Ground Control

Airports make the indignities inherent to air travel cohere with its fantasies

On photo-sharing sites, you can find hundreds or thousands of photos taken from a window seat on a plane. The wingtip, often a winglet, and sometimes flap fairings are seen in these images, strange yet familiar framing objects. Sometimes the airliner’s silhouette is captured against the clouds below, encircled by an eerie sundog rainbow. What is it about these particular sights that makes them worth not just capturing but also sharing, cataloging, indexing for search engines? It has to do with airportness, an underlying spirit of flight that crystallizes the whole ensemble of experiences that make up commercial air travel.

Air travel has come to be so normal as to seem almost natural — as though humans, a wingless species, were nonetheless born to fly. But flight is also precarious, entangled with military protocols, thorough regulation, invasive and intensive security measures, and deeply unnatural levels of noise pollution. Airportness consolidates that network of sensations, perceptions, and understandings made possible by the technologies of flight, taking the astounding fact of air travel and rendering it as a communicable feeling common enough to be legible across boundaries linguistic, geographic, and psychic.

Of course not everybody can fly: It is still a relatively rarified occurrence. Still, airportness has become a broadly recognizable motif, a cluster of familiar sights and sounds.

Airportness is not just the built structures at the edges of airfields, though these are certainly part of it: the cavernous terminal halls, the swooping ceilings with exposed utility ducts, the cantilevered curbside overhangs and long concourses, the sequential numbers of departure gates trailing off in the distance. Airports like Minoru Yamasaki’s terminal at Lambert Field in St. Louis or Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center at JFK or Paul Andreu’s various airport projects around the globe, including Charles de Gaulle, outside Paris, cumulatively lent a feel to commercial flight that became standard, even as airports morphed and evolved with the ramping up of jet travel in the late 20th century.

But airportness transcends airports themselves. It has to do not so much with surface-level features such as sloping hallways and undulating rooflines but a host of more disparate effects that make air travel something humans can internalize and learn to live with. Airportness is how flight becomes natural to us, expected and accepted: contrails in the sky, layovers between flights.

Airportness transcends airports themselves. Airportness is how flight becomes natural to us, expected and accepted

Even without referencing physical buildings, airportness can be replicated. For instance, next time you hear a distant engine roar in the sky, ask Siri what airplanes are overhead. You will get standardized response, with information culled from open-access sources (unless the flight’s route is classified, in which case Siri may be stymied). In performing this banal action — consulting a phone for proximate flight information — you become an impromptu airport, enacting a basic sort of air-traffic control: monitoring flights, mapping routes of transit.

Airportness colludes with governmental apparatuses and relishes in the aestheticization of politics. Human flight, of course, cannot be divorced from military campaigns, intricate efforts of control and exertions of power from above. Air travel thus often merges with displays of patriotism. When I worked at the Bozeman airport in Montana, I recall how on one Fourth of July the Blue Angels visited to perform their famous stunt-flying for the town. All the daily operations of commercial flight on that day had to be choreographed around the exhilarating (and exorbitant) acrobatics of the signature FA-18s.

Yet at the same time, flight becomes absorbed in the mundane commute of certain business travelers. Long-distance travel becomes merely another loathed yet stomached part of plain old work. The airport is from this perspective a necessary evil, something that seems to conspire against human dignity at every turn. Search any social media platform for the word airport and you’ll see what I mean: a litany of gripes from exasperated passengers and insulted airline employees. Often, the indignity is represented as the fault of the airport itself.

Consider airport dining: the overpriced, crappy food from stripped-down chain restaurants and the dismal spaces in which passengers are expected to eat it, awkwardly positioned between standing and sitting. It’s treated as a sort of ritual sacrifice in the name of flight. The idea here is that airports interpellate passengers into the adventure of flight, only to subject them to banal and dehumanizing indignities, such as eating a hurried meal standing up. This too is airportness as a general language: The concrete example of these dismal feeding stations allows us to give voice to a common sentiment involving air travel.

But such details can also make airports seem endearing, familiar, even charming. Take the carpet in Portland’s airport, otherwise known as “PDX carpet,” which has become a subcultural phenomenon complete with an active hashtag, a cottage industry of similarly patterned products (socks, pillows, microbrew bottles, and so on), and a specific if loose social media custom wherein passengers share photos of themselves standing on the carpet with their shoes peeking into the frame.

The PDX carpet is a comforting, kitschy piece of airportness, a shared experience that mediates and subtends (literally) the extreme act of air travel for passengers passing through the terminal. The singularity of PDX carpet is made possible by the fact of airport carpets — and airport codes — as general aesthetic forms, first. Airportness allows the specific place to become an internet meme, flying in the face of place, as it were.

Mark Vanhoenacker, a writer and a 747 pilot, defines “place lag” as the palpable and disorienting sense of geographical difference engendered by long-haul jet travel. In an article for the Guardian he likens it to jet lag:

Nobody enjoys jet lag, of course, but time zones do serve to remind us of a fact so fundamental we rarely consider it — that the world is round and turning slowly in the light of a star. In the same way, place lag reasserts the fascinating differences that persist across the world even in this age of globalization. To encounter such differences, of course, is the main reason people travel.

