I’m sitting on the runway at McCarran International Airport, watching the airplanes in front of ours eek slowly down the runway until they, too, reach the front and are granted permission to take off. First it’s a Southwest plane, with its purple and orange wings, followed by a plane from Frontier, the slogan “A Different Kind of Animal” across the side. Behind us, there are two more Southwest planes (smaller than the one in front), one from United, another from American Airlines.
Inside are hundreds of people, their luggage stowed in the overhead compartments, tray tables in the upright position and all electronics turned off and tucked away for the duration of the flight.
I love this moment of culmination, when these massive tubular structures speed down the runaway and somehow lift into the air. Despite my attempts to understand Bernoulli’s Principle and the physics of flight, I still don’t get how it works and prefer instead to be content in appreciating this magical ability to take me anywhere in the world in a matter of hours.
Some of my first travel experiences took place in an airport and on airplanes, before I’d even turned three when I flew free with my dad on his business trips. He would prop me on his briefcase and I would hang on as he carried me to our departure gate. That early fascination with flying has made air travel something that is generally stress-free, interesting and fun for me.
Sure, many things related to flight travel have changed in the last 30 years. Tighter security regulations mandate 3-oz. bottles displayed in plastic bags and the disassembly of carry-ons when we’re in a rush. Excess fees have resulted in crowded overhead bins, fewer snacks and less leg room. Expanding airports force us to take shuttles between gates.
But new advances in air travel allow us to check in online at our leisure and in our pajamas. Many airports offer free Wi-Fi, allowing us to work on the go … and even in the air! And ever-expanding routes mean that we can fly more places with greater ease.
I know many people avoid airports because flying has, in their minds, become much more difficult. I can appreciate where they’re coming from, but instead of dwelling on the negative consequences of these changes, I continue to find pleasure in flying.
Regardless of whatever airport I’m at, I like to take a moment to just sit and absorb my surroundings. In Las Vegas, I enjoy watching people drop their last remaining quarters in the slot machines, which jingle and jangle 24 hours a day. I can tell who has been visiting the city versus who actually lives there by the yellow M&M World bags and yard-long frozen margarita cups they carry with them.
Undoubtedly there is an older couple sitting somewhere nearby. The woman clutches her purse and holds the boarding passes for both her husband and herself. She looks at them every five minutes, then checks her watch for the hundredth time.
There is often a single man asleep in the boarding area, his head tipped back, snoring. I wonder about where the girls in the tight leggings and 4-inch heels are going and smile when I see a small child with her parents, who point out the planes through the windows and talk about the experience instead of letting her run wild.
It’s always surprising to me how much stuff people carry with them when they travel. Zippers strain to stay closed. Snaps pop. Bags hang off of bags off of bags. What is in all of those bags that is so incredibly important that they had to travel with their owners (or so irresistible that the owners absolutely had to take them home)?
Though I rarely buy anything, I like to poke through the Hudson Bookstores, with the stacked walls of magazines and hanging bags of trail mix, gummy bears and peanuts. I wonder about the people who work behind the counters in these stores and the eateries scattered across the terminal. How early do they get up each morning to fight the parking garage traffic? What is the most bizarre thing they’ve seen come through the airport?
But one of the things I like most about airports is the chaotic dance of arriving and departing flights and of people making their way to wherever they’re headed in the terminals. Flight numbers and times crowd onto the information boards and, somehow, it all makes sense. Each of these numbers represents a different path with a different ending, like a real choose-your-own adventure.
The airport is a like a humming, moving being that breathes in with each flight arrival and breathes out as people leave. Its continuous state of flux is the only consistent thing about it, and the possibility and opportunity for the unknown, curious and imagined will always feed my love for air travel.