Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Airports fascinate me. They have much in common with Disneyland. Crowds, lines, food, shopping, visual and sensory bombardment of all sorts, at prices which make your head spin.

Disneyland was fun when I was a kid, in part due to lack of concern and responsibility around calories and costs. Airports were also fun, I felt pampered and awestruck by the experience of flight. The magic of flight still captivates me but the sense of being catered to is long since gone. A very strange mix of anxiety, thrill, frustration, and amusement overtake me at the airport. There may be a plan in place but the sense of adventure comes from what is unpredictable.

In typical "third place" fashion I immerse myself in daydreams and people watching. Usually I keep a close tab on time, but when I'm alone there have been instances where I've had to make a mad dash because I lost track of different time zones. Every type of behavior can be witnessed by fellow travelers at the airport.

Minnesotan's are great to watch arrive at the airport in February. We arrive at the airport when it is 20 below outside already dressed for the beach. You may see us sneaking the down coat into the suitcase or it will come on the plane to second as a pillow or feet warmer. (On my cousin's most recent flight she found a frozen banana on the floor next to her feet!) Shoe choices provide a similar amusement, especially at airports. The reality is, unless you are in a wheelchair you must walk, or run and sometimes for quite long distances. Apparently this does not occur to many airport travelers based upon their footwear choices. The full spectrum of outfits are also on view, with regional variations, you see everything from business suits to beachwear and pajamas. This gets even more interesting or embarrassing when people make their way through security. To see people publicly disrobe is already odd. In this context it seems like a scene from a police station. Once again the pragmatist, I wonder at the belts, buckles and assortment of things that come out of peoples pockets, did they not know they were going to the airport?

Baggage has become complicated in recent years. Now there is a charge per bag, so this has shifted what constitutes a "carry on" item. I only flew a few times as a child, now many families fly with children of all ages which translates to strollers, car seats, baby bags, etc. I used to feel a great sense of luxury on an airplane, now it has the ambiance of a bus station. The stewardess (today's flight attendant, once upon a time was very solicitous, handing out airplane "wings" introducing kids to the pilot, passing out pillows and blankets and making small talk. Today they are the enforcers, "seat up, table up", mumbling "watch your hands" when they slam past with the food cart. Packing the plane is a science, I've heard people discuss the simulation studies conducted to figure out the most efficient method of loading people. Whatever the results of the studies, we human cargo are not easy to transport.

I have never flown first class, nor have I purchased a new car. In my reverse snobbery, I scrutinize the 1st class passengers as I make my way past. I experience seat envy and mean thoughts such as "why are those two little kid bodies in 1st class?" Then, looking at the passenger behind them seated next to the children's mother I feel smug, "nah, nah, you may be in first class but you still came up with the short end of the stick." Yes it is a roll of the dice when it comes to seat assignments, it isn't just a question of who is seated in your row, but who is in front or in back of you, or even in your generally vicinity if their behaviors are really disruptive. The parent kid dynamic is painful. Children have all the power and everyone knows it. There is no possibility of immediate consequences, so parents and all other passengers just pray that the stars have aligned and babies will fall asleep, siblings will be separated and that children and their parents woke up on the right side of the bed. The question of aisle seat or window seat is another thing to ponder, if a person is very confident of their lack of need for a restroom during a flight it is likely they will want and perhaps be able to choose a window seat. If , however, the person at the window seat is 8 months pregnant, as was the case on my last flight, expect to get up and down several times as the one in the adjacent aisle seat. I actually don't mind this because for the most part I welcome the chance to stand up and stretch the legs and since I cannot sleep on planes I'd much rather be the one asked to stand than the one climbing past a sleeping passenger. I marvel at how long some people's legs are and I find the whole sharing of armrests to be problematic, but overall once settled in I welcome the guilt free opportunity to read.

Despite flying in and out of many big cities, I have never been aware of being on a plane with a celebrity. Some of the most revealing conversations occur during the course of a 2 hour flight. Yesterday I heard the filmmaker Mr. Klein describe his flight sitting next to Malcolm X and the opportunity it created for his access to Cashis Clay. So, you never know. If, like myself, you enjoy and seek out serendipity then the unpredictable aspects of airport travel can be seen as a positive side of the adventure. In truth when all goes smoothly on trips the stories are not nearly as memorable or noteworthy. If you allow yourself let go for the ride, it can be fun to be temporarily knocked our of your usual orbit. These experiences, even the trying ones, allow us to reenter our normal orbits with fresh eyes and a new appreciation.

Disneyland is no longer my idea of fun, but despite two delayed flights that got me home late last Monday, I'm already eager for my next visit to the airport.

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