For Vanhoenacker, place lag offers opportunities for humility, reflection, and genuine connection with difference — even while it has an equal capacity to confuse and humiliate. Place lag is a quintessential aspect of airportness, capturing the thrill associated with long flights and exotic destinations that also makes them almost interchangeable in all their potential for excitement.

This complex ambivalence is rendered in shorthand every time an international airport terminal appears in a film, even in the briefest of scenes, to conjure the surges of travel and the romantic possibilities of flight. And it can be miniaturized, made simulacral, as the description of the new Lego City Airport Passenger Terminal Building Kit suggests:

Catch a flight from LEGO® City to anywhere! Pack your bags and get ready to go on vacation! Head to the airport and check in at the terminal. Put your luggage on the conveyor belt and watch it get loaded onto the passenger airplane. Go through security and then head out the revolving doors to the loading area. Climb the stairs and get buckled in, your trip is about to start!

The minutiae and otherwise dull procedures of airport passage are here hyperbolized (go anywhere?) and made extraordinary. Baggage becomes exciting, even a spectacle. The tedious routines of flight — revolving doors, check-in, security, waiting — are yoked with the rhetorical uplift of anticipated place lag and packaged so that children can experiment with airportness at a young age.

But then, there’s also the Lego City Airport VIP Service building kit, which carries quite different connotations:

Travel to your next business meeting in style! Make sure you have all your important papers packed and ready! Help the pilot get the private plane ready for the next client, who should be arriving shortly. Drive the businesswoman to the airport in the limousine and make sure she gets to her plane on time. Take a seat and buckle up — it’s time for takeoff!

Again, the toy’s description is littered with exclamation marks, but here the subject position is not that of the generic traveler but shifts from the very important passenger, to the pilot, to the limo driver, and back to the affluent business traveler. It is almost as if this airport toy, in seeking to glamorize the airport experience for the elite traveler, can’t help but expose the complex labor that sustains that experience, the numerous workers who make it possible.

So while we might think of airports as primarily for flyers, it is important to remember the wide demographic of participants, laborers and travelers alike, who make up the social space of airportness. While some are eating overpriced french fries, leaning against awkward feed-stands, others are sampling caviar in the business lounge, or devouring foil-wrapped sandwiches on the tarmac with grease-slicked fingers. Airportness is always in dynamic relation to the elaborate infrastructures and economic flows that facilitate flight. In other words, airportness cuts across class experience, holding it all together despite imbalances with regard to dignity, wages, and mobility.

Airportness is all around us, exceeding air travel itself, perhaps even becoming a kind of proxy for what it means to be American

A recent news item focused on Hillary Clinton’s newly chartered Boeing 737 campaign plane, describing the snappy livery and detailing the first flight wherein journalists were allowed onboard with the presidential candidate. Contrasts were drawn between Clinton’s new plane and Donald Trump’s notoriously lavish (and private) 757. As for Trump, he lashed out at U.S. airports in the first presidential debate, comparing them to “third-world countries.” But how much time has Trump spent in actual commercial airports as a passenger? Trump’s appeal to airportness seems a ruse, an attempt to connect with ordinary people without submitting himself to the regular routines and hassles of everyday modern life, airports included.

It is ludicrous to claim to represent the people from the comforts of a private jet, no matter your political leanings: no security checkpoint, no soul-sucking time of waiting (Bernie notwithstanding, with his commitment to flying economy class). One may hope that Clinton is more in line with the interests and experiences of economy-class flyers, but these are uneasy comparisons. But the presidential hopefuls’ private jets could be seen as mere training for the aspirational inhabitance of Air Force One, which may be the ultimate symbol of airportness. Along with its more pragmatic functions, Air Force One also serves to remind citizens about the American promise of air travel that can represent democracy at the same time it is deeply individualist.

In this sense airportness is all around us, exceeding not only airports but also air travel itself, perhaps even becoming a kind of proxy for what it means to be American. Airportness shifts from the derogatory to the sacrosanct, sliding from protected spaces to abject places. Returning to Trump’s claim that American airports are awful places — are they really that bad? Sure, there are the aggravating document checks on the ground, long walks through dank tunnels, and overpriced amenities — but these places are also climate controlled, there is food available, and there are spots to sit down and plug in while busy workers labor to prepare aircraft for flight. Are they really so reprehensible?

Maybe what it so disturbing about airports is that they reflect the complexities and contradictions of our moment, and American culture in particular. We can’t go back to a “great” time — this is where we are, and we are always moving forward, never backward. Moving forward, we may want to look closely at the contradictions that airports manage to hold together. Are there things here we could accept and rally around, even when they may seem repellent or difficult, at first blush? Or is airportness something we might learn from, if then to revise and remake, for a future to come? Either way, there’s no going back to a “golden age” of flight, or to a land of pristine airports as a synecdoche of utopia. Airportness means accepting the complexities of being a species in motion, and working with these complexities, together.

Christopher Schaberg is Dorothy Harrell Brown Distinguished Professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans, and the author of The Textual Life of Airports (2011), The End of Airports (2015), Airportness (2017), and The Work of Literature in an Age of Post-Truth (2018).