How To See Airports (And Other Bad Places)

MikeachimThe Everyday21 Comments


If you were traversing Terminal 5 at London’s Heathrow last August, you may have seen a writerly-looking chap sat tapping on a computer, his words being displayed on a large plasma screen over his head. This was the temporary Writer In Residence, Alain de Botton, and he was writing a book about what airports really are.

The book’s out – and no, I haven’t read it for one pitifully ludicrous reason: I’m savouring the fact that there’s an Alain de Botton book in the world that I haven’t read. It’s a delicious feeling, like the anticipation of dessert or the summer holidays. But since he’s one of my favourite writers, it’s time I stopped fooling around. His previous work awoke my child’s eye, allowing me to question and appreciate all the things rendered invisible by habit, deadened curiosity or sloppy generalization. (You can see his influence on me here). I regard his Art Of Travel as valuable reading not just to travel-writers, but to anyone with a pulse.

The last thing I want to do is label him Important, because that implies stuffiness and the damning authorial status of Oft Quoted, Never Read. No, none of that. His work is wry, sly and gently rebellious. It’s fun. Also – and I’m deeply envious of this – he uses exactly the right words in precisely the right quantities. It’s breathtaking, and sometimes even a little scary (the good kind of scared).

Anyway. Airports.


When was the last time you willingly lingered in one? Or a shopping mall? Or a high-rise car park?

The obvious question is “what the hell for?”

Interesting word, “obvious”.  The portcullis of our mind has slammed down, well oiled by cultural norms, postmodern fashions and bitter experience. We’ve all had dreadful stays in such places. They’re urban deserts,  traversed as quickly as your body will allow, and to tarry is to invite suffering. In airports, there’s the added pressure of a ticking clock. Everything tells you to hurry along and nothing tells you to soak it all in.

Consequently, our minds render them heaving, noisy, lonely and barren.


Upper lip curling, we write them off with a flourish. And I’m fascinated by that – the same way I’m fascinated by certain towns that gain a reputation for awfulness that’s reinforced by people who have never been to them. There’s a sleight of hand here. Something is being hidden.

In his recent World Hum interview, de Botton gives a clue: for starters, we’ve lost the ability to arrive. We reach destinations too quickly and so we underappreciate them as rewards for our efforts, and as places in their own right. They’re merely “on the way” somewhere. When we spend time in them it’s an unwanted event, foisted on us by collapsed schedules, missed connections and stroppy weather – and that makes them undesirable as a destination in themselves.

But beyond that – just how offensive is the average airport? My short spell at Munich Airport was long enough to see that it’s a marvel – and a protracted bout of sweaty, semi-chaotic queueing at Paphos Airport in Cyprus convinced me of the exact opposite. Some are amazing, some are grim – all are different. So why are they generally labelled “bad”?


Perhaps it’s that these places aren’t themselves what dreadful – it’s our relationship to them. Maybe it’s like this: all the places we occupy in the world are inventions (we make them places), and we pin labels to the places we spent time in – but some places, for obscure and complicated reasons, get values attached to them as well. Airports, soulless and horrible; pubs, cosy and charming, and so on. Yet we’ve judged them on all the baggage we brought with us at the time (pub = beer + friends = happiness; airport = remainder of food poisoning from that dodgy kebab + jet lag + ticking clock = abominable). Could that change? Couldn’t airports be like pubs if we neutralised and then tinkered with the way we use them?

The next time you look at a shopping mall or a hotel lobby or a bus station – try taking yourself out of the equation.

In the meantime, I’ll be over here, reading about airports.

Images: lowfatbrains, El Fotopakismo, …-Wink-…, Bakar 88 and Mike Sowden.

  • I confess. I’ve never read Alain de Botton so, will have to look up his Art of Travel and I am curious about A Week at the Airport, a Heathrow Diary. Am writing a post on YVR-Vancouver’s gateway to the 2010 Winter Games. It has had some horrid PR this past year as a result of an ugly taser incident involving four Mounties and an agitated Polish traveler. But that’s not why I want to write about it. I did a behind the scenes tour of the place last year and discovered it has a bounty of art and even its own art foundation. Not bad… for an airport. I think you nailed it. It’s our relationship with places, so I’m betting Canadian travelers anyway have been far too preoccupied with the taser incident to have given YVR’s bounty much notice. Thanks for another great “muttering”. I’m with Julie Ovenell Carter, another Canadian fan of yours, you write well, sir. Keep it going.

    • I certainly plan to. :)

      And you’re too kind. Thank you both.

      YVR-Vancouver’s bounty of art – is it all on show for travelers, or held behind the scenes?

      I love the idea of airports that local authorities might invest in as a cultural icon as well as a functional, profit-making place. In a general sense, then, is there room for free museums or art galleries amidst the endless trendy coffee bars and news-stands? Could airports be turned into places that locals might want to visit, for reasons other than traveling? Or is that muddying the whole point of an airport in the first place?

