:: Article

All That’s Solid Melts Into Airports

By Christopher Schaberg.

A Bloomberg piece from last summer declared, “The Airports of the Future Are Here.”

Never mind the temporal contradiction in the hed, I was intrigued. I started reading the article and almost immediately decided to assign it in my quirky “Interpreting Airports” seminar at Loyola University New Orleans. The article highlights several top-rated airports around the world, and suggests that innovations just on the horizon will make future airports easier to navigate and more efficient. New biometric scanning equipment is lauded, and these same technologies are predicted to revamp the routines of bag drop, security, and customs. I breezed through the piece (it’s maybe 1000 words, max), rolled my eyes at a few points, then I set it aside.

When I revisited this click-baity piece with my students recently, I was astounded by how oddities and insidious assumptions creep up throughout. Had I never reread this throwaway article, it would have been lost in the oblivion of online news, another garbage instance of futurism intended only to drive internet advertising in the moment. But not this time. My students and I sunk into this piece: we read it closely, using the assorted tools that liberal arts critics learn to carry and deploy at will. And it was incredibly illuminating.

This class is an interdisciplinary seminar, meaning, truth be told, a loosely disciplinary seminar. I’m an English professor, but the class barely resembles an “English” class per se. My students and I consider a wide variety of things in this seminar, from popular business-themed articles to ethnographies, from historical accounts to visual art, from poems to architectural master plans. Throughout our class, we’re talking about air travel and its discontents—unpacking the baggage, as it were, of our culture of flight.

In the first paragraph of the piece in question, something literary jumped out at us: “Transiting a modern hub such as Munich or Seoul is more easily endured than threading your way through the perpetual construction zones that pass for airports around New York.” What are these “perpetual construction zones”? My students were quick to jump on this: they are metaphors! When talking about airports, even in a frank, business-forward fashion, it’s as if we can’t avoid heading into literary land: a realm of fantasy and fabulation. Even when airports include areas under renovation, it is a stretch to say that they are construction zones. Isn’t it?

Many airports are construction zones, even as they continue to operate normally on a day-to-day basis: getting people from curb to plane, from plane to plane, and plane to curb. Even as they do these things, airports are under renovation and sometimes outright rebuilding. At my home airport just outside New Orleans, a new terminal is being built across the runway. The existing structure increasingly feels dilapidated and vacant as gates are phased out in anticipation of the new space in progress: a skein of columns and beams, plate glass windows, massive skeletal arcades. A billion dollar project not quite legible, yet, as an airport.

So the construction zone is a metaphor that contains kernels of truth—especially as we consider the theme of the Bloomberg piece, airports of the future. Readers are primed for the future by this derogatory metaphor. If we start thinking about airports as part-rubble, half-built, then maybe we can better steel ourselves to imagine the airports to come.

What are these airports, what promises do they hold? What secrets do they hide? The piece gets more interesting as we read on. With a widening array of amenities and entertainment options—not to mention employment opportunities— “People will choose to go to the airport.” This is a recurring fantasy fruit that gets juiced from time to time: the idea that airports may become so desirous as to become destinations themselves. There is a threshold here, somewhere, at which point people decide that their present space takes priority over far-flung locales. If the ultimate airport is a rich, luscious place brimming with entrainment and energy, a true magnet for local citizens—and if every airport can become such a site—of what use are the airplanes, of what use the term “destination” as we know it? John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay have called these future nodes aerotropoli, but we might as well ground all the pesky planes and call such a place utopia, instead.

In the next paragraph of the Bloomberg piece, things get even more interesting. We learn about “infrastructure investments and technologies that will, in theory, allow airports to largely eradicate the dreaded waiting.” In theory. Of course, we all know that the practice of air travel is far messier and more uncomfortable than the airline loyalty pamphlets make it appear. Indeed, the “dreaded waiting” acts as an instance of apophasis in this sentence, stating and projecting the very thing that is supposedly being put under erasure. But another word stands out here: “eradicate.” I ask my students what contexts this word evokes, and they say disease, and insects, and pests. Look how the phenomenology of airport waiting gets naturalized as something that can be cast out, once and for all. Yet we know the truth of the matter is that any number of factors out of any one person’s direct control—weather, technology, geopolitics—can snarl air travel and make it grin to a halt. The in theory collapses under even the most minimal invitation of texture and details—under the reality of flight.

