Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ode to Airports

I found this list of travel observations on my laptop, which I wrote in 2009 while flying to Florida to see a dear friend. I'm posting it now in honor of all the dramatic airline stories in the news this week. Re-reading it makes me want to take another trip.

I really enjoy traveling alone. It’s nice to be anonymous with no one to keep track of or keep up with. I like being able to operate on my own schedule and have the freedom to alternate between “rigid” and “helter-skelter."

I slept on the shuttle during the 2.5 hour trip here to the airport. I’m well rested, feeling sharp in a denim jacket and bright orange scarf and reliving my independent traveler days. I’m armed with a new book, my laptop, comfortable shoes, and cell phone. What more could a girl need? The world is my oyster.

Airports are like malls: lots of people-watching opportunities, a variety of shops (all over-priced), and plenty of nooks and crannies to disappear into. They contain a wonderful cross-section of humanity. And by wonderful I mean harrowing.

This place is a sociological gold mine of human behavior. Where else could you find this many people funneled through such a narrow opening of common experience? Maybe at Wal-Mart. Or the county fair.

Everyone here is consumed by timetables, departures and destinations. We travel for a variety of reasons but use a common mode of transportation. Most of us could do without the proximity to one another.

Airports are designed to be idiot-proof. You’d have to work really hard to miss all the signs, instructions, public service announcements and last calls. We are herded like cattle, instructed to remove our shoes in a public place and expose the contents of our pockets and purses. It all feels ridiculous, but we do it in the name of safety.

And I do feel safer.

Knowing that any potential crazies are subjected to the same treatment at least levels the playing field. If my flight ends badly, I can rest assured it won’t be because someone had any liquid in excess of three ounces, without a zip-lock bag to carry it in.

We’re all here temporarily. For some that translates to "take it in stride,” put up with the inconveniences and roll with the punches. For others, it means "treat strangers like dirt and demand preferential treatment whenever possible."

Like the guy at the ticket counter who got all pissy with the airline agent while trying to locate his luggage, after he told the agent his layover location rather than his final destination. His bags were long gone, presumably en route to the wrong city. The ticket agent tried to remain calm while several dozen people watched. He turned bright red and kept his voice as low and even as he could while describing a very simple progression of cause and effect: you screwed up, you deal with it. The angry passenger kept shifting his weight impatiently, shaking his head in disbelief, and even threw a ballpoint pen in disgust.

Or consider the woman in line in front of me who stood in one place, waiting for instructions, even though she had not checked in electronically nor received a boarding pass from the counter. She announced without irony that she was going to miss her flight yet stood still, waiting for some direction. Another man paced between computer terminals, eager to leave his luggage with someone in a uniform and go find his gate. Lots of frustrated facial expressions and darting eyes. Fascinating.

Wouldn’t an airport be an ideal context for a social experiment? Travelers are stressed, tired, uncomfortable, and possessive. With this many variables intersecting and so many desired outcomes, I can’t help but compare myself to a rat in a maze, looking for the biggest piece of cheese. Maybe they’ll serve some on my in-flight snack.

I love to see what people consider “travel clothes.” Some are clearly headed for the Outback, dressed like Crocodile Dundee, complete with a canteen on their utility belt and a walking stick (how’d they get that past security?). Others are dressed for success, announcing via their wardrobe “I belong in first class,” with power suits, ties, briefcases, and wing-tipped shoes (I wish I had the cojones to wear a sleeveless dress and heels on an airplane). And then there are those who opt for a super-casual travel experience with a pillow under each arm and a tote bag filled with snacks, dressed in PJs and flip-flops.

Okay, the guy sitting next to me is on his phone, updating his Mama on the status of a sick relative. Including bowel movements. I’m outta here.

Bon voyage.

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