To Travel Well, You Must Love Airports!!

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Yes, I love airports.   Since I spend a lot of time in airports, I seek to enjoy them.  Airports are a micro culture of fascinating human behavior that demonstrates our need for connection.

In 2009, I traveled to 10 countries plus a few trips within my home country of Canada.  In every airport I observed the standard connection through greeting and goodbye rituals.  But some were more heart-rending than others.   Family members are often met upon arrival with much excitement and emotion after long and even short absences; and of course sad farewells often indicate that much time will elapse before friends and family will lay eyes on one another again.

In some airports, travelers are greeted by family members and friends with balloons, banners, and loved ones jumping up and down. It seems the longer someone has been away, the more balloons and banners that appear.   All are an effort to show how excited we are to see the person, as if telling them how much they were missed and loved is not enough.

Affection varies from country to country when saying welcome or goodbye.   I witnessed a young teenager in Spain hold his father long and hard at the Pamplona airport and then they kissed each other three times on the cheek before letting go.   Recently while at the Narita airport in Tokyo, Japan, another father and son only gave a long gaze to one another and a bow but their affection and non-verbal caring I believe was just as deep.

Due to my many frequent flyer points, I am able to enter business lounges priot to departure. When you enter, you first have to prove that you are eligible to be there by showing one of the magic frequent flyer cards that gives you this privilege.  Once you pass the entry point, it is like entering an adult cyber classroom.

My guess is that 60% of the patrons are facing intently into their laptop computers writing emails; 10% are checking their Blackberries or iPhones while another 10% are having the old fashioned experience of reading the newspaper or a book while others are reading on their Kindles.  Maybe, just maybe, 20% are actually having a face to face conversation with another.

Some of these face to face connections are more tender than others.  On a recent professional trip, I was in the Narita airport in Tokyo, Japan.   I witnessed a son (about 40ish) feeding his elderly father soup in such a tender and kind manner.  The elderly Father was in a wheelchair and not able to feed himself.  I wondered where they might be headed and why?    Was he being moved to another city to live with a daughter or son as is typical in Asian culture?   It was a touching moment of family drama.
Another thing I love about airports is that they have become mini shopping malls.  You can obtain any and all things that you may have forgotten that can quickly be replaced.  There is everything from toothpaste to Tylenol, and purses to perfume.  And of course there are always the last minute “authentic” souvenirs in every airport.
Oh and the food connections are to numerous to list.  But a few are the Seafood Bar at the Heathrow Airport, London, England, Terminal 3.  In Hong Kong, the business lounge has wonderful dim sum and in Stockholm, Sweden, I crave the bread and cheese.   In Doha, Qatar, I relished the little desserts laden with pistachios.

The magazine and bookstores are another favorite airport connection of mine!    But why does the daily newspaper seem so much more interesting and essential when in an airport?   And why does the latest issue of MacWorld, Time magazine or even O seem so compelling as if as if it is going to leave the planet and this could be the last copy ever.  I even find myself looking at magazines in languages I cannot understand.

Despite all these observations, I still notice there are some airport travelers who wish to remain disconnected from electronics or their traveling companions for awhile and instead connect with their new book, daily newspaper or just stare into space or sleep while waiting for their flight to depart.

Yes, the next time you are in an airport, savor the family and friendship connections along with digital, reading, and food connections.  Embrace airports as an opportunity to watch and enjoy any and all aspects of our involuntary human need for connection (love actually)!!

What caught your attention the last time you were in an airport?

13 comments on “To Travel Well, You Must Love Airports!!”

  1. Shelina Zahra Janmohamed says:

    Lorraine, you would probably enjoy the film The Terminal. It stars Tom Hanks (of whom I'm not usually a fan), but it is a fascinating insight about what happens at airports and how the terminal has its own life. Remarkably it is based on a true story of a man who was stuck inside an airport due to administrative and technical details and had to stay – some claim that he stayed for years. Here is the movie summary:

    Viktor Navorski, a man from an Eastern European country arrives in New York. However after he left his country war broke out. Suddenly Navorski is a man without a country – or one that the U.S. cannot recognize, thus he is denied entrance to the U.S. However, he also can't be deported so he is told by the Security Manager that he has to remain in the airport until his status can be fixed.

  2. Andy Hayes | Travel Online Partners says:

    Similar to you, I love airports as well. On long layovers, I'd love to just sit and pass the time with a book, but I end up walking the entire premises checking out the weird (and usually mundane) stuff in the shops, sampling the food, and just soaking up all the people watching opportunities.

