Greetings from Airworld!

Six days in five airports—a survivor’s guide

The red-carpet area was the size of a basketball court. I settled in along one wall with my head on my bags, counting fourteen other sleepers, their snoring softly syncopated. I slept fitfully, although fitfully is perhaps not the right word. Actually, neither is slept. Every twenty minutes or so I would abruptly emerge from a state of confused mental dormancy, imagining I had heard clapping sounds.

Around 4 a.m. I imagined I heard birds chirping. Then I opened my eyes and saw several sparrows pecking their way across the carpet toward me in pursuit of doughnut crumbs. I found this at once enchanting and disturbing, and I couldn’t get back to sleep. So I got up and set off to look for a shower.

I eventually found a shower, but it was some hours and several thousand miles later, at McCarran Airport, in Las Vegas. McCarran is the fifth- busiest airport in the country, with over 44 million travelers passing through annually. From the terminal you can see the great pyramid of Luxor and the little skyline of New York–New York, but Las Vegas has done an admirable job of bringing the Strip to the airport. McCarran has some 1,300 slot machines, which ding and chime incessantly like cell phones with subwoofers. These were very forgiving for the first half hour, but became more cranky and thirsty for cash in the second.

Above the baggage claim is the Esplanade, a shopping arcade with gift-shop outposts of many of the big casinos. Nearby is the Howard W. Cannon Aviation Museum, open twenty-four hours a day, where I learned that in 1960 the airport, like the rest of Las Vegas, was a splashy bit of midcentury architecture surrounded by dun-colored desert, and that Howard Hughes was not as nutty as you might think.

I found my shower at the 24-Hour Fitness center, one floor beneath the baggage carousels. I had thought workout facilities would be common at airports, but they aren’t, and a fully equipped one is a rarity. I learned this after logging some time at airportgyms .com, which lists many gyms a cab ride away, but few on site.

I paid $10 for a day pass, put on sneakers and shorts, and spent two hours doing the hamster thing on a treadmill and making my way through the workout stations. The club was as well equipped as a large suburban strip-mall fitness center. Afterward, I found the steam room broken and the sauna too much of a commitment, but the shave and long shower were just short of spectacular.

Here’s another great thing about McCarran: if you want a little fresh air, you don’t need to go outside. The O2 Bar & Spa in Concourse C first caught my attention because it had the same eggcup-style stools I had admired in the SkyMall catalog. I signed up for ten minutes, telling the oxygen keeper that I was feeling a bit fatigued; she prescribed a mix of aromas—bayberry, mandarin orange, peppermint, and eucalyptus—that evidently are to oxygen what soda is to scotch. She handed me a two-pronged nosepiece, and oxygen soon started bubbling through four small silos filled with colored liquids. I could control how much of each scent I got, but no matter how I set the dials, it always smelled like a Grateful Dead concert.

I slept well that night at Gate A-8, thanks to my workout, a malfunctioning overhead light, and an Ambien, though I was awakened at 5 a.m. by the roar of a terrazzo Zamboni. I set off for the Starbucks over at the more upscale Terminal D, and watched a magnificent desert sunrise through soaring windows.

Airports were once designed to attract local visitors, since those promoting air travel wanted to make people comfortable around planes and ease their fear of flying. One of Washington, D.C.’s airports had a public swimming pool; New York’s LaGuardia had a skywalk, where for 10 cents you could spend the day watching planes from an elevated deck.

Stylish restaurants were also part of the airport outreach program. New York’s Idlewild had both the Princess Room and the Golden Door, the latter of which had three dance floors, employed Winston Churchill’s former sommelier, and attracted favorable notice from TheNew York Times’s Craig Claiborne. Atlanta’s airport featured a plantation-style restaurant where an elderly black man was hired to tell kids Uncle Remus stories.

Encounter restaurant at Los Angeles International is a throwback to the olden days. It’s housed in what is probably Los Angeles’s most iconic structure: the 1961 Theme Building, which looks like a Danish Modern fondue pot, to go with JFK’s salad bowl. With the aid of Walt Disney Imagineering, this outlandish structure got a multimillion- dollar makeover about a decade ago. The theme was apparently “Gidget Goes to the Andromeda Galaxy.” The elevator music is toe-tapping tiki-pop, and the doors to the restaurant open into the Jetsons’ living room. When the bartender pulls the beer tap, sounds of intergalactic warfare echo around the room.

Presented by

Wayne Curtis is the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails, published this summer.

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