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Airports: Deeply Human Spaces

Posted on Fri, February 24, 2017
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In his 1995 book Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, French anthropologist Marc Augé described airports as “non-places.” Augé argued that airports, along with supermarkets, hotels, and highways, function as sites in which “a person entering the space of non-place is relieved of his usual determinants. He becomes no more than what he does or experiences in the role of passenger, customer, or driver.” In this analysis, airports are places where personal characteristics and histories are, at least temporarily, negated by the experience of “solitude, and similitude.”

In American popular culture, airports have similarly been depicted as (non)places of solitude and similitude, in which homogenous landscapes of security lines, chain retail establishments, and sterile waiting areas erase any organic connection between the airport and its local environment, not to mention human connections among travelers themselves. Whether in LAX, NWK, or ATL, the traveler encounters the same security procedures, the same restaurant chains, the same Body Shops, and the same Brooks Brothers and Hudson News outlets. Or so the story goes.

This conception of airport homogeneity was perhaps most famously popularized in the 2009 film Up in the Air—adapted from Walter Kirn’s darkly comedic 2001 novel—which starred George Clooney as a corporate “downsizer,” who continuously traveled to companies around the nation in order to fire people. Clooney’s character, Ryan Binghham, embodied the solitude of which Augé wrote. Unable to maintain genuine connections with other people, Clooney’s character thrives upon the anonymity and “similitude” of a life spent in airports, airplanes, hotels, and rental cars. Avoiding familial and romantic relationships, Bingham’s greatest ambition is to cross the 10-million-mile mark (that is, to have flown 10 million miles).

Such representations of airports, however, obscure their more complex, and more fascinating, human history. In reality, the airport has functioned not as an anonymous, homogenous “non-space,” but a deeply social space—and, indeed, an emotionally charged space. Airports are where we unite with family and friends, whether from a neighboring state or from across the globe; where we, conversely, must leave beloved family and friends behind; where we arrive to celebrate births and marriages, and to mourn deaths. Airports are places which, in spite of their apparent antiseptic and anonymous character, are thoroughly imbued with social and emotional significance. I would venture to argue, in fact, that there is no other public place in which so many emotions are openly displayed: joy, sadness, anxiety, anger, loneliness, excitement, gratitude.

Band goes by the airport

Likely the opening day celebrations of the Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia on June 16, 1941. Spectators crowd the roof, observation gallery, and ground as the United States Army Band plays in the foreground.

Travelers in the main departures terminal.

Crowds in the main departures concourse in the passenger terminal at Dulles International Airport (IAD), Chantilly, Virginia, possibly 1967. 

My own life experience corroborates this analysis. When I was a child, my father traveled frequently on business; some of my most vivid childhood memories are of waiting with my mother for him at my hometown airport in Dayton, Ohio (back in the days when one could still proceed to the gate without a ticket). Fascinated by the world beyond my small Midwestern suburb, I was mesmerized by the departure and arrival screens, trying to imagine the places where the planes were going, or had been. The lists of destinations fascinated me—even though, at this relatively small airport, most of the flights were to US cities like New York or Detroit or Miami, rather than the far-flung and exotic locales advertised by airlines in the television and magazine advertisements that, years later, I would analyze in my book Empire of the Air: Aviation and the American Ascendancy. The Dayton Airport itself was not particularly glamorous, in spite of being located in the “Birthplace of Aviation,” where the Wright brothers had begun their careers as inventors. It had a single sit-down restaurant and a few shops (my favorite of which—long since out of business—was an old-timey “general store” kind of gift shop that sold penny candy and giant paper flowers, which my father would buy for me when he returned from his trips). It was, and is, a modest airport that lacks the soaring, evocative architecture and grandiosity of Eero Saarinen’s iconic Dulles International Airport and TWA Terminal at JFK (now the Jet Blue terminal). These airports, designed by the famed Finnish architect during the 1950s, aimed to project US global power and prestige to visitors from the world over; they embodied the jet-age ethos that the nation would move ever onward and upward. Dayton’s airport, by contrast, embodied the Midwestern modesty that the Wright brothers themselves also valued. But to me, that airport was still a magnificent, magical place: a gateway to the world, which beckoned me to dream of faraway lands and new experiences. Those childhood trips to the airport to meet my father—and, especially, when I myself would have the thrilling opportunity to take a flight on a family vacation—are, to a significant degree, why I became an aviation historian. Like most travelers, I get frustrated by flight delays, lost baggage, and other inconveniences that air travel can bring. Nonetheless, airports, for me, have always signified possibility.

Even as airports may appear, in one sense, to be homogenous “non-places”—and even as flying has lost much of its jet-age glamor and mystique—they continue to be profoundly human spaces, where emotions are displayed, where people connect across regional and national borders, where even the most jaded traveler might have a conversation with a fellow traveler that breaks, even for a moment, the solitude of “Air World” (as Up in the Air’s Ryan Bingham describes his nomadic habitat). “Air World,” I would suggest, is a state of mind rather than an inevitable reality. Sure, it is entirely possible (and sometimes desirable) to experience the airport as a “non-place,” to rush to and from the gateway with one’s headphones on, ignoring the other harried passengers, eating at the same chain restaurants and buying magazines at identical branches of Hudson News.

Next time you are at the airport, however—as long as you are not late for your flight!—you might try imagining it as I did as a child, as a gateway to new experiences and possibilities. Look at the destinations and arrivals boards: If you could go anywhere, where would you go? Rather than focusing on the apparent homogeneity of airport restaurants and shops, look for the unfamiliar and the local. These days, many airports have outposts of famed local restaurants, or even culinary destinations in their own right (whenever at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, I never miss an opportunity to eat at the acclaimed One Flew South). Many terminals also have fascinating art exhibits and installations: San Diego, Seattle-Tacoma, and Miami are some of my favorites, and the murals at Denver International Airport are, famously, the subject of various conspiracy theories. If you have extra time at the much-maligned LaGuardia, head to Terminal A to see James Brooks’ stunning circular mural “Flight,” completed in 1942 under the Works Progress Administration. Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport even has a small museum that exhibits Dutch masterpiece paintings. And nearly every airport sells local products—such as the terrific local wine that I bought in the Boise airport—indicating that airports are more connected to their localities than Augé’s conception of “non-places” would suggest.

In short, one does not have to travel in the solitude and similitude of “Air World.” Of course, some, like Ryan Bingham, prefer solitude and similitude; especially for frequent flyers, the familiar can ease the discomforts and inconveniences of travel. And, to be sure, the experience of flying has lost some of the transcendent allure that it held during the mid-century “golden age of aviation.” However, as the enormous popularity of this very museum attests, aviation still captivates the imagination. If we view airports not as “non-places” but as gateways to new experiences, sites of social encounters that are often carry profound emotional meaning, and places with unique local histories and characteristics—in short, as deeply human spaces—then we can understand our time at the airport as part of our journey, and not simply a means to it.

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