Happily Adrift in Airworld

Eric Weiner: On his love for the places so many hate, from Amsterdam's Schiphol to Doha International

01.19.10 | 11:57 AM ET


I recently endured a 13-hour layover at Doha International Airport. No, endured is not the right verb. Enjoyed is more like it. Savored. You see, my dirty little secret is that I actually like airports. I look forward to spending time in them—even the bad ones—and could happily spend months ensconced in a transit lounge like that character in the Tom Hanks movie “The Terminal.” Only I’d be there not because of some visa problem but by choice.

I realize this probably seems—how to put this?—insane. Most travelers view airports the same way they view an annual physical—something to dispense with as quickly as possible and, hopefully, with a scrap of dignity remaining. Not me. I love the self-contained, benevolent universe that is Airworld. Suspended between coming and going, neither here nor there, I can breathe again. For me, a layover is like that small, barely perceptible gap between thoughts, a blissful intermission between did-I-leave-the-coffee-maker-on and how-will-I-ever-meet-my-deadline. Paradise.

Airworld doesn’t make any demands of me. It doesn’t ask me to behave in a certain way, only that I take my shoes off when told and spread my arms like a scarecrow. That I can handle. There are no deadlines in Airworld, except the one printed on my boarding card. That, too, I can handle. There is very little crime in Airworld (all those uniformed people with guns might have something to do with it) and nobody ever gets lost, at least not for long. The best thing about Airworld, though, is time. It’s elastic, stretching into infinity—or until the 3:35 p.m. to Chicago, whichever comes first. 

Airworld is also a great place for amateur anthropologists like myself. You can’t beat the people watching, especially at airports like Doha International, a crossroads between East and West. Backpackers with their Teva sandals jostle alongside Muslim women covered head-to-toe in burkhas. I like to play guess-the-nationality or concoct plausible scenarios for my fellow travelers. That man, the blond one with the broad smile and dainty gift bag from Duty Free, is en route to Milan to meet his Italian girlfriend. Those two, the couple with the matching Louis Vuitton luggage, are taking their last vacation as a couple, though they don’t know it yet. The genius of this game is that, provided I don’t actually talk to these people, I can never be proved wrong.

A common complaint about airports is that they’re all the same. I don’t think that’s true. Each airport is different, albeit in subtle ways, and it’s these small differences that I revel in. The luggage carts at Dubai track differently from those at Denver. The lounge chairs at Hong Kong feel different from those in Kuala Lumpur. Airports even smell different. To this day, I still associate India with the pungent, slightly sweet aroma of Indira Gandhi International Airport. (I later learned that the odor is actually that of airborne pollutants, but I still adore it.)

One of my favorite airports is Amsterdam’s Schiphol. Security lapses aside, it’s a thing of beauty. For starters, it’s a manageable size. You can get anywhere on foot. No need to take a train or helicopter between terminals. Schiphol, like all truly great airports, coddles you in the warm glow of fluorescent lights, stale air and the promise of endless possibilities. You exit the jetway, look around and gasp, Oh my God, there is so much to do. To enter Schiphol is to feel like an 8-year-old entering Disney World for the first time.

I once spent 12 of the happiest hours of my life at Schiphol. I shopped. I got a massage. I enjoyed an excellent meal in a faux beach-front café. I meditated. And yet I had not depleted all of the possibilities. Not by a long shot. If I had more time, I could have tried my hand at roulette at the casino and, assuming I lost my shirt, as I usually do, I could buy a new one in Duty Free then salve my wounded pride at the airport bar and, finally, sleep it off at the new capsule hotel. 

Ultimately, though, it’s not what you can do in Airworld that draws me back again and again but what you can’t do. You can’t wander too far. Ironically, nowhere on the planet forces us to be here now as much as the one structure designed to get us someplace else.

10 Comments for Happily Adrift in Airworld

Lindsey 01.19.10 | 1:59 PM ET

That was GREAT! I’m still laughing…. and willing admit, also to such guessing games and related experiences! Cheers Eric!

