flightgeist-october-2009

©istockphoto.com/Simon Oxley

When I was a kid, my father used to take me to a grassy field at the end of one of the runways at YUL and we would watch the airplanes take off and land above our heads. Sometimes, we would even go to the terminal building itself and step out onto a viewing deck to watch the world’s aircraft taxiing right below us. We would spend hours there and we usually packed a lunch.

These days, we would not be able to step out anywhere for security reasons. And we wouldn’t need to pack a lunch. That airports have become shopping malls is well documented. Transumers spend money and smart airport planners are only too happy to design spaces that allow Transumers to do what they do best. But all those shopping spaces have always been designed for people on the move. Now, it seems, airports are also trying to attract those staying put.

Meaning the airport as mega mall is getting its own kind of semantic makeover. It wants to become a destination in its own right. Authorities in Zurich are doing this by bringing back the viewing platform and even helping organize children birthday parties and by reimbursing parking fees for shoppers. In Vancouver, airport authorities have seen an upsurge in calls from wedding planners ever since the Canada Line reduced commuting times to the airport to less than 20-minutes from downtown (which is perhaps not much of a stretch given that the Fairmont Vancouver Airport has hosted weddings for years).

That Airworld is a powerful economic engine to local economies has been understood since the birth of air travel. The term Airport Cities is a clunkier version of Airworld (I’ve also seen the term Aerotropolis), but there are annual conferences for those intimately connected to Airworld or, at least, plotting its future. And the amount of studies about “emerging” Air Cities will soon rival the amount of talk about “edge cities” and the “new urbanism” we endured in the 1990s.

Not all airports will succeed in the wider, broader Airworld. And only a handful will be successful at attracting locals to shop, play, eat or get married. The idea of getting married at Vancouver airport works because it isn’t too far from the urban core, it is amazingly accessible by public transit (meaning a direct train link), and its design and function have not excluded locals.

Airports have an advantage as destination that is unique: the romance of travel. Yes, most people still love the idea of travel. They still idealize it. And airports are cathedrals to that idea, incarnations of the interconnectedness of the world. My joy at seeing an aircraft take off when I was a child exists still. I remain enthralled by flight. Luckily, I fly enough that I don’t need to go to the airport just to watch the airplanes. But if you want to soak in the atmosphere of travel without having the means or desire to leave, the world’s airports are beginning to answer to your specific needs.

First posted in Air Canada’s enRoute, which is also published by Spafax.