Modern airports: always in a fog

There's no other place where so many are going nowhere so fast


August 15, 2004|By Ed Readicker-Henderson | Ed Readicker-Henderson,Special to the Sun

Around midnight, they stop bothering with the good excuses. Six and a half hours ago, when the plane was first scheduled to leave Seattle, they were pretty creative: paging the pilot, the plane needs to be refueled, the ground crew shift is changing.

Then we got the second-tier excuses: "As soon as the weather clears" was the first, quickly followed, after they looked out the window at a perfect, starry sky, by "As soon as the weather clears at our destination."

The cabin crew is missing. There are rumors of moose on the runway. Maybe somebody has spotted Santa Claus on a summer warm-up.

None of this is as good as what author Alexander Frater once reported from a flight delay in India -- "A tiger has eaten the pilot" -- but it's late, we're tired and we'll take whatever entertainment we can get.

You know this isn't an unusual experience. Airports are often the beginning and end of our travels, so we'd better learn to enjoy them, because more and more of our travel time is going to be spent hanging out on molded plastic chairs with too little padding, our feet resting on the kind of industrial carpet you expect to find in a prison warden's office.

Long before we get our first scent of foreign spices, we will spend hours smelling Starbucks and Cinnabon.

But just what is an airport? We've left home, but gone nowhere. We're in motion, but stopped as surely as if stuck in quicksand. We are in a place everybody looks forward to going to, but one that everybody hates when there.

Airports aren't destinations, but we're in them -- more of us than ever -- way too long to still think of them simply as transit points.

The numbers are staggering: Atlanta's airport, busiest in the world, has upward of 76 million passengers a year. That's an average of roughly 208,000 passengers a day, 8,675 an hour, or 144 a minute. Figure in staff, family, friends, loved ones looking abandoned at security, and you can probably multiply the total number of people there by seven or eight.

Move down a tier in airports. Washington Dulles International Airport gets 20 million passengers a year, Baltimore-Washington International about the same, and Washington National more than 16 million. What you'd expect to be a fairly small airport -- Phoenix's Sky Harbor, serving a town of about 2 million people -- gets 33 million passengers a year.

In other words, airports are the largest mobile populations in the world. On any given day in the United States, in more than 100 major airports, countless disgruntled nomads are looking for a phone jack, fretting over their luggage and hoping they won't get flagged for second-level security screening.

With plenty of time to kill at the Seattle airport, I sit by a Chinese restaurant offering food that looks like nothing I've ever had in China, and watch the businessmen file past. I feel like Charlie Brown at Christmas: Won't somebody please tell me the real meaning of airports?

If anybody has an answer, it must be the businessmen. They travel the best -- think of them as the tribal elders in the anthropology of the airport -- and suffer the most for it. Their faces are a mixture of exhaustion and hope. None of them check bags, and they all seem to have one arm longer than the other from dragging their belongings behind them.

The businessmen are the ones who actually get work done while perched on a chair across from somebody who, in anticipation of motion sickness, is already motion-sick.

At the gate, they're the only ones who understand that there's no point in standing up until your row number is called for boarding.

The businessmen move through the airport like it's their natural habitat, hardly pausing to glance at stairs where people training guide dogs are putting some yellow Labrador retrievers through their paces. (I might not have noticed the dogs, either, but I look for meaning at airports the way some people search the sky for rainbows.)

Try to think of something unusual about the last dozen airports you were in. How quickly do you draw a blank? Pittsburgh has shops that sell Heinz ketchup memorabilia. Albany has a view of dead trees. Tokyo's Narita has bus tours to a nearby temple, so you can pretend you've seen Japan during a layover.

I've been in airports in Hong Kong, Thailand, Bangladesh and Taiwan, but I remember nothing of them, except that there was always plenty of time to consider buying one of those horseshoe-shaped neck pillows you never see anybody use but which always look like such a good idea when you're staring at them in the store display.

Flight attendants click past, their efficient heels sounding a pattern that probably isn't Morse code, while those golf cart contraptions, beeping like harpies, move up and down the ramps. A dozen people circle the guy reading The New York Times, ready to pounce on the leftover pieces.

I notice that security messages break into useful chunks for haiku: "Unattended bags / will all be destroyed, so please / watch your belongings."

And what I realize, quite suddenly, is the success of it all. This isn't a lower circle of hell we're forced to spend time in, facing our desires but never reaching them. No, the airport is a world stripped down to leave no more lasting impression than a piece of junk mail. The furniture without an actual color, the distractions of food with no real taste, the same retail shops, the bland music coming from hidden speakers: Every effort has been made to make sure that this experience leaves nothing whatsoever, no trace at all.

It is brilliant, really. While you shuffle from security to gate to jet, a certain number of minutes or hours click off, and you are ready for the next thing. The airport will leave no aftertaste at all. In its way, it's as comforting as the rerun of a favorite sitcom.

My plane leaves soon, if it isn't delayed. Tomorrow, I won't remember any of this.

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