we have a fear of easily missed flights at Hartsfield, K and I usually get to the airport rather early. There are tons of choices there for food, now, and we like to relax, eat a meal and watch people come and go. I particularly like figuring out what someone’s home region is by their clothes and demeanor. That’s fun for me. Perhaps I should consider anthropology.

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  2. Yeah, I just can’t manage to muster even a tiny bit of enthusiasm for airports. I’m always either impatient ’cause I’m having to wait far too long or I’m anxious because I’m running late.

    Add to that the fact that I’m not even a little bit good at talking to complete strangers (that would be me with iPod) and the best thing I can say about spending time at the airport is that I get to buy magazines.

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  3. You know how I love to people watch. We have had shared that experience together many times. But, I think that to some degree, people are afraid to talk to strangers. It’s sad really, but there are some scary people out there, and you don’t always know they are scary because of how they look or dress. Post 911 paranoia I guess. Perhaps some day in the future that kind of skittishness will wear off and people can start talking to one another again.

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  4. I don’t talk to just anyone, but it was pretty obvious that the middle-aged couple next to me from Cincinnatti–carrying shopping bags from Belize–weren’t going to kidnap me.

    Airport terminals are safer now than ever before, because only the passengers are allowed in them, and they’ve been screened twice, and marched and metal-detected (read no weapons of any kind) through security. To get as far as the actual terminals, you have to have not only a picture ID, but also a boarding pass in your name that matches that ID. Not many Blue Meanies are going to go to that expense to kidnap or hurt me. And they’re probably not out to steal my stuff (although I do keep money tucked far out of sight), because that would be just one more thing for them to lug around–and people really don’t know how to travel light.

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  5. Airports are interesting, a microcosm of society, but a more upper class version since it’s only people who can afford to fly that are there. That being said, there are lots of rich people, beautiful people. I don’t think of airports as happy places though. Too much waiting and frustration happens, plus half the time you’re flying away from someone you care about. The new McNamara terminal in Detroit is a very bright and modern terminal so it’s a pleasant place to wait.

    I don’t usually strike up conversations with people at airports because it seems few are willing to do so. You can see it in their body language. (Some already have companions or are just busy reading or doing work or talking on the cell phone.)

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  6. Oh, Atul, I beg to differ. Most of the people I see in airports are of all “classes”. I’m not upper class, and the people getting on the jet from Houston to Oklahoma City weren’t. Most fliers nowadays are regular, middle class people. Business men and women, students, mothers with kids, etc. That is, unless you hang out in the VIP lounges. All kinds of people fly.

    I’ve noticed that most people I strike up a conversation with are very happy to make layover time more interesting by chatting. Even when I think I’m not in the mood, and I sit with my arms crossed, looking unapproachable, if someone starts talking to me, I’m actually grateful.

    Besides which, I think that it’s the laptops, iPods and cell phones that help create the isolation and paranoia that often accompanies air travel. “Don’t want to bother them, they’re so busy!” Granted, some people have work to catch up on and people to contact, but a lot of this stuff is just a way to keep busy instead of being part of what is presumed to be an unpleasant experience. Like thinking, for instance.

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  7. Hmmm. I think airports are depressing. Perhaps this has to do with my dislike for air travel in general. Also, everyone is in transit… wanting to be somewhere else… adrift… trapped in a huge, impersonal, cavernous complex of buildings / chain restaurants / cheap hotels / warehouses / storage units somewhere on the outskirts of town… just the thought of it makes me anxious… hmmm

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  8. Wow. I must be an igmo then. Whenever I’m in an airport I’m all excited. When I drop friends off, I always wish I was going somewhere.

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  9. Being an "Avi-ist" and spending time at airports just because “it’s an airport”, I find that the fun of people-watching in most cases depends on where and what terminal you are in. For example. if you happen to be at LAX and sitting in the Bradley Terminal (British Airways, Qantas, Japan Airlines, ect) you see a whole different type of human than when you’re in Terminal 1 (Southwest, America West, ect.) Then there is the fact that in the international terminals you get to see the larger passenger jets. :)

    That's my two cents.

