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The Secret Life of Airports

By Christopher Schaberg.


There’s a scene in the 1992 film Home Alone 2, starring Macaulay Culkin in his reprise as Kevin, that sums up the secret life of airports. It occurs toward the beginning of the movie, after a frantic race to the airport at which point Kevin’s family just barely makes their flight to Florida, bound for a sunny winter holiday. They all make the flight—that is, all except for Kevin. In this scene, Kevin realizes that he ended up on the wrong plane, and has landed in the wrong city. Take a 51 seconds to watch it, and perhaps watch it a second time—but don’t fall down a Youtube rabbit hole. Remember to come back to this essay.

In the opening moment, we see Kevin in the airport seating area, realizing he isn’t where he should be: the skyscrapers in the background should be palm trees. A split-second later, Kevin is gone, but the seating area remains for that flash: it lingers there, without our main character and utterly indifferent to the plot of the film.

The solitary other waiting passenger doesn’t even register that Kevin has come and gone. It’s really a fascinating visual effect, as if the baseline reality of the airport somehow holds together the entire narrative. Of course, in a way it does. And not just for Home Alone 2: as you may recall, the plot of the original Home Alone was also driven by an air travel blunder, when Kevin is left home after a faulty headcount as the family loads into the airport shuttle. But let’s get back to the scene in question.

The next second of the scene in question changes locations, to the American Airlines customer service desk. What unfolds is a complex montage, replete with angry passengers in the background berating an airline employee, and another employee in the foreground multitasking and about to be interrupted by the frantic Kevin. A bouquet of festive poinsettias—remember the poinsettias—in the middle of the frame are almost laughably vivid and cheerful in this cold, sterile setting of ordinary airline transactions.

What follows is an awkward exchange whereupon Kevin finds out where he is—and realizes that he is far away from his family. The changing facial expressions of the airline employee suggest a veritable anthology of attitudes, moods, and reactions.

What happens over the course of those eighteen seconds is a primer in the secret life of airports, a state of being which conditions and shapes this brief, otherwise throwaway interaction.

The scene swerves back into the seating area—for a moment, astonishingly barren and self-evident. Even the earlier other waiting passenger is gone. What do the empty seats say? They bespeak the rote alienation of airport life, whether experienced over a mere few seconds or sustained for dull minutes or torturous hours.

So the scene returns to where we started, more or less. Kevin is again in the waiting room, where he has to contemplate his newly realized fate: he is alone in New York City. Over the next few frames, we see as if into Kevin’s head, as he adjusts to a gradual realization: alone, in New York City!

What happens here is a stark reversal in comportment, an effect aided by the neutral environment. Kevin goes from shocked to something like tickled, as he considers the fact that he is alone in New York while his family is far away in Florida. The airport facilitates this reversal in subtle ways. By being so crushingly plain and stark—the uncomfortable seats, the severe internal framing of the plate glass windows—the airport pressurizes the time and space, so as to maximize the force of Kevin’s transformation: from totally out of control to completely owning his trajectory.

This is a common enough phenomenon in airports, one that most people have probably felt, but often in its obverse form: usually people experience such a transformation when they go from giddy travelers in motion to strung-out, stranded passengers—especially during delays, storms, or mechanical snafus. Who hasn’t seen the reverse of Kevin’s facial adjustment, when an outbound flight to a premier destination is suddenly and definitively cancelled? Passengers can go from grinning to groaning in an instant, at the announcement of a cancelled flight. Just think how so many ordinary and yet personally intense stories can hinge on that one word proffered by the airport: CANCELLED. This is all part of the secret life of airports. It’s a secret hidden in plain sight, of course. It’s what makes airports legible spaces, and what opens them up to mystery and narrativization in the first place.

So that, to switch film examples, when in Toy Story 2 we arrive at the Tri-County International Airport for the climax of the movie—the header image of this essay, above—we know what to expect. We know how to read all the banal details of what the anthropologist Marc Augé has famously called “non-place.” Consider the realism within this approach shot. We know exactly how to decode the swooping curve of the awning, at the curb; we understand the monolithic function of the air traffic control tower; we recognize the thunder of jets just above as they come in for landing, and the corollary energy they bestow; we have internalized the romantic cloudscapes that airport vistas afford. All these things in an instant—and once again, before our main characters are even in the picture.

