For the Love of the Airport

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.

21 Responses to “For the Love of the Airport”

  1. Everywhereist

    I love it. I love how strangers fall into archetypes and therefore become familiar. I love how airports, however distant and foreign, can feel like home. And I love Hudson booksellers (even though I, too, rarely buy anything).

    I love that you never feel alone, even if you are. 🙂

  2. Gray

    We are kindred spirits, JoAnna. I love airports, too! Oh sure, the process is a bit more complicated than it used to be, but it’s still the portal that takes me to places I want to visit. Without the airport, my life would be reduced to places within easy driving distance, which would be, frankly, boring. I feel like a little kid again during that moment of liftoff, when the plane’s wheels no longer touch the runway. I can’t help but smile.

    • Cathy Gipp

      Oh my gosh! Me too! I have this huge grin on my face and inside I”m saying…”Wheeee!”

  3. Amiee

    How can you not love airports? It is the only place in the world where you can drink beer at any hour of the day and not be judged 🙂

  4. Bethany

    I am sitting at the Reno airport as I type, working off their free WiFi network. I love airports as well. There are always tender welcomings and goodbyes and people of every shape and size. It is a true crossroads.

  5. James Clark

    Count me in as an airport lover. Just looking at a departure board listing potential destinations makes me happy.

  6. Devin the Travel Writer

    I love airports as well. Maybe because I see so many people at their best, and worst. Maybe for the dense confusion, inconvenience, pointless security check points, uncomfortable seating, delays, and exorbitant pricing from everything from crappy cheese burger to a measly teeny plastic of nuts — but mostly because I know I could go anywhere in the world.

  7. Sabina

    It is really interesting to see how different airports have designed and decorated themselves. The one – and only – time I went to Vegas, for my 25th birthday, we got off the plane and immediately started pumping quarters into slot machines. The airport with the best interior decoration I think is Albuquerque, the last time I was there, anyway. It was less airport and more colorful Southwestern mall.

  8. Anil

    I strangely love airports as well. I even plan to sleep over in them from place to place; both to save money and because they’re interesting, safe, and loaded with snacks!

  9. Laurence

    I like a good airport experience. Too many people see the airport as the surrounding part of the trip, a sort of thing to have to put up with and get through before the real thing happens. On long haul journeys, with multiple stop overs, this can be a flawed solution. Instead, I like to see the airport as a quintessential part of the trip itself. Sample the local beers, wander around the shops. There’s always something to do, or people to watch, or odd signs in languages you don’t understand to try and decipher…

    • JoAnna

      For me it’s the journey as much as it is the destination.

  10. Marsha

    Are you kidding? I LURVE! the airport. It means I’m going places, baby, and who doesn’t want that? If you’re knowledgeable and prepared, the check-in and security processes can go smoothly and before you know it, hello! travel!

    • JoAnna

      Marsha ~ I definitely agree that the check-in and security process can be fairly seamless. I know a lot of people get worked up and upset about it, but, for the most part, I’ve never had a problem with the security clearances.

  11. Lauren at Casa Casa

    I absolutely relate. I fly rarely (maybe 2x per year) and so I actually find myself savoring the experience. The little rituals of paring down the packing list so everything fits into a modest-sized carry-on, searching for the perfect magazine to buy pre-flight, arranging all of my “essentials” once I’m in my “cozy” coach seat (kleenex, lip balm, iPod (loaded with Brian Eno’s “music for airports, of course), water bottle, Valium. Waiting for the beverage cart and mulling the choices as if they are as consequential as choosing a pair of eyeglass frames. Lingering on each page of Harper’s Bazaar to pass the time.

    Flying is an odd but true pleasure, indeed. Glad to know I am not alone in thinking so. Thanks for sharing, JoAnna!

  12. Heather

    I know this is an old post but I’ve never heard anyone but myself say they love flying! I absolutely agree with everything that’s been said. I even love the shuttle ride up to the airport. I feel alive and free knowing that I’m about to meet tons of new people and embark on a new adventure! I stroll through each airport, dragging my luggage, and feel so happy. My fiance laughs because while at the airport I have a look of pure joy on my face. I always watch people and wonder what their story is, probably just as they are wondering what mine is. It’s wonderful!

    • JoAnna

      I love the fact that, from the airport, you can go in hundreds of different directions and end up somewhere different with each route. It’s like a crossroads. Wouldn’t it be fun to just show up at the airport and choose whatever destination grabs your attention?

  13. Louis B.

    I am so happy other people also enjoy airports. The excitement, anticipation, diversity, chaos, and order makes them the most exciting place on Earth… It’s nice to know that I’m not alone. 🙂

    • JoAnna

      Do you ever try to guess where people are going or why? Airports are endlessly fascinating to me, and that’s one of the reasons.

  14. Harry B.

    I like this article as it sums ip many of things that so fasinate about airports and travelling in general. I love flying and the whole process is very fun and exciting.

    Yes I like everything to run smooth, but if it does notI just take the time to explore all the cool shops and restaurants. I really enjoy to watch all the interesting people from all over the world. It’s really something to see so many syles and unique individuals.

    Over the last ten years I have flown to Asia and their airports are so modern and new. i feel like a child in a candy store when i see all the gleaming stainless steel and modern architecture.

    Lastly, I enjoy the conversations with someone new from anywhere that I meet in the bar and find out where they are from and where they are goin.

    I love the journey as much as the destination.


    • JoAnna

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Harry. It’s always nice to meet others who love the chaos and quirkiness of the airport.


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