Image: “Escalator in Atlanta Airport,” Judy Baxter, via Flickr.

In the spirit of John Green’s book of the same title, our theme for the month of October is “the Anthropocene reviewed.” Writers were asked to review and rate some facet of human experience on a five-star scale.

When I dress for an upcoming flight, I dress more for the airport than for the airplane, and when I pack my travel bag, I pack my books and snacks more for the terminal than the sky. But unless you are an airport employee, everyone arrives at an airport in order to leave it. Like most liminal spaces, airports are places where enjoying the experience is a choice rather than the plan.

On December 19, 1903, on the windswept dunes near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville and Wilbur Wright would have heard the crash of waves. The whistling whir of sand. The calls and chirps of whatever birds had stayed along the coast into the winter. And they would have been thinking of a hundred thousand things that might or could go wrong. That had gone wrong on their previous attempts.

When they launched the very first successful flight into the sky, the Wright brothers probably would have had great difficulty associating their invention with stale air and long, long stretches of boredom. But Orville and Wilbur would still have understood the modern desire to stop waiting and just fly.

Watching airport scenes from Friends or When Harry Met Sally, even listening to stories from my parents and their generation, I feel as if I am viewing reports from another country or culture. The setting is familiar, but strange. Meeting family and friends at the gate does not happen here, in this place, in my life. It has never even been a consideration.

While my earliest flights took place years before 9/11, my earliest memories of flights take place after that event—and so the idiosyncrasies of modern airline security have never felt unusual to me. The post-9/11 background static of fear and anxiety has always hummed in the background of all my airport visits. It’s not that I spend my time worrying about potential tragedies; I simply do not know what it is like to enter an airport and not even glance at the possibility of danger.

After my long, sleepy trek through security scanners, I begin to hunt for my gate. If the airport is large, I follow the signs in a kind of practiced panic, hoping my navigation skills and my schedule can collide in a less-than-stressful manner. If I’m lucky enough to have extra time, I grab food and perhaps some caffeine, find a bathroom and a water fountain, browse the kitsch at the gift shop, and double-double-check that I have headphones and non-drowsy Dramamine for the upcoming flight. Then, tired of the stale air and the swirl of strangers, I settle into the spot I will claim until boarding time.

At my gate, I always slip into eavesdropping on those around me, gathering snippets of plans that are not my own. I try to piece together lives from bits of evidence: is that hat a new souvenir or an old memory? Is that shirt a sign of hometown pride or an attempt at local camouflage? Are our destinations the same, or is that person heading somewhere beyond the city where our plane will land?

Airports force us to wait, so they force us to know that we are not in control. The best airport experience is uneventful—no delays, no odd encounters, no lost items or missed connections. But the weather does not often agree with our plans. Neither do supply chains, repair schedules, staffing problems, obscure policies, or a thousand other potential troubles. Airports breed impatience and frustration in their occupants. After long lines, broken machinery, delayed flights, or customer service wrangling, many of us have found those emotions spilling out of our minds and into our minds and actions. Cruelty and its cousin insensitivity are not surprising in an airport. Kindness is.

When I was preparing to spend a semester in York, England, I packed my sermon notebook—a brown leather volume, stuffed with scribbled notes from the churches I’d attended at home and in home, and scattered prayers from and about my college years—in the front pocket of my carry-on suitcase. I rolled the suitcase through airports in Grand Rapids, Atlanta, and finally Manchester, then lugged it to my new flat in York—where I discovered that its front pocket was empty.

A few weeks after my arrival, my parents received a phone call from a Southern-accented stranger. An Atlanta airport employee had discovered my missing notebook in the terminal, and somehow, she had connected it back to me. “I could tell this meant a lot to someone,” the woman said.

Several months later, I was reunited with my family and my notebook—despite and because of airports.

I give airports three stars.

1 Comment

  1. Josh Parks

    Have you read Ursula Le Guin’s short story collection Changing Planes? It starts as a meditation on airports and then becomes a tour of various fantasy worlds that you can only get to while waiting for a plane. It’s delightful!


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