The same paragraph explains how “travellers will migrate around the terminal faster and see fewer walls and physical barriers.” Here is another naturalizing word, “migrate”—as if admitting the wild, undomesticated status of human travellers. And again the civilised portrait of the hallowed future of airports shatters into a variegated, ragged landscape.  As if to drive this home, the final sentence of this paragraph includes the clause “how airports will evolve”— suddenly, airports themselves are changing organisms in an ecosystem unfolding over time. Later in the article an aviation industry leader states, “We need to evolve the terminals into being little cities.” It’s a strange way to think about evolution, as an active verb, as something that humans can do to other things (like airports). Either way, to talk in terms of evolution is to conjure vast expanses of time. This is hardly consistent with the temporal framework of this piece, which is focused on the next two to three decades, at most. How airports “will evolve” may sound like an edgy way to talk about air travel—but are we really prepared to consider human flight on an evolutionary timescale? The actual edge here is precipitous.

The next paragraph commences with a bold pronouncement: “One day, the airport will know ‘everything about everyone moving in the airport,’ said Seth Young, director of the Center for Aviation Studies at Ohio State University.” My students rightly identified this as a horrific situation, a society of total surveillance in which everyone is free as long as everyone is constantly monitored and anyone can be eliminated from the system at any moment. Quite the picture of democratic mobility. Hieronymus Bosch please return, and paint a picture of this airport.

Further down the rabbit hole we go. My students bristle when we read that as part of the process, an airport design firm “measured anxiety levels for different passenger types.” My students want details: they want to know how exactly anxiety can be measured—particularly given the squishy, subjective reality of anxiety, which, as many of them attest, only gets heightened when it is being “measured.” Furthermore, what is a passenger “type”? My students pounce on this sentence, and I gleefully urge them on. What sounds like justifiable social science in the service of good design buckles under the slightest scrutiny. This is not what we should call human progress.

The Bloomberg piece drives toward an unsurprising endpoint: how airports are, fundamentally, revenue generating machines. “Amid all this increased efficiency, airports are also keen to have people linger so they’ll buy more stuff.” My students are rattled by the notion that the romantic, cosmopolitan miracle of flight is really no more than a thinly veiled excuse for rampant profit extraction. Of course the ‘airport as mall’ is a well-trod expression, but the article makes it quite literal:

“The number of passengers that flow through airports really rivals any other mechanism out there that can congregate that many customers in one place,” says Ken Buchanan, executive vice president of revenue management for Dallas-Fort Worth International, the fourth-largest U.S. airport by passenger numbers. “It’s like having a Super Bowl worth of people every single day.”

The airport is a mechanism that congregates customers. Somehow we have stumbled into the murky depths of Marxian-sounding language, where people are transformed mechanistically, but also religiously, into self-alienated units of production: the production of money. As if we needed this reinforced, the Super Bowl appears ambiguously as a figure of revenue generation and also of entertainment and spectation. The airport becomes a fixture of the home, an economic force, once again weirdly naturalized, even as it’s strange, fundamental relationship to money is laid bare. We had set out to read about and discuss cutting edge airport design: adjustments and attunements to the phenomenology of air travel. Instead, it all comes down to padding the pockets of owners and executives, at the expense of the plodding masses who fly (and spend) or work (and spend) in order to keep the immense structure intact. The next paragraph describes travellers as a “captive audience”—a phrase the strikes us as ominous given the high-security sensitivity of these spaces. Cumulatively, these vying metaphors—captivity, entertainment, religiosity, finance—simultaneously distract from the primary subject of flight and explain its twisted underlying logic.

Marx once described the juggernaut of capitalism in terms of a “constant revolutionizing of production”—a process wherein “all that is solid melts into air.” In this article about airport futurism, Marx’s famous expression comes to life. In a passage about the imminent rise in autonomous vehicles, a concern is expressed that this alternative mode of transit “will siphon off a chunk of shorter flights that are 500 miles or less.” Consider the intricate alchemy here: flights (air travel) converted into solid  “chunks” only to be siphoned (as a liquid) into ground transit. All that is solid melts into airports—or into some form of passage, anyway. The bit about autonomous vehicles is cashed out as such: “For U.S. airports, the ascension of self-driving cars will create a costly conundrum: how to replace parking revenue, which typically represents a quarter of annual airport budgets.” Creating a costly conundrum: it almost sounds like algorithmic poetry. And indeed, humans are all but eliminated from this airport picture. What matters is the bottom line: costs, revenues, budgets, profits.

This is, of course, no real surprise, and hardly unique: the airport is another mere point of potential growth within the ongoing sprawl of consumer culture. But there’s something extraordinary happening here, something about the peculiar tensions between humanist pursuits (togetherness, connection, communication) and the boldfaced nature of impersonal capitalist hegemony at work around airport futurism.

