Airports, in the eyes of many solo travellers, are at best an inconvenience, at worst a hellhole full of old people being transported on beeping golf carts. To Andrew Dickens, however, they are a place of wonder.
“The flight’s at 10.15, so I reckon we can get to the airport at 8.30. Through security by 9, grab a drink, boarding at quarter to. Synchronise watches… now.”
Sound familiar? Is this your friends? Is this you? Well, let me tell you, this kind of talk makes my skin crawl.
Some people fixate on a flight’s check-in closing time. The plot their journey with all the precision of a covert ops mission in a rogue state. The mission’s aim: to spend the minimum time possible in the airport.
Not me, friend.
I look at the check-in opening time. I aim to maximise the length of my airport experience. I work out how early I can get there without having to wait, bags in hand, for the desk to open, like an alcoholic waiting for the bolt to side on a pub door. For me, an airport is a happy place.
A high high
Unlike most things in my life, this isn’t fuelled by anxiety; it isn’t an exaggerated fear of missing my flight. It’s because I love airports. Like, I love them. I love flying, too – give me a wine-, nibbles- and movie-filled long-haul flight any time (no, really, please do) – but still I feel my delicate heart sink when the departures board flips to ‘Go to Gate’ and I’m forced to say goodbye to the terminal.
It’s a grown-up Disneyland for me.
I’m aware that this is not completely normal, so I’ve been trying to work out where it comes from. It’s a feeling, but feelings are caused by real stuff. It’s not the airport putting a spell on me.
I think the first and probably most obvious appeal is that an airport means a flight and, as mentioned, I bloody love a flight. The longer the better, as long as I’ve got enough legroom/food/booze/books/films.
Then you’ve got where the flight is going, which, unless you’re being extradited or something, is rarely a bad place. It’s either somewhere far away or it’s home – and these are both excellent destinations.
So, when I step into an airport, there’s an automatic thrill associated with what’s to come. It’s like when you knock off work for Christmas and you’ve got a couple of days before the main event. You can relax and do whatever the hell you like, and nobody expects you to be available for work – and you’ve still got the best bit to come.
I’m particularly enamoured when I’m travelling alone because when you’re a solo traveller the ‘doing what you like’ part gets cranked up to 11. If I’m lucky, I’ll have three hours of high quality ‘me time’ before a flight. Until that board flips, I get to choose what I do and where I go.
I can spend that time exploring these wondrous places, which range from one-café tin sheds to mighty citadels like Heathrow.
I can read a book or magazine. If I’ve forgotten my book or magazine, which happens frequently, I can browse a bookshop and buy something else, perhaps something edging outside of my literary comfort zone, or even outside of my language (assuming its got lots of nice pictures).
I can go airport shopping in actual physical shops, or at least look around those shops doing an unconvincing impression of someone with money before settling on a fridge magnet or a bag of sweets with a rude-sounding name from duty free.
I can think. Yes, think. Use my tiny brain to reflect and analyse and imagine and decide. I rarely think these days. If my brain suddenly finds itself unemployed, it commands my right hand to reach for my phone or the TV remote. In an airport, that reflex is dulled.
I can sit and drink alone. I can sit and drink beer alone. I can eat alone. I can pay slightly over the odds for these things alone. Except I’m not really alone, because airports are full of people. And people are another reason I love airports.
People at airports are in a heightened state. Each person has a story. Nearly every one of them is doing something they rarely do, going somewhere new and/or exciting. Their moods are different, from each other’s and from their norms. They’ve probably got new clothes on and a new haircut. Body parts have been waxed.
(That’s another great thing, by the way: what to wear to the airport. It’s comfort all the way, baby. Slouch-wear heaven. Not-so-smart casual. I once saw Karen Gillan at the luggage carousel wearing a black and white onesie – that to me was a green light to buy the full range of Uniqlo joggers and sweatpants.)
I like to sit and guess their story. A couple’s first holiday together? A couple’s 100th holiday together? A couple’s last holiday together?
If I want villains in my tale, then I tend to glare at people with clearly-too-large items of hand luggage. Or at groups of teenagers sitting or lying on the floor – the very worst bit of floor they could have chosen – asking myself, “Why? For the love of humanity, why?”
Sorry. Small bugbear there.
In short: people are the greatest form of entertainment.
A slight fear of flying
Another reason I love airports is that I have a teensy weensy fear of flying.
In my mid-20s, when my mind was in a far worse place, this fear was fairly pronounced. These days, it’s a mild sense of apprehension during take-off. But it’s just enough to build anticipation levels similar to those shortly before going on a zip wire.
Read more: How to make time for travel, no matter what
Then there’s the airport itself. There is, in my opinion, a genuine magic to it that inspires a sense of wonder. I know I said the airport doesn’t put a spell on me, but it kind of does. Not a literal hocus pocus Harry Potter spell. The magic is in the mystery of the place.
There’s its off-limits areas – the vast majority of an airport is closed to the likes of you and me. There’s its army of workers, its actual army in some cases, many of whom we never see.
Like the aeroplane itself, these rooms, these buildings, these people, are the machinery that makes the 10 per cent we experience function.
They’re responsible for making sure that we – and our luggage – get from A to B safely via the medium of powered flight (which still feels like witchcraft to me). We see so little of what happens that it allows the imagination to go nuts. And nuts imaginations are the best. See Die Hard 2 for conclusive proof.
Embrace the airport
Now, I am fully aware that flying is not good for the environment and, if at all practical and affordable (big if in the UK, that one), I’ll use less damaging forms of transport. But as it stands, flying is the only way to get to a lot of places, so airports are – and will be forever – a part of many people’s lives.
If you’re flying somewhere and aren’t a) a smuggler, b) taking part in an actual covert ops mission, or c) a bird, then airports are unavoidable. So why treat them as a nuisance? As some hurdle to be overcome on your way to a nice tan or a date with some tropical wildlife?
I say, embrace airports and all they have to offer. Except for the customs officers – that’s just a shortcut to a cavity search.