      Such questions abound. Hence my fascination for the subject.

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  • Nat

    Hmm, this theme seems familiar :)
    Nice one Mr. S!

    I’m reminded of the words: “Life’s what you make it”

    I beg to differ somewhat with “Consequently, our minds render them heaving, noisy, lonely and barren.” –Not if you approach the airport experience as either (a) an exciting place to be because you are about to be whisked off on a wonderful journey (even if said place is one of “certain towns that gain a reputation for awfulness that’s reinforced by people who have never been to them”); or (b) a place that fills you with happiness as you are reunited with a loved one….I’ve always said I love going to airports, since I’m either leaving on a journey, or picking someone up from one (ever watched the arrivals area? full of such joy). But I love to travel, so I’m biased…and have not been forced to travel SO much that I come to despise everything to do with the act of travel…I don’t even mind security, it’s still part of the overall experience.

    I suppose if your job called for a lot of travelling and you didn’t enjoy it, you would approach airports with a certain disdain as you are forced to be in them. But as mentioned above, there are even some airports these days that are a pleasure to be in (VPR tops my list for sure), which help to make the travel/airport experience much more palatable.

    The joy of the airport experience is directly proportional to how positive you are as you approach one. I can’t wait until my next airport visit!

    • Hello, Natalie. And thanks! :)

      >>”But I love to travel, so I’m biased…and have not been forced to travel SO much that I come to despise everything to do with the act of travel…I don’t even mind security, it’s still part of the overall experience…”

      I share your enthusiasm for airports (which will probably double when I’ve read de Botton’s book) – but I still suspect that the average response to an airport is one of boredom and resignation. It’ll be interesting to do some digging on this topic and so I’ll do so – but I reckon, without facts to back the argument up, that most people who fly aren’t flying because they love using airports, they’re simply trying to get somewhere else and airports are a necessary evil to be negotiated before they get to where they really want to be. That goes for most business travelers and most of those going on holiday.

      And since most people are seeing airports as negative (a whole spectrum of shades of negativity), then airports get generally labeled Horrid places. And Horrid places in the popular imagination tend to get a life of their own – especially when the popular media reinforces them, which is one tried & tested technique of getting customers (“look! Dixie *is* awash with gun-toting rednecks” etc).

      >”The joy of the airport experience is directly proportional to how positive you are as you approach one.”

      That’s it exactly. You partly make your experience with the attitude you bring along. :)

  • My main problem with airports (and I’m sure you’ll relate to this one, Mike), is the fact that they are inextricably linked to getting in a big metal box with wings and flying. It’s just not conducive to peace of mind.

    Having said that, the departures lounge at Rome airport (the new one on the far side of the skytrain) is really rather fine. i only regret not heading over there sooner, instead staying in the somewhat tatty old part of the airport. I’ll know better for next time. (Although given Rome airport’s propensity for losing luggage, maybe I should avoid there being a next time if possible …)

  • Ooh. And have you ever been to Dubai airport? A more vulgarly wonderful sight I have rarely seen. Brilliant.

    • Beyond the age of…something smaller than 0 but more than -9 months….I’ve never been further east than Cyprus, so that’s something I’d like to work on. And Dubai’s high on the list. Mainly because I know it would horrify me. ;)

      (What was your opinion of it? Noticing the word “vulgarly” there as a hint…)

      So you also have a – let’s see, something less than terror and more than comfort – a disconcertion with flying? Wish I could shake mine off (I’ve got lots of travelling to do) but it insists on lingering – at least it’s not getting any worse, but I hate how it takes over my hands and turns them into seat-clutching claws when we take off or hit turbulence….

      When (when) I come visit – fancy doing a tour of Fiumicino?

      No, really. I want to write a post about specifically appreciating airports. :)

      (A joint post?)

    • Orange airport roofs are evidently hot this season.

      That’s a biggie for amateur airport-watching: always, always look upwards. There’s a lot of Stuff up there.

  • I’ve always loved airports! There’s something romantic about the large steel structures, big windows and the constant flux of people coming & going. You’re right to suggest to slow down & actually OBSERVE them as places rather than portals.

    • Thanks for popping by, Adam!

      I agree (as do most folk, it seems) – but the question is how. How can we teach ourselves to slow down and really see airports if we keep using them as they’re supposed to be used? What needs to change? What things do we need to do to our schedules?

      And yes, that’s an open question. ;)

  • A

    To me, airports=curiosity. The reason: I’ve never flown anywhere before (except, of course, in my dreams). I’ll echo the idea that every place is what you make of it. It took my living in two major Canadian cities to find that they weren’t more livable than my small home town; they were just offering something different. Each living situation had the ability to inspire within me a full spectrum of emotion. Like you said, your feelings about a place are just a result your subconscious associations and also of how you are utilizing conscious thought. With proper effort, the airport may be just as entertaining as an amusement park. Okay, well, maybe not that entertaining, but it might be as fun as the tea cups.