By the time we follow Buzz Lightyear and company into the airport and beyond the check-in counter, we are already primed for the inner secrets of these sites. Namely, we find ourselves in a hyperreal, Escher-like labyrinth of the checked baggage system. Watching Toy Story 2 with my son recently, when we got to this scene he asked in disbelief, “Is that what really happens to people’s bags?” I remember equivocating, saying something like, “Well, sort of, but not really….” For all the realism of the opening shot of Tri-County International Airport, it’s important for this scene that the movie be a Pixar film, to allow for the reality of baggage makeup to become exaggerated, made into a spectacle worthy of a Christopher Nolan landscape, like something out of Inception. Recall those wrapped cityscapes and vertiginous hotel interiors?

Curiously, while the closing scene of Inception ends via a histrionic airport scene, Nolan treats this place with stark realism—nothing is warped or dreamlike in the airport, in that film. Whereas Toy Story 2 exploits the hyperreal imaginary of airports, Inception reaffirms the ordinary, mundane, and comfortingly grounded spatiality of airports. So then, is the secret life of airports explained better by their inner mysteries, or by their sheer ordinariness? Or, is the secret life of airports somehow about precisely this tension, and specifically as it relates to watching movies?

Some airports have taken to screening films for waiting passengers, to make the airport spaces more comfortable and entertaining, in and of themselves. The most remarkable example of this might be an outdoor movie screening that took place regularly on a concourse rooftop at the Dusseldorf airport in Germany, over the past three summers.

The travel journalist Harriet Baskas wrote an article earlier this year for USA Today about trends involving airport cinemas, from Portland, Oregon to Singapore. The idea is that idle passengers and airline employees on break can effectively “kill time” by watching movies while at the airport. I saw one of these embedded theaters in the Minneapolis airport not long before Baskas wrote her piece. The mysterious new space was set off from the sprawling C concourse. There were some informational signs stating its mission: it was part of a local art project that sought to bring short films into the terminal for waiting passengers’ viewing pleasure. When I stepped into the room I was struck by rows of comfortable seating and soft lighting. A documentary played on a large white wall that served as a screen. A motley crew of airline employees on break and bored travelers were all reposed in the seats while checking their phones, zoning out and relishing the quiet space—but completely misusing it. The art was not working, at least not as it was intended to work.

Airport movie theaters sound like a good idea, in theory. Short films, video art pieces, and documentaries seem like a good idea, so passengers won’t have to commit too much time. Comfortable seating would obviously be a draw. The danger, curiously, is that a too successful airport movie theater might keep passengers from making their flights on time, and could detain airline employees in when they should be issuing boarding passes or de-icing planes. Imagine a shrouded spectacle so enthralling that you’d settle in, lose track of time, and would never want to leave. Final boarding calls are made, but you don’t even hear them…the cinema experience is too absorbing—Infinite Jest at the airport.  This is the challenge that airports striving to be hip will always face: how to keep traffic moving while yet attempting to be destinations themselves. Airport movie theaters compound this problem, promising high value entertainment while risking the entire enterprise in motion. If airports actually became places where we would choose to linger, terminals at large may begin to resemble the airport in World War Z, thronging masses rushing toward the non-place. No, airports need you to want to get out, far away from them. This is part of their secret.

Here’s where to find a clue: on the safety briefing cards found in seatback pockets. What do we see in this ostensibly innocuous, purely informational document? You see the usual diagrams: how to don the oxygen mask (kids first), and how to open the emergency exits. And these visual texts are hilarious if looked at with the slightest eye for comedy. The facial expressions of the oxygen-starved seatmates, the resigned march of evacuating passengers, a sleeveless hoody worn by one of the passengers…. My son often spends the minutes before takeoff reading these things as if they are short comic books. But I want us to zoom in to one frame in particular: look what lies outside the emergency exit.

What is that place, lying outside the emergency exit door? What is this great outdoors, this pristine landscape beneath a cerulean sky? Where exactly have we crashed, in this hypothetical scenario? It is a common theme. There it is on another safety briefing card, available right now on Delta aircraft all over the country. In this image, the area outside the airplane is a radiant green field—less detailed, but verdantly idealized all the same. What is this place we fantasize about, at the end of these emergency escape slides? And there it is again, this time from a United Airlines safety briefing card. There’s even a little grass, to convince you that it’s the real deal, the great outdoors.  It’s a trope, all right—but what is it turning fliers toward? Is this the same place that was promised to fliers many decades ago, when major new airports were built, with a fecund paradise surrounding the runways? Consider a promotional advertisement from 1980 for Atlanta’s then new terminal.