Terry 01.19.10 | 4:59 PM ET

My eight-hour layover at Singapore Changi flew by this week. I considered leaving the premises for the free, two-hour city tour, but got distracted by the airport’s butterfly garden, free foot massage machines and good Asian food court. I had a shower in the transit lounge and killed another hour with a massage there (worth all 89 Singapore dollars it cost me). I kept telling myself I should have gone and checked out the city. But a taste of the tropics enroute to winter would have been cruel. And hey, there was just too much to do at the airport itself!

Maxine Sheppard 01.19.10 | 5:17 PM ET

This is a great article Eric. I can totally relate to this. I love airports and consider that ‘downtime’ before or between flights to be precious. Because it’s something we often have no control over, it becomes a kind of *legitimate* laziness. How often do we get the opportunity to sit and do nothing but people watch and not feel guilty about being unproductive? It’s like being stuck in a kind of no-man’s land - an enforced limbo that’s actually a bit of a guilty pleasure. There’s something intoxicating about the uniform rows of seats, the vast windows, the nondescript food outlets, the faraway looks in the eyes of other passengers, the foreign magazine stands with alien celebrities staring out at you, the alluring pings and bleeps that precede a boarding announcement. For some reason I find these things give me a simultaneous sense of both comfort and detachment when I’m travelling, and I look forward to it almost as much as the destination itself.

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Chuck K 01.20.10 | 1:13 AM ET

I think there’s a fundamental difference between wanted to spend time at an airport on one’s own accord and being forced to stay there due to flight delays.  I, too, love airports on my schedule.  They each have their own charm - from the but at Aitutaki Atoll in the Cook Islands to the megaplex of JFK.  I don’t mind getting there 2-3 hours in advance and walking around; nor having a 2-3 hour connection and, again, walking around and exploring.  Its when there are flight delays that I get anxious and upset.  Especially when I see the word “delayed.”  Then again, I remember an aircraft breakdown in Juneau.  When told there would be a 3 hour delay awaiting a new aircraft to be flown in from Anchorage, the whole waiting area stood up in unison and headed to the airport bar.  Small airport, one bar, everyone happy.

bed frame 01.20.10 | 3:06 AM ET

Your post gave me a big laugh! I like traveling and having great experiences while doing it.

pam 01.20.10 | 8:48 PM ET

Schiphol has gotten so much better over the years—I used to dread stopping there and now, I’m with you, it’s not a bad place to hang out. Once, though, I found myself all the way out of Heathrow in the train station and that, oh, THAT was a wonderland. I’ve also found myself stuck at SeaTac, my home airport, a few times recently, and I’m amazed to say that each time, I’ve rather enjoyed myself. Though my favorite ever, tiresome dilettante that I am, still has to be Singapore where there’s a roof top swimming pool.

Worldwide travel recommendations 01.22.10 | 12:37 AM ET

Great article! I wish I could say that I always share your enthusiasm for airports, but I’ve found that my enjoyment of airports depends on where I’m going, as much as what the airport is like. I have many fond memories of both old and new airports in Bangkok and Hong Kong, as these were typically stops enroute to places I loved like Indonesia, Myanmar, and India. On the flip side, if it’s a layover on yet another business trip, then time in the airport is not so enjoyable!

Pierre Khawand 01.22.10 | 2:55 AM ET

Great piece as usual. For one reason or another it reminded me of this great video where this comedian really gets into the travel thing and makes some great comments. I just wrote about it a few days agon and here is the post which includes the link to the video: http://tinyurl.com/y9h3ubn

Mary Arulanantham 01.28.10 | 3:28 AM ET

My family typically has some kind of layover in our Asian travels. My husband always looks for fishy snacks at Narita, one daughter sleeps, but I and the other daughter typically walk from one end to the other as in our last 6 hour stop in Bangkok, making up stories about the people we see. Hey, at 4 in the morning, anything’s funny. We laughed at the signs saying not to ride luggage carts on top of the people movers (that amazingly go up and down, as well as forward). That was precisely what my 17 year old wanted to do, but I told her that spies were everywhere.

Lawrence 03.15.10 | 12:18 PM ET

I love this article! I have the same feelings whenever I am in an airport. I just love them. Everythings so amazing in them and I can relax in them unlike some people. Thanks for the Indira Gandhi part. I can’t wait to smell that smell soon.

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