A pilot explains how airports can be marvels.

Airports Don’t Have to Be Miserable. Marvel at Them Like a Pilot Does.

Airports Don’t Have to Be Miserable. Marvel at Them Like a Pilot Does.

The cities of today and tomorrow.
Sept. 7 2017 4:54 PM

Airports Can Be Marvels

If you look at them the way a pilot does.

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Mark Nerys

You might assume that pilots hate airports. That at best we’d view them as earthly pit stops, as the base—the adjective as much as the noun—precursors to a high dream.

Not me. I’m a 747 pilot, and I love airports. I love them even—perhaps especially—when I’m flying as a passenger. If you feel the same about airports, I’m delighted to hear it. But I’m really writing to those of you who don’t, because it’s part of my job to try to make your journey more pleasant.

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Let’s concede, for the sake of argument, everything that anyone could possibly not like about airports. Done. Now if aviation remains a part of your life—if it’s only flying that allows you to visit your far-flung family, friends, colleagues, or customers, not to mention all the fascinating corners of the world you otherwise couldn’t—then let me try to nudge the needle on your airport-ometer just a little toward the wondrous side. After all, if you’re going to fly anyway, then why not make the terrestrial bookends to your next journey across the vault of the heavens a little more interesting?

One thing I have to ask you to pack, though, is time. Not much. In his forthcoming book Airportness, the literature (and airports) scholar Christopher Schaberg invites you to contemplate the “poetics” of the curbside and to dial up a William Blake poem as you observe a boarding gate. (I imagine a Max Richter or Ludovico Einaudi track would serve just as well.) As with Schaberg, the things I love best about airports are hard to appreciate when I’m in a rush. I know that passengers (and pilots) can’t always choose how much extra time we have in airports. But those of us who want to see airports in a new light might take Schaberg’s advice, near the start of Airportness, to “build in an extra ten minutes to spare.”

“Just ten minutes”—that’s all he asks. Here’s how I spend mine.

Marvel at What’s Taking Flight

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It remains relatively expensive and complicated to move things across the planet. When it comes to exactly which objects we find it worthwhile to transport over significant distances, we might think of seaports, which handle an enormous physical volume of trade, and of airports, of course, which handle plenty of high-value and perishable cargo. But what strikes me most about airports is the critical role they retain in the transmission of information. I know, there’s this new thing called the internet. Exactly. So why does air travel continue to increase? Why travel to Kenya or Kathmandu or Kansas City these days, when you can learn so much about their wonders from afar? Why are conferences so crucial to science, medicine, and business? The next time you’re watching a fellow passenger unpack his or her world-shrinking, cloud-connecting electronic devices at a security checkpoint, step back and ponder what this scene really says to us: that a great deal of the world’s most valuable knowledge, ideas, and experiences still travels by airplane—by you.

Take in the Departures Board

When I was a kid, I loved to flip through atlases. I was mesmerized by the names of cities, whether near or far, familiar or strange—Samarkand, Phoenix, Albany, Athens. I could never quite get my head around the fact that all of these cities were existing at the same time: that in each there was at that moment a different light and a different smell in the air; that in each it was a certain temperature and a certain hour; and that the histories of each, whether short or long, were pressing their noses up against the same present moment—as if time were a sphere, a kind of round front that enveloped the planet much like the atmosphere itself.

Airport departure boards offer a supercharged version of the atlas experience. In fact, these signs make it even easier to imagine this planet of glowing conurbations you might someday visit, because the travelers on those planes will, later today or sometime tomorrow, be walking right down the far-off streets of those far-scattered cities. I recently asked my followers on Facebook and Twitter to describe some of their favorite things about airports. I was pleased, but not at all surprised, to see enthusiastic rhapsodizing about departure boards among the replies.

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I’d happily spend all of my 10 minutes staring up at a departure board. I like how by the mere ordering of departure times a flight to Aberdeen can appear near one to Buenos Aires, or to Jeddah. I love to think of old metropolises such as Rome, of how it can be that the name of the Eternal City appears so matter-of-factly on screens in Seoul or Tehran or Los Angeles. Departure boards are especially pleasing at U.S. airports that have both regional and long-haul flights. Suddenly, staring upward as you sip your Starbucks in San Francisco International Airport, you have found at least one answer to the question of what Bakersfield and Osaka have in common.

People-Watch (and -Listen)

Whether you’re perched in a coffee bar or sailing along the moving walkway, airports are among the best places on earth to marvel at humanity. This is true not only at global hubs but also at the smaller, farther-flung airports that connect travelers to those hubs. When it comes to pretty much every visible aspect of culture, from dress through to manners and expressiveness (especially at the emotional extremes of bidding farewell to loved ones and greeting them after a long absence), airports offer some of the best people-watching on the planet. And if, like me, you find it pleasurable to hear conversations in the few languages you recognize and the many you can’t, you’re in luck. Airports are the perfect place to eavesdrop on the wonders of our spoken world.

Admire the Architecture

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Airports are of architectural interest for a number of reasons. First of all, while it’s often claimed that museums are our modern cathedrals, I’d argue the same might be said of certain airports. As with museums, airports say a lot about what we value (or what their designers value, or think we should value). Second, airports present a number of unique design challenges, from signage to baggage handling to transport links. I’m no architect, but I find it interesting to think about these challenges and about whether there are different ways to meet them, or if in fact these constraints are the main reason so many airports look alike.

