Greetings from Airworld!

Six days in five airports—a survivor’s guide
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I was holding my digital camera, elbows high and splayed outward to frame the shot, when a security guard suddenly appeared on the tiny screen in front of me, wagging a finger. “No photos,” he announced. I lowered the camera.

“But it’s an empty building,” I said. His look suggested it would be unwise to pursue this line of reasoning. He wagged his finger again. “No photos,” he repeated.

It was nearly 6 a.m. I was at John F. Kennedy International Airport, standing in front of the vacant 1962 TWA terminal, which was designed by Eero Saarinen and inspired in part by the Sydney Opera House. It’s a splendid if peculiar bit of aviation architecture—one critic compared it to a “Danish Modern salad bowl”—and one of the great landmarks in the domain of the frequent flyer, or what the novelist Walter Kirn has called “Airworld”: “a nation within a nation, with its own language, architecture, [and] mood.”

Prohibiting me from taking shots of one of the most photographed air terminals seemed faintly idiotic, but I didn’t say any more, just stowed my camera in my bag. I certainly wanted to do my part to ensure that obsolete Finnish- American architecture would not be blown up by terrorists. But before leaving, I took a few minutes to admire how the white concrete took on the champagne glow of the dawning light.

In my work as a travel writer, I pass through a lot of airports. Like many travelers, I never really see them—they’re a blur of large glass windows, speckled terrazzo floors, and white-shirted TSA agents giving the come-ahead hand flick at metal detectors.

But I wondered: What if I took the time to explore airports as if they were cities unto themselves, with teeming neighborhoods and intriguing architecture and entertainment districts? Such a journey seemed fun in the way that exploring a Habitrail would be fun. Also, I could learn whether all those articles about airports becoming stately pleasure domes were true. (USA Today: “Airports try to make flying a beautiful experience.” New York Times: “Work Out, See a Rembrandt or Play the Slots, All Between Flights.”)

So I recently set off on a six-day tour of Airworld, visiting five busy U.S. airports and adhering to one simple rule: I could do whatever I wanted, except leave. I would be a boulevardier through this terminal, a flâneur down that concourse, approaching each airport as if it were its own little canton within Airworld. And no hanging out at the VIP lounges for me—I’m a traveler, not a tourist. I prefer to be among the people.

The British writer John B. Priestley once observed, “A good holiday is one spent among people whose notions of time are vaguer than yours.” I suspected the opposite might also be true—that an enjoyable holiday might be had by idling among overwrought travelers who were fretting about making it to the boarding gate on time. I spent 106 hours on what most people would call “layover.” I preferred to think of it as “vacation.”

JFK is the nation’s eighth-busiest airport and one of the leading international gateways. It opened to commercial flights in 1948 (it was then called Idlewild), but didn’t take on its current character until the late 1950s, when airlines were invited to design their own terminals around a plaza with a grand Fountain of Liberty—a terrestrial counterpart to the Statue of Liberty.

The fountain has long since been buried under a slabby parking garage, but many of the terminals remain. As a result, the airport is a World’s Fair of dubious architecture. An elevated AirTrain loops past the nine terminals every few minutes, and you can ride from one to the next for free. (It’s $5 if you want to leave the airport.)

I toured the Pavilion of Unappreciated Brazilian Art in Terminal 8 (the American Airlines terminal, built in 1960), where two heroic murals by the painter Carybé can be found in a dim area near a food court. (The terminal is slated for demolition.) Yesterday’s Terminal of Tomorrow (Terminal 3, originally the Pan Am Worldport, also from 1960) is a good example of what happens when the optimistic, outward- looking World’s Fair attitude collides with the post-9/11, hunkering-down worldview. It still has its great, gravity-defying umbrella of concrete, but has been recast as a House of Security Horrors, with clunky partitions, nonexistent directional signs, and, during my visit, the edifying sight of a family late for a flight running up an automobile ramp while dodging oncoming cars.

I spent most of my time lounging in Terminal 4, the sleek new Terminal of Today, which replaced the outdated international-arrivals building in May 2001. It has an airy, inviting feel and a forty-foot-high Alexander Calder mobile called Flight that’s fun to watch even if it doesn’t move much. It also has a shopping arcade said to be the length of four Manhattan blocks. I browsed at the Metropolitan Museum Shop, Swarovski crystal, and Hermès, but found little I needed. I then stopped off at XpresSpa, where tinkly wind-chime music played in the background. Mini-spas have been cropping up at airports—there’s also an Oasis Day Spa past security at the JetBlue terminal—perhaps as a more wholesome alternative to getting hammered at a bar between flights.

Services offered at XpresSpa included an exfoliating papaya mask, a seaweed facial, an “exotic hand ritual,” and a range of massage treatments. For $20 I could spend fifteen minutes in a mechanized massage lounger. Or, for the same money, I could walk down the concourse and have a couple of drinks. Which I did at Bar Avion, where the bartender knew that a Manhattan is always made with bitters.

Then it was time for bed. Sadly, America hasn’t yet embraced the capsule hotels that are popular in Japan and are making inroads at some British airports. American airport travelers are a rugged breed who like to sleep out under the fluorescent tubes. So I pulled out my laptop, poached a wireless connection from the Varig lounge, and visited sleepinginairports.com. This is a user-compiled directory of where to find quiet corners, and benches without armrests, at airports worldwide. A user at JFK had recommended “under the stairs leading to the Aer Lingus frequent fliers lounge area”; another suggested locking oneself in one of the spacious handicapped bathrooms. Both options seemed wanting.

Yet another writer suggested the “upstairs large red carpet area,” although there was also a snake in this Eden: a security guard named Agapita, who had achieved a small measure of online celebrity for her valor in the War on Recumbency. One couple had posted an account of her rousting them out of the red-carpet area, after which they sought refuge on a cold floor elsewhere. They were later awoken again by “the horrid clapping of Agapita,” who barked, “You can’t sleep here! Move now, before I throw you out!”

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Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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