Though I do not remember much of the book now, I do remember having a revelation of sorts while reading the book Airport by Arthur Hailey decades ago. The book itself was written in the 1960’s, and I read it in the 1990’s probably. As a child I had never been to an airport. The rare times that we got to see a flight overhead, we all craned our necks with wonder. There was an awe to it all. I grew up in a place so small that it is hardly ever depicted in maps, nestled in the forests and hills – the nearest airport was a tiny functional but not busy one (then) over a 100 miles away) . So, we hardly saw flights overhead. Even after all these years, there still is an awe when I see a flight overhead. Every now and then, when I have finished up the day’s work and I am able to sit outside gazing at the stars, I watch fascinated if a flight flies overhead.
I seem to have meandered into flights when I wanted to talk about airports. Anyway.
The past few months saw us lounging around airports more than we usually do. Strange as it is, airports are also the places of packed emotions, evoking longing and belonging in equal measure. Even 200 years ago, mankind could never have imagined a future in which air travel was not just possible, but also affordable for many. It is no wonder then that airports have always enthralled me.
Every time, I peered out at the folks working behind the scenes so we could arrive and leave the places we were supposed to, when we were supposed to, I felt like sending them a little salute. The baggage tags, the runways, the meal preferences, the entertainment options while onboard, the staff ensuring that all that baggage is sent on its way, the technicians and airlines who ensure that the flights are properly staffed and functional, the immigration staff, the janitors, the software and machinery ensuring all of this works.
Looking around at the passengers, I noticed many who looked askance at the baggage carousel. But the whooshing sound when the carousel starts to spin and magically spewing passengers checked-in baggage is like an applause. For all the things that must’ve happened to make sure your baggage comes out where it supposed to.
Where this sense of awe around airports flagged a bit was at the security check lines. The process seems to be getting lengthier, lengthier :This time, we had to take out all cosmetics and creams, and send then through separate security checks, apart from shoes, jackets, belts and all the regular paraphernalia.
Which brings me to the topic of cosmetics.
As we walked past the brightly lit duty free shopping areas, I found myself having pedestrian thoughts, more than philosophical ones. I often feel that way in commercial shopping areas. Why do this many companies seem to think that cosmetics are absolute essentials to buy before boarding that 16-hour flight? Invariably by the time you land in your airport and are ready to face the immigration officer who points a golf ball sized camera at your face, I feel sorry for the officer who has to interact with us – grumpy frumpy curled up masses stretching their limbs while plodding in a line, trying to straightening their hair before heading to the immigration officer’s booth.
As I flew past the shops, my eyes often scoured for the one luxury that has become increasingly hard to find in our digital world – bookstores. Why do we dedicate so many shops and products to non-intellectual aspects of our personality, and so few to books? I reveled in the bookstores – taking pictures of books in all the different European languages and buying a book or two as my baggage could accommodate.
I am not sure how airports evolved over the past 50 years, but the larger airports have made indoor marvels of these hubs of activity. The Amsterdam Schipol Airport had a clock that had us all looking at it open jawed as the man behind the mechanical marvel worked his way through the day showing us the time. We sat there wondering how they managed to do this. We came up with programmatic techniques, and other possibilities. We completely missed out the simplest one of somebody performing this 24 hour video that played on loop.
Ha! Simple and elegant – the best designs always are.
The Doha airport in Qatar was spruced up for the World Cup no doubt, but still having an interior looking like an orchard in the middle of the dessert.
The Santorini airport in Greece was small and befitting a tiny island tucked away in the Aegean Sea. The Athens airport had some of the best books on Greek mythology (or maybe I had the most time in this airport to browse).
As I descended in the San Francisco airport, I felt the flutter of welcome in my bones – welcome home! The baggage carousel whirred and our bags came tumbling out after traveling halfway around the world. I am glad we are able to feel the gratitude of coming home.
I shall miss the bookstores, but relish home.