I may be starting to sound like a stereotypical radical leftist Marxist English professor, influencing my innocent students and corrupting their minds. Two defences: First, my own college education happened at Hillsdale College, a bastion of free market libertarianism and conservative politics; Hillsdale is where I first learned to read closely for economic dynamics (if not exactly with the intended grain, there). Second, my students led me to at least half of the epiphanies in the present Bloomberg article. And these epiphanies took place right on the surface: we were not ‘reading into’ this piece. It’s all right there; look at the next paragraph:

“To find new revenue, airport executives will need to attract dollars in other ways, via dining, shopping, and entertainment. Since that may not be enough, new business models will be needed for ground transportation and commercial office space; perhaps new revenue may accrue from baggage delivery service.”

This has almost nothing to do with the feel of airports, the architecture of travel, or the experience of being a human body in flight. It is precisely about “airport executives” attracting dollars. Baggage isn’t your or my actual luggage; it’s just another means to generate revenue for the airport executive.

As if this were not enough, we go on to learn that “At Changi, concession revenues rose 5 percent last year to a record S$2.16 billion ($1.6 billion), while the world’s busiest airport, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International, topped $1 billion in concession sales in 2016, also a record.” Such statements show how global capitalism tricks its human actants into being surprised by setting ever new records of accumulation— when this is in fact exactly what global capitalism sets out to do, how it works. Global capitalism sets out to accumulate ever more surplus value, and then surprises itself by doing this very thing to ever-greater degrees, breaking records. The whole process is thereby naturalized as an organic, spontaneous eruption.

We are nearing the end of the Bloomberg article, at last. The penultimate paragraph elicits strong skepticism from my students:

“Our efforts to grow Changi’s commercial business and provide an enjoyable shopping and dining experience is part and parcel of enhancing the overall airport experience for our passengers, and will continue in the years to come,” the airport said in an emailed statement.

Now that we’ve seen the true inner-workings of airport futurism, how are we supposed to believe for one second that this is about “enhancing the overall airport experience for our passengers”? My students scoff at this insincere claim. And wait: who even “said” this, anyway? The airport. The airport emailed the statement. All that is solid melts into airports, airports that can email.

This animation of the airport continues:

“No matter what,” Young said, “airports want to make it efficient.” That means getting through quickly—be it arriving, departing, or transferring. “But they love it when people are at the airport,” he added, “because of the opportunities to spend money.”

Airports want. They desire. But do they actually want what Young (director of the Center for Aviation Studies at Ohio Stat University) says they want? Not at all. Airports love it when travellers are stuck, when efficiency breaks down—so that people will “spend money.” The Bloomberg article spirals into a mind-bending chasm where airports lumber around wanting and loving, and people are hapless embodied bank accounts being shuttled to and fro. The utopia of airports in the future has decidedly turned into a dystopia.

This all might sound preposterous: my class spent a full week on this article. I tell my students the point of such an exercise—well, it isn’t an exercise at all—is to slow down and read closely what we are not supposed to. This sort of article is intended for quick digestion and internalization. But I’m showing my students how to stick with something that asks to be disposed of quickly. I’ve stuck with airports and air travel for over fifteen years now—writing, thinking, teaching, critiquing—and I’m more intrigued and baffled by these spaces than ever. We know that commercial airlines are unflappable about their reliance on a strict class system: they brazenly calls certain people “Elite” while relegating others to “Economy”—a not so subtle dig at the true base of this whole enterprise. But when we project this normalized state of affairs out into the near future, what do we see?

Airports of the future? Sure, makes total sense. Common sense. But airports as animate, appetitive agents who feed off the paltry incomes of petit bourgeoisies, only to metastasize and grow larger and larger, biometric scanning bodies who read and consume people, only in order to grow their own tumorous tendrils and limbs? Jetways extending upon jetways, shop-laden terminals leading to nowhere while operating like gigantic ATMs? What Ozymandian future are we building? Is this the future we will choose, as the makers of airplanes and airports? It doesn’t have to be. But for it not to be, we need to acknowledge our complicity in this, and disentangle the strong threads of capitalist fantasy woven around our airports as they are, and as we plod forward into our as yet uncertain future, as a very real species partaking in evolution on this planet that is, itself, airborne.

Christopher Schaberg
is associate professor of English and Environmental Studies at Loyola University New Orleans, and the author most recently of Airportness: The Nature of Flight (Bloomsbury, 2017). He wishes to thank his students at Loyola for their shrewd insights, and for their patience.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 2nd, 2018.