Third, many (though clearly not all) political authorities view airports as highly prestigious projects that represent a city—or indeed an entire country—to the wider world. Especially in countries that have just one main international airport, business travelers can’t help but reflect on the airport experiences that frame the bleary-eyed beginnings and ends of their visits. That’s one reason many authorities hire world-class architects, give them big budgets, and demand an inspiring structure with global stature but also (these days) a touch of local flair. As a result, and despite their functional similarities, the best airports offer experiences as transcendent as any that architecture can. A few are worth a visit even if you never intend to get on a plane.

Take the midcentury, Eero Saarinen–designed main building at Washington Dulles (not to mention the airport’s distinctive font, itself an icon of the jet age). I love the glowing lines of the now-classic terminal, especially as seen at night from an approaching car or bus. When I finally walk into the terminal I usually pause and look up—not for 10 minutes but maybe a minute—before walking on, almost always with a touch more spring in my step. And of course, many of the most beautiful airports are new. The first time I landed at Mumbai’s Terminal 2 I forgot all about my jet lag, pulled out my phone, and enthusiastically texted a bunch of photos to awestruck friends back in the States.

Gaze at the Planes

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Newer airports tend to have more windows, and all that glass is an invitation to remember that planes themselves can be beautiful. And not just the jet-age icons such as the Boeing 747. In fact you are living in one of the best times in recent memory to look out for lovely new birds in the skies and to contemplate how pleasingly form can follow function—a principle, by the way, associated with the legendary architect Louis Sullivan, who, in the days before airplanes, found it helpful to refer to “the sweeping eagle in his flight.” It’s tempting to wonder what Sullivan would make of the wingtips of the shiny new Airbus A350. Are the engineers behind these bladelike appendages incredibly smart, or do they have a great sense of style? Or take a look at the distinctive saw-toothed engines on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Yes, they’re quieter. And yes, they look awesome.

Absorb the Culture (Really!)

Airports, it’s fair to say, are internationalized places that don’t always go far out of their way to cultivate difference. Maybe that’s what we secretly want? I’m certainly not unhappy when I find decent lattes, English signage, copies of the Economist, and a meticulously controlled climate no matter where on the globe I am. And I’m thrilled when offbeat ideas like rocking chairs (which I first sat on in Boston) and little smiley-face buttons to rate immigration officers (which I first pressed in Beijing) spread rapidly to other airports.

But the relative homogeneity of airports also highlights the differences that do confront the traveler. As you walk through a terminal, what can you see, hear, or smell that helps you identify where you are? At Singapore’s beloved Changi Airport, for example, of course there’s an observation deck, a rooftop swimming pool, an indoor slide, and a Hello Kitty–themed café. But it’s the gardens—the separate orchid, sunflower, cactus, and butterfly gardens—that really strike you and that it seems only this ultra-green garden city would go to so much trouble to construct for you. Singapore is one of the world’s most globalized hubs and yet, as you walk through a place built solely to move you to and from the farthest reaches of the world, there’s really nowhere else you could be.

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I have a similarly local, well-grounded feeling in Vancouver’s airport. The airport is quiet. It’s full of beautiful wood and calming water features. The people are friendly. In other words, Vancouver’s airport is perfect in all the ways that Vancouver itself is. In a surprise to no one who’s ever flown here, Vancouver’s airport was recently named the best airport in North America for the eighth year in a row.

And back in the U.S. of A? The “peaks” of Denver’s airport always make me smile, as do the foodie options popping up at SFO. And I’ll never forget the warm breezes that I once felt in the open-air walkways of Honolulu’s airport.

Savor the Exit

I recently landed in Accra, Ghana, one of my favorite African cities, just after sunset. When the terminal doors at last opened, the heat and humidity rushed over me. I could smell the air, I could see the crowds of waiting families and porters, and I could hear laughter and the local television from the little bar and restaurant just outside. By then, I marveled, I’d been on Ghanaian ground for almost an hour.

The scene reminded me to think about what happens when the terminal doors open and we step across the line that airports draw so neatly for us. If flying, compared to older forms of travel, is essentially a kind of teleportation, then the airport is a big part of the machine. Indeed travel couldn’t be so fast and accessible without such a sharp border somewhere along the way. That is, the line between the internationalized realm inside airports and the world outside isn’t a flaw—it’s an inevitable consequence of the way that we’ve chosen to move.

It’s also one of the interesting aspects of airports. The poet Kirun Kapur (a college friend of mine) describes the invigoration of the airport exit’s assault on the senses in “Arriving, New Delhi,” a poem from her book Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist.

...Doors open and the blood pounds out
its local language along every limb.
Smell ashes. Men. Jasmine
climbing on a fence. A taxi driver
turbaned in a tongue of flame
says, Sister, I can take you into the city.
Sister, shall I take you home
?

If you didn’t find 10 extra minutes at the start of your journey, perhaps you have half a minute to spare here at its end. Airports—as Christopher Schaberg, Kirun Kapur, Alain de Botton, and so many others who’ve stopped to think about them have written—are liminal places. So take note of their doors, which perhaps more simply than anything else sum up how airplanes have changed our world. Pause as they open and the bewildered airs meet. Welcome.

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