Greetings from Airworld!

Six days in five airports—a survivor’s guide

Little, of course, needs to be said about airport food. It’s generally accepted that a good meal at an airport is any meal eaten on a tabletop that’s not tacky with unidentified substances and plastered with the confetti of torn salt packets. One would think that airports would attract celebrity chefs searching for new pasturage, but other than Wolfgang Puck—the California culinary colossus who now vends salads and sandwiches from take-out alcoves the size of ATM vestibules—the pickings are slim.

Encounter was thus a treat, with its unplastic flatware, solid plates, and drinking water freely supplied. I found a seat at the long, curvy bar and selected from among nine martinis while admiring the comings and goings of the aircraft. I enjoyed every bite of my market salad and Peking roast duck. The U.S. dollar is astonishingly weak in Airworld, but Encounter offers good value: main courses range from $19 to $36.

The biggest surprise at LAX was discovering that it’s friendly to pedestrians. It may be the only major airport where you can take a short walk and find yourself on actual sidewalks, amid civilians. In a city that equates pedestrianism with deviancy, I was also astonished to find a nicely designed pedestrian entryway off Sepulveda Boulevard—a plaza with a 9/11 memorial along with two 100-foot-high translucent glass towers. These are part of an installation of twenty-six towers by the artist Paul Tzanetopoulos, which by day give the airport approach the look of an oil refinery designed by Dwell magazine, and by night become a glowing forest of colorful pillars.

Across the street from the plaza is a Radisson Hotel. I headed over and discovered that it has a heated Olympic-sized outdoor pool and a small fitness room; you can also get massage and reflexology treatments. (Hotel facilities are available to those who get a room for the day, which generally costs half the overnight room rate; walk, or hop the free shuttle from the airport.) Plus, there’s the rooftop lounge, which is a fine place to marvel anew that 747s can actually get airborne.

Two cocktails and the swipe of a credit card later, I was toying with a remote control that adjusted the firmness of my guest-room mattress, pleased that none of the settings was “articulated vinyl-upholstered bench with armrests.” In the three seconds before sleep, I weighed whether I had violated my rule about not leaving the airport. The answer: yes. But, as noted, I’m a traveler, not a tourist. Travelers break the rules.

In his splendid cultural history Naked Airport (2004), Alastair Gordon explains that airport planners once aimed to allow travelers to park their cars as close to their departure gates as possible. That was fine until 1973, when federal legislation mandated stricter security screening. (From 1968 to 1972 there were 154 attempted hijackings to Cuba.) So the Great Wall of Airworld was constructed, dividing the land into the provinces of pre-security and post-security.

At airports like LAX and JFK, which had scattered their terminals around parking lots, airport geography became annoyingly balkanized. At Kennedy, for instance, where I was flying JetBlue, I couldn’t get to the Peet’s or Starbucks coffee stands at non-JetBlue terminals, nor could I learn what treasures might be found at the art museum at Gate 46 of American Airlines’ new Terminal 9.

Life post-security was much better at Detroit Metro’s McNamara terminal, one of the best examples of the new mega-terminal, in which retail and dining are clustered beyond the passenger-screening facility. The terminal, which opened in 2002 and serves as one of Northwest’s hubs, is a marvel. Its Concourse A is a mile long and has a soaring, hangar-like ceiling, yet never feels oppressively huge. A cherry-red tram whisks along on a track overhead to get travelers from one end to another. It’s futuristic, but with the retro air of a pre-war European train station.

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Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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