Notice the lush environment beyond the airfield, all those trees. We might as well be flying in and out of paradise. The point, though, is that as good as an airport can (and should) be, it must be imagined to be far better—more natural, full of opportunity, where every second counts. Airports have to sustain their status as attractive transition zones, but only so far as they keep people moving, out and away, to more valuable time. Thus the fecund greenery outlying their existence, beckoning us to leave the bustle and flow of airport life for a more natural order of things. Of course, it doesn’t always have to be green out there; it could just as easily be the seductive skyline of New York City, saying “Come hither.” Or a poinsettia on the desk, whispering nature (or maybe more accurately, borrowing from Donna Haraway, natureculture, the whole bundle outside). But the point is the same: the airport is only as good as it urges you to leave.

Sometimes when I tell people that I study airports, they’ll say, “That must be a real niche!” But the truth is that airports are such a general, dispersed topic that it really isn’t a niche at all. Nearly everyone has something to say about airports or air travel—even if it is just a story of a recent bad trip or a bizarre seatmate. We’re all sort of specialists when it comes to flight—or we’re invited to be, anyway. And as the opening clip from Home Alone 2 suggests, airports communicate in such a common visual, dramatic, and comic language that just a brief scene staged in an airport can conjure a cluster of affects, sensations, and reversals. We interpret these things on the fly, as it were, and don’t even realize we’re doing it. It is for these reasons, among others, that I teach a class called Interpreting Airports: everyone comes in with way more background knowledge than they even knew they had.

One time I mentioned to a bookseller that I was an author, and she asked what I wrote: “Fiction? Novels?” I said, no, I write about airports. She looked at me with a puzzled expression, and remarked, “Oh, that must be boring.” But even here in this strange response lies a kind of operative knowledge about what these spaces are, how they function, and what they feel like. The secret life of airports is a secret that many of us know, even if we don’t know we know it.

And like so many topics these days, the secret life of airports comes back to Donald Trump and this age of post-truth. You may recall how Trump castigated U. S. airports in the first presidential debate, comparing them to those in “third world countries” (or maybe comparing the airports themselves to third world countries—it was a little unclear). Throughout his presidential campaign Trump repeatedly expressed a desire to improve airports across the country, to make them “tremendous.”

In a Washington Times article, Trump said “we have an obsolete plane system. We have obsolete airports. […] We want the traveling public to have the greatest customer service and with an absolute minimum of delays.” This sounds reasonable and even perhaps desirable; but how does Trump’s bombastic vision sync with the secret life of airports? Is it fair to say that our airplanes are “obsolete”? I flew on two different planes on a short trip the other day, and both seemed to work just fine. Likewise, airports may be clunky and frustrating at times—but isn’t that a necessary part of their design, as they facilitate the myriad vectors and accommodate the millions of moving parts that make air travel on an international level possible in the first place? And if there are things to fix at these places, they have more to do with problems like structural racism and economic inequity, and less to do with simply streamlining the system. Airports may seem like an easy matter from the hallowed vantage point of a private jet or Air Force One, but we know that these places are very different on the ground, complex and messy zones with inherent tensions—places where, as a Wall Street Journal article put it in early 2017, “a Single Failed Router Can Ground a Thousand Flights.”

Trump’s mythic American airports of the future should be a red flag for us, as we know that it’s just not this simple. In fact, airports rely on their uneven qualities, their ups and downs. And as airports stood in for Trump’s notion of American progress in general as “a disaster,” something to be whipped into shape once and for all and made Great—if we are to take airports seriously as a metonymy for culture at large, then we should be ready to admit that there is no easy fix, no final solution to the improvement of airports. Sure, airports could conceivably get a little better, more efficient, more “user friendly,” as they say. And they probably will get incrementally better. But airports will always be airports, just like a democracy will always—one can hope—be a democracy: sometimes slow, but hopefully always for the better.

So next time you find yourself trudging down a dank tunnel that seems to lead to nowhere, in the nether regions of an airport, suddenly alone and perhaps feeling a bit of existential dread, or maybe just exhaustion and boredom—remember that you are taking part in the secret life of airports. These non-simple spaces are indices for our broader culture, sites to interact with and interpret—sites that can make us feel exhilarated or stranded, by turns. This is what I call airportness, and it spreads out into all sorts of surprising things, and seeps into unexpected places. Airports can be used to propel entire stories, from Home Alone 2 to Make America Great Again. But with their narrative potential comes all the other parts of textuality, as well: the ambiguities, the uncertainties, and the tensions. The secret life of airports is brimming with these things, and there’s no escaping them. It’s one thing to imagine effortless transitions from one place to another; it’s quite another thing to fully inhabit these spaces, these awkward times on earth, and be conscious of them—aware that this is us, this is the pinnacle of mobility, human progress in the making, at least for now.


Christopher Schaberg is associate professor of English and Environmental Studies at Loyola University New Orleans. His new book is Airportness: The Nature of Flight.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, September 21st, 2017.