Airports are more than cities. They are, to use a word that I’m starting to dislike more and more, communities. I dislike the word because of its egregious overuse, but I have to agree that it still means something in its original sense(s): a group of people living in one space under one government, or as a group of people sharing a common interest. Well, airports offer “community” for both and support both definitions. And at a place like Heathrow, which is not the world’s greatest airport, not by a long shot (in fact, it continues to be ranked as one of the world’s worst airports), this sense is heightened by the immensity of the place, by the fact that it creates its own ecosystem, with various communities under one roof.
The pre-security agents and businesses, for example. The cleaning staff. Security. And then post-Customs, the duty free area (one thing that is done properly at Heathrow, though Terminal 3 is still rather cramped) and its employees, the customs agents themselves, the gate personnel, baggage handlers. (Writer Alain de Boton talks about this almost exclusively in his new book, A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary, a title that renders the contents of the book self-explanatory).
You walk through a large airport and you very quickly realize you are in more than a simple transit point. And even if you are running through an airport, that feeling of being in something larger, of being a part of a community, becomes apparent. Your fellow passengers, regardless of where they are going, are obvious partners, everyone a citizen of Airworld. I find affinities with almost everyone in an airport. So in Heathrow, with the agent at the Air Canada counter, sure, but also with the salesman in the Paul Smith store, with the cashier ringing up my purchase of Pimm’s and Fortnum and Mason lemon cookies (try it) and the lady restocking the salad bar in the lounge — all were denizens of the larger community of Heathrow, itself part of Airworld. Contrast this sense of community with one in, say, a hotel — where your common experience is the property and the city you are in — and you begin to see how different and unique Airworld really is.
Some airports are so dreadful that the feeling of community is almost defensive (I’m looking at you LGA), the commonality being shared negative feelings toward the space (which, in the real world, might lead to something like revolution). But not every place in the world is going to be to everyone’s liking. And there is a kinship in that feeling, too. Of course, the opposite is also true. I have found that the experience in well designed airports, like YVR (Vancouver) or DTW (Detroit), to be different but for opposite reasons. Especially in an airport like DTW, where almost everyone is in transit, the fact that it’s almost impossible to get lost adds something positive to the conversation (“Can you believe this place?”) and also, ironically, takes something away from the conversation (this is my take, so please comment if you disagree, but isn’t the rapport with a stranger heightened by a shared grievance?).
Despite its many flaws, Airworld is still a sexy place. A place like Heathrow, with people literally flying all over the world from one spot, is a remarkable place to realize the vastness and diversity of Airworld, of ideas travelling and coming together in unexpected ways. The modernity of Airworld, and the speed with which one can now transmit ideas both seen and heard (like this) is not just thrilling, it’s something one has to absolutely accept in order to not just get ahead in the world, but to keep up with it. And in the communities that are airports, ideas don’t just move, they move at supersonic speed. Transmitted instantly.
First posted on Air Canada’s enRoute online, also published by Spafax.