    Great post!

  3. Katie Hvidsten says:

    Lorraine, this is another great post–
    I have not been in an airport in over a year, but when I was last there, I found myself “people watching”. I find it fascinating how communication works- verbal and non-verbal. Everyday everyone communicates with someone some way or another. Be it internet, phone, sign language or even non-verbal cues. I find the world today is in constant communication compared to even ten years ago. In past decades lap tops and cell phones we’re not around, and now the majority of western population couldn’t go one day without a blackberry. Now that I think back to my last experience in the airport the majority of people had some type of electronic device with them.

    I agree that newspapers and magazines are much more interesting in the airport compared to any normal day! I tend to walk around looking at all the cheap souvieners and checking out different types of food. Although my favourite part of the airport experience would have to be people watching.

  4. Rebecca Roth says:

    With a father who is an airline pilot, I have spent a fair amount of time in an airport. However, the most memorable time I spent in an airport was when I was leaving for my first trip to Ecuador, South America when I was 17 years old. It was the trip of a lifetime, where I had the chance to spend one month with 25 other young people from across the world. We all met in the Toronto International Airport on the day of our departure, excited to be going on such an adventure, to a new country, and to meet many new wonderful friends. We were all excited, nervous, and extremely aware of everything around us.
    My dad had advised me to enjoy every second of the trip, even the long hours of travel, and I was intent to do just that. I was taking in the surroundings, the people, the shops( which came in handy in the 6 hours I spent there on the way home), and the new people that I was going to spend a large portion of my summer with. We were asked to turn off all our cellphones and truly enjoy the experience, no strings attached, and it could have not been more incredible. The feeling of excitement that comes from an airport in overwhelming and energizing. Every time I enter an airport, I cannot help but feel connected to everyone there who is about to embark on some sort of journey, and feel grateful that such a place exists.

  5. Laura Grande says:

    I similarly have spent many days in airport terminals, waiting for flights to and from home from university. The last trip I made to the airport was actually only a week ago, saying goodbye to my mother and two little sisters after seeing them for the weekend. While I was standing in line with them, waiting to get their boarding passes, I glanced at the dozens of other families standing in the same line, waiting to get to wherever it is their final destination is and I find myself wondering “where is this family going?” I’ve wondered this a lot over my years of traveling in Canada, the United States, and Europe. Everyone always has a story, and sometimes I like to develop my own story based on my initial reaction of people.

    One group of strangers I especially enjoy watching when in the States is the military. I see them arriving at the airport, some happy and some sad, and I wonder once again “where are they going?” I think to myself that the sad ones are leaving their loved ones behind for a year’s deployment, not knowing whether they will ever get to come home again if by chance something were to happen to them. Or perhaps they enjoy the military life to such an extent that returning to life back at home seems so mundane. I like to think the happy ones are returning home to see their family and friends after months of being apart, and I automatically feel joy for them. I know how difficult it is to be away from your family for long periods of time, but I could only imagine how it would feel when you have the stress of missing your family piled onto the stress of being deployed. I’ve seen Army men returning home at the airport and seeing their mothers and wives and daughters for the first time in months and the overwhelming joy that comes over their faces that no matter what, could never be erased. I’ve seen the look on men’s faces the first time they ever got to see their baby boy other than in pictures sent to them overseas, and the tears of joy that stream down their face when holding them for the first time, surrounding by strangers in the airport, only thinking about how much they’ve missed their family.

    Yes, I’d say if you spent enough time in an airport, you would get to see all types of events, from simple hellos and goodbyes, to screaming and yelling in excitement, to the silent couple who simply embrace each other for a few moments after being separated by distance for who knows how long. Every time I’m in an airport, I keep my eyes peeled to perhaps witness some of these events, unless of course I’m the one jumping up and down in excitement to see my family, them I’m just focused on us.

