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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Terminal 5, Earth to Air

“To know me is to fly with me.” –George Clooney in Up in the Air

What a brilliant idea— place Alain de Botton, a philosopher, documentarian, and essayist on architecture, literature, status, love, travel, everything, at a desk in the middle of Heathrow airport’s Terminal 5 for a week and see what happens. He’s bald and unassuming. Beyond just the opening scene of Love Actually, Botton is both centerpiece and observer, taking the pulse of the modern world. What’s so special about the airport? It’s not just a place to catch a flight, but one of drama and wonder. The secret world— Botton breaks it down.

I’ve had that prototypical experience of sweat gathering on my temples, frantically searching for a flight or a kind heart after missing my connection to an important meeting. But, more often, I love spending the extra time, even relishing a hefty delay. Whether we admit it or not, most of us have this itch, too. Lights conspire with Altoids, suckering you into overpaying for a magazine you never end up reading. I love the solitude and the community, how warm it can feel. Or, talking to a father or bartender about their fears to see if they’re anything like mine. Or, getting your coffee fix near your gate. Or, the rows of wrapped, strangely identical chicken sandwiches. If you’re into airplane food, no worries, there’s a place where passengers post pictures of their tray table food by airline.

Riding the monorail at O’Hare an extra loop is so different from the subway or Amtrak, with the sliding doors unusually wide and the ride impeccably smooth. Is this what H.G. Wells imagined? In fact, one of the only places in the world that feels real to me is an airport. Things infinite and elastic come up against tall glass, cold lines, and rigid rituals. I feel a million subconscious negotiations taking place. The airport is as much a teacher of design, psychology, and fiction as it is a hub of transport. Can you really get bored looking at a boarding pass?

Innate excitement. This feeling, the curiosity, that we felt as a kid at the airport never really left us. Looking up at the boards at Fort Lauderdale, Seoul, Minneapolis, Stuttgart, or Sydney, you realize that by walking through a gate you can radically change your life. Walking past gates opening to Tehran or Dallas, you wonder about more than ground conditions.

The big thoughts. The airport is a please of dislocation, it’s where we come up against big thoughts. What does this relationship actually mean? What do I want to do? You see people enmeshed in these thoughts over fried calamari, waiting. Far more than throwing out the water bottle, trying to move liquids into your check-in, or finding the right passageway to your terminal, it’s rather the big things that subtly dominate. But the atmosphere doesn’t always fit. You’re staring out the glass, out at the edge of the world. Tender feelings are met with sharp industrial equipment, gasoline air, rubber, and X-ray cubbies, both alien and familiar. Think about those strange five or ten minutes when you re-acquaint with your loved ones at arrival, at once family and strangers.

Confronting your mortality. It’s not something you really think about at the check-in kiosk. And it has nothing to do with the statistics of driving. But, chip past the veneer. There’s something more distant, detached, supernatural about flying. It’s not like getting on the bus.  It’s why, as Botton says, you might end up buying a stuffed bear, a second orthopedic pillow, a giant whiskey, or ornamental plate at the duty free.

Surrender. Driving up to the intertwining, crescent ramps to your terminal, you feel it right away— the loss of control. It continues all the way through. It’s a place about surrender, vulnerability and can be a bitter pill swallow for a lot of people. The security line feels intrusive and makes you second guess— did you pack the right things?

Public or private? Despite the public vastness, we often think we are in our own bubble with no one watching at the airport. So many visible displays of sadness, the goodbyes. The marine leaving his fiancĂ©e on a yearlong tour of duty. As Botton says “the world is full of people nursing such agonies.”  But, the airport is so conducive to people-watching— every strata, culture, and personality mashed together. The truth is you never know who’s watching you. It’s Botton’s “delicious ambiguity”.

It’s not easy to missthe stage of intense storylines. Spin around 55 times, add in electric boards, cold metal, moving walkways, glossy showcases, strollers, and seductive terminals. A clarity is borne from confusion. 

What’s the use of knowing all this? Mad Men’s Don Draper exalts advertising as boiling down such emotions to their most basic elements. Companies, operators, airlines, and advertisers could monetize these emotions. But, that misses the point. Yes, you could be another lifeless consultant. The fact is we miss what makes us human. Botton unpacks what we neglect— that journey in an airport is as much inward as anywhere else. These are the ebbs and flows that subtly guide us. Think about it when you’re pulling out your ID or passport in line this holiday season. To be human, it’s best to know your cards.