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  10. Oh, you are not alone. And in my previous post, I didn’t mean to leave the impression that I am afraid to talk to people. Just that I think that 911 made an impact on people and how they approach others. I like going to airports too. I like watching people, wondering what their story is. How did they get here? Where are they going? Plus, there is just something most wonderful about a good (expensive) airport cheeseburger.

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  11. I love people-watching; I just don’t understand how doing it in an airport is any more dangerous than in a sidewalk cafe. At least the people in the airport have been thoroughly scanned and screened and are more concerned with their destination than they are with me.

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  12. Hey, that's an idea. Some random Saturday we could go to the airport and just sit in a cafe and watch people. LOL

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  13. Trouble is, you can’t get to the cafes, bars and restaurants at airports anymore. But we could always go someplace safe… like a mall… LOL!

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  14. I love hanging in a bar at an airport, even if it means spending $4 on a bottle of Bud. Some of the most completely odd, yet comforting conversations can be had there; and if you’re stuck with a bore, usually the bartender’s savvy enough to jump in and save you.

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  15. I live most of my life in airports. So I say no, and you can’t make me. 8-p

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  16. I like the international terminals myself. They always give me itchy feet to be off to someplace fascinating.

    The domestic “people mover” airlines just have way too much of the flip flop and Big Gulp vibe.
    Not enough glamor for me.

    I usually feel shy about intruding on others since I know I can be prickly about being approached by strangers.

    It’s more a reticence thing than a fear thing though.

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  17. I like airports. The ambiance is soothing and relaxing as long as I’m not worried about missing a connecting flight.

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  18. I’ve traveled quite a bit in the past couple of years and I don’t mind airports at all. Since I live on the west coast, most of the time I have to leave very early in the morning to get to where I want to go by the afternoon and my husband drops me off on his way to work, and I often have to hang around for quite a while before my flight. I love seeing and talking to people, although I don’t go into the bar at 6am. Just sitting in the waiting area is fine.

    The way that I get people to talk to me is by knitting. I’m occupied so that if nobody talks to me, I still have something to do, but I’m not so engrossed that anyone feels hesitant to bother me. I’ve had some really nice conversations with people who just started by asking me what I was making. (I got a lot of mileage out of making those recycled silk scarves. :-) )

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  19. I really like most airports, unless I’m having to cross a busy terminal to catch a flight! LOL! And flying has always been a happy thing for me because it has always taken me to places where I wanted to be. My last air trip was to Vienna, Austria.

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  20. This conversation makes me want to see the movie Airplane!.

    “The plane! What is it?”

    “Well, it’s white and red and looks like a big Tylenol!”

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  21. I enjoy airports for the most part (unless they’re in Texas…). Whenever I’m in an airport I’m always excited about where I’m going and that’s usually all that’s on my mind, but if I happen upon a conversation with someone I usually enjoy it. It’s nice to hear from people from other parts of the country/world and since you don’t know the person and probably won’t ever see them again, it’s easier to speak naturally and honestly than you would say with someone from your home town. I also enjoy getting a coffee from the Starbucks that’s in nearly every airport I’ve been in.

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  22. Our airport sucks. Unless you have a ticket for somewhere, all you can do is smell the BK lounge.

    I got arrested there, too. That was loads of fun. Apparently, you can’t call the clerks names if they get snooty or lippy. High security and all.

    Hate the airports. Love the travel.
    p

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  23. Sorry for the delayed reply, but I LOVE this post. I’ve been an little international flyer from the age of 8 spending my summers with my Papa in France, so airports hold a strong emotional setting for me. I love flying, love walking around airports, I even secretly like having to run to my gate in order to catch my connecting flight because it is SO dramatic.

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  24. You’re right that they’re a microcosm of society - insofar as there ARE so many people strapped into their little electronic worlds nowadays. Our busyness is unproductive and wasteful of our own mental and physical resources.

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