  6. Alyssa Marfisi says:

    I too enjoy airports and flying with a passion. I almost look forward to flying and being in an airport more than the trip itself.In fact, my parents recently chose to fly out of a smaller airport and I was so disappointed I wouldn’t be again in one of my favourite airports, Toronto International. I have never been one to look at people when at the airport, as I’m just as excited to be at an airport as to get on the plane! However, I do tend to people watch when I’m on the plane. I always wonder- why is this person going where I’m going- what are they doing there? Are they on a vacation? Volunteering? Going to school? To visit family? I also try to determine the relationship between different people flying- do they know each other from work? Were they friends growing up? How’d that couple meet? I find human dynamics fascinating. We were on one flight where there was a young boy of about 2 who was, to put it nicely, extremely annoying. Everytime his tv was shut off due to overhead announcements, he would protest quite loudly and whine, with no intervention from his mother or father. I thought this was interesting, that the child was able to get away with this behaviour with no consequences; all in the family dynamic- maybe the parents had already been exhausted by this child earlier in the day, or maybe it’s a nephew and they don’t feel comfortable interfering with any discipline. Verbal and non-verbal communication is very interesting to follow and provides clues as to the relationship between people.

  7. Sara Servage says:

    Pro’s and con’s of airports:
    pro- Going to an airport is where the holiday officially starts
    con- You walk around and buy normal food for double the price

    I have mixed feelings about airports as I enjoy walking around and watching people but I don’t like checking in my luggage and all of the security, however that is all a part of it.

    My first time on a plane was in grade 8 and I remember going to the Toronto airport and being terrified to move. They were so strict with luggage and there were people everywhere! As I got older though I learned to enjoy the airport more. I began watching people and taking note of the different clothes people were wearing and who they were travelling with.

    Something that always bothers me in airports though is that they are so big but many parents let their children roam around unattended. This past May I went to El Salvador with a group of students and we met at a cafe inside the airport before boarding that way we could get our group together and a little boy came running up to our group and sat there with us for a long time but we were all concerned about where his mother was. She eventually came by and away they went, she wasn’t concerned at all. Maybe its just me but I feel like I see this all the time at airports, and there are just so many people I would be afraid of something happening to my child.

  8. Kayt Eubank says:

    I too love being in airports! As a young person I have been fairly privileged as to the number of encounters that I have had in an airport. I have had the opportunity to travel both on my own and with my family and friends. The first time that I traveled alone I was thirteen years old and I was flying down to Washington DC to meet my cousin to help her adjust to having her new born baby home and still handle her three year old. I was so excited about traveling alone and seeing my cousin that I don’t really remember stopping to take in what was happening around me. However I do remember the security at the Buffalo airport on my way there as it was shortly following Sept 11.
    My next major trip, was a major trip! I was seventeen years old and I left home to go on an international student exchange to South Africa. I felt a lot more nervous this time in the airport. I was very cautious as to where my luggage was at all times and who was around me. I found a nice young family to tag along with and traveled with them! I loved sitting as I waited for my 6 hour lay over in Dulles Airport in the US to the many different lives within the airport. Airports are like a little world of their own. There are people walking casually looking into all the shop windows and even trying on clothes and purses. There are people running obviously trying to catch their connection or get something figured out with their plane and there are people just sitting and waiting until the next aspect of their trip or daily life (for business travelers) occurs. I remember while traveling this time to South Africa watching the different cultures and views of parenting. One point which really caught my eye was regarding breastfeeding. I was sitting waiting to board my plane and there were three breastfeeding mothers across from me. It must have been ironic that they were all together as not one said a word to the other. However they were all feeding their babies, one was bottle feeding, one was feeding proud without anything covering the mother or baby and the third seemed much less comfortable with the whole situation and was completely covered and continuously looking around to see if anyone was watching. I found it really interesting to see three different styles all together!

  9. Hi Lorraine, you ask “But why does the daily newspaper seem so much more interesting and essential when in an airport?”

    I think Everything is more interesting when we’re traveling. By getting out of our daily routines and comfort zones, we’re attracted to anything novel or different. And because we have more leisure time without the nagging responsibilities of everyday life, we’re more to reading and learning when we’re hanging out in the airport. It frees our senses and opens our minds. Travel on!


  10. Having an experience to go for an experience to travel has two kinds of faces. Faces of people who are happy because they will be able to see their love ones who haven’t seen for a long time. The other one are the people who are lonely for leaving their love ones because of their work and were not sure when to comeback. In short, airport is the place where people meets and leave one another for different reasons.

  11. There are airports and airports. If you go to Rusia, you will go through schiphol airport which is magnificent. The airport is enormous and you could find a piano if you want to express yourself with music. Other little airports, like the one at Cuzco (Peru) are only to run away from them (but the Cuzco city is beautiful).

  12. You made some great points here. It got me thinking. Wish I can sleep tonight. lol

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