    I’m not personally a fan of changing airports into, as you put it, cultural icons. If you can learn to enjoy your experiences at airports as they are, why add more? Art galleries, museums and the like are all available outside of the airport. If the goal is to go out, explore, and be able to enjoy that process every step of the way, why would you want to stay in one place? Besides, it’s inevitable that once these things are offered at the airport, they will eventually just be expected to be there and will lose their charm, and, if you haven’t previously changed the way you think about the airport, all those old negative associations will whip back into play and the airport will once again be the seventh hub of hell.

    Thank you for the book and author recommendations! In fact, I’m going to pick up The Art of Travel as soon as I get the chance.

    • Very good point. Adding attractions is sugaring the pill, still regarding it as bad by acknowledging that people need to be bribed to go there…

      So what’s the way to heighten the charm of the functions that airports are already there for? Other than the usual functionalist ways (shorter queues, more staff, more seats etc.).

      I reckon the architecture is a biggie. When you’re spending hours in one room, you want that room to be pleasant to occupy *and* be a delight for the senses and the mind (while not resorting to distracting ‘sugar-coating’ tricks, of course)….

  • I feel like I’m confessing to mental illness by saying this, but I love airports. The airport is my happy place. It represents escape from the humdrum of my life to go somewhere warmer, more exotic, more fun. Granted, my local airport is much smaller and more serene than a JFK or LAX. When my cousins and nieces were children, I would take them to the airport to go up in the tower and watch planes take off and land. They loved it, I loved it. Last year, I walked over to the airport and had breakfast at the restaurant there. The windows are large and sunny, and I could watch the planes coming and going as I ate. To me it’s very peaceful and relaxing.

    • Well, if you’re confessing, you’re in the right place. We’re listening. :)

      So, airports as escapism? The attraction being the sheer un-normality of the situation (eg. bloody great pieces of metal flying through the air, village-sized warrens of corridors filled with people but where nobody lives, etc.). Seen like this, airports are surreal places. Or even “not-places”.

      So they inspire a different reaction in everyone. In your case (and mine too), they’re excitingly weird and colourful. Other people see that as a bit threatening and hostile – especially when they start getting packed with people and there’s a sense of frustrated sweaty desperation added to the mix, which is always hard to fight.

      Should airports try to cash in on this outer-worldly feel by trying to attract people who want to get away from it all, sit and read a book, chill out, write letters, watch the planes? This is what happens in most cases, but airports don’t actually *promote* it (as far as I’ve seen), it’s what people do when they’re waiting for something else.

      But airports (easily accessible ones) being marketed as the equivalent of municipal parks and libraries, ie. public space where you can hang out without feeling like you should be on the way somewhere? Is that a way to make them more neutral, less “bad”?

  • Richard P

    I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years in Korea’s Incheon International Airport (twice winner of the airline industry’s ‘Best Airport Award’). The place is simply amazing in terms of design, customer service and facilities. I have actually turned up there to pick people up several hours in advance just so I could have the pleasure of hanging around. However, spending any amount of time in Heathrow is a pure abomination.
    I think to a certain extent what you say is true, we do arrive in these places with an expectation… but the design of the place, and the experience IN the place do a lot to change that expectation. When I fly out of or into Incheon I’m fairly relaxed about the whole thing, because I know that the space I’m going to be occupying is nice. When I fly out of or into Heathrow, I’m in rather a less pleasant frame of mind as I know the space I’m going to be occupying is very much NOT nice!

  • I love airports. Especially in the very wee hours, in between flights, when it’s quiet and there is no rush yet to board. I like that the people I see, in that instant, have more in common with me than at any other time in my everyday life. No one at an airport is home; everyone is on the way to someplace else (unless of course they work there). A psychologist’s term would be “liminality” – a feeling of hovering in-between places or experiences, and it’s common amongst third culture kids.

  • For anyone still popping in to read this thread, I have a question.

    And it’s this:

    What makes a bad airport?

    (And yes, that’s very vague. Intentionally.)

    • Richard P

      Thats a tricky one….

      I mean, I guess it hinges on what you are expecting the airport to DO for you…

      on the one hand, we want an airport to be efficient… so, an airport which is easy to navigate, which quickly takes you through all the steps you need to complete on your journey, is a good airport.

      If you’re expecting something BEYOND that, then I guess it comes down to things like the architecture and amenities. A spacious, airy, cool airport with a good range of places to eat, relax and pass away the time is what you need. Combining the two of these together is something they rarely get right…

      • Richard P

        I realise that I just described what I think a GOOD airport is…. so a bad one would be the opposite of the above.