Greetings from Airworld!

Six days in five airports—a survivor’s guide

Little grace notes abound. A computerized fountain sends out arcs of water that are designed to wryly torment passersby, not unlike a street mime. Instead of many small, annoying TV screens, there are a few stadium-sized JumboTrons showing the news, using closed captioning and barely audible sound. Concourse B—not really worth a special trip, since it’s more or less a miniature version of Concourse A—is connected to the mother concourse via a tunnel that was evidently designed by someone who fully appreciated the 1960s: it hosts a psychedelic light show so mesmerizing that I rode the moving walkway several times. You can get a chair massage or dope up on oxygen at OraOxygen’s spa. And the dining options here are above average, with Sora sushi, Edy’s Ice Cream, and the Mediterranean Grill, which has commendable kebabs, tabouli, and hummus, and a waitress who calls everyone “hon.”

The best option for dining or relaxing, though, is to leave the security zone for the Westin Hotel. Detroit Metro has borrowed an old idea: an airport hotel integrated right into the terminal. The idea has been around since at least 1954, when Hyatt constructed a motel with palms and a swimming pool at Los Angeles International. At Detroit, Westin has brought the idea fully up to date, with a grand atrium lobby, a bamboo forest, and a reflecting pool that surrounds an appealing restaurant. Upstairs are a small swimming pool, a Jacuzzi, and an exercise room (a day pass is $15). The guest rooms are nicely appointed in tans and browns, as if created by a saddle maker, and I was pleased to find that from my bed I could watch travelers wheeling their luggage to the check-in counters below.

When you’re ready to leave, those with carry-on luggage can check in at a Northwest kiosk next to the hotel reception desk, then re-enter the airport through the hotel’s own TSA-manned terminal entrance. My stay at the airport and hotel was so pleasing that if time-shares were ever offered, I would attend the presentation even without the lure of a free toaster oven.

Americans often talk of an antediluvian golden age of travel, an era when stewardesses were unfailingly smiling and accommodating, airline meals were served with genuine flatware, and airports had barbers and furriers.

Of course, it was never that golden. In 1946, Fortune magazine reported from the front lines of air travel:

The drooping grandmothers, the crying babies, the continuous, raucous, unintelligible squawk of the loudspeaker, the constant push and jostle of new arrivals … make bus terminals look like luxury … Almost all U.S. airports are utterly barren of things to do. The dirty little lunch counters are always choked with permanent sitters staring at their indigestible food … The traveler consigned to hours of tedious waiting can only clear a spot on the floor and sit on his baggage and, while oversmoking, drearily contemplate his sins.

Apart from the smoking, this pretty much describes the experience today at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Hartsfield-Jackson is the world’s busiest airport, with about 86 million travelers passing through annually. It has a main security checkpoint, after which you may roam freely through all the terminals. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there’s not much reason to. The architecture here is not soaring and lyrical, as in Detroit. The airport was built on the cheap, and feels like a convenience store that had a bad experience with steroids. It has low ceilings, interminably long concourses, and security cameras hanging from Q-tip-like pods. Much of it tends toward the worn and tired, and the furniture at the gates may bring back not wholly pleasant memories of college dorm life.

The six terminals are connected by a three-and-a-half-mile underground train track. One of the things I usually like about airport trains is that they’re scaled down and let you feel for a moment that you’re only playing at being an adult. But the trains at Hartsfield-Jackson are all grown-up and dad-like.

Atlanta is the ancestral home of CNN, which plays incessantly on the many suspended television screens. In the feng shui of airports, there is good information energy (free WiFi) and bad information energy (endless news loops about unfolding mine disasters). One of the things I brought on my vacation was a small device called TV-B-Gone, a remote control pre‑ programmed with the “off” codes for virtually every television. Try as I might, though, the televisions here proved resistant. I found this especially irksome while overnighting at Gate E-12, which is otherwise notable for its armrest-less benches.

Relief is available, but at a price. Laptop Lane, a chain now in nine major airports, rents out Lilliputian offices with desks, a phone (free long-distance calls included), and a computer with Internet access. I stopped by the one next to the Budweiser Brewhouse at Hartsfield-Jackson, where the offices were tidy and comfortable and looked ideal for a nap. But at 65 cents a minute, dozing off for a few hours could end up costing hundreds of dollars.

On the suggestion of Stuck at the Airport, a handy guidebook by Harriet Baskas that’s also available online through the Expedia Web site (www.expedia .com/daily/airports), I caught a late train out to Concourse E to get some culture. And here Hartsfield-Jackson somewhat redeemed itself.

The airport has over 200 pieces in its permanent art collection, and space for rotating exhibits. At E-36 I admired Gregor Turk’s intricate ceramic maps, and at E-30 I enjoyed Joni Mabe’s outsized versions of bottle-cap folk art. My only complaint was that much of the art was displayed high in the clerestories of the departure-gate waiting areas, which meant a lot of neck craning and picking your way through feet and roll-aboards. I recommend touring the galleries after midnight, when the terminal empties out.

I left Atlanta for home around noon the next day—wistful, as always on the last day of a vacation, but somewhat consoled by a three-hour layover at Dulles International Airport. Upon landing there I immediately boarded one of the airport’s “mobile lounges,” which roam the Plains of Fairfax like mechanical brontosauruses. I wanted to see the swooping concrete terminal by Eero Saarinen—a great exclamation point among many drab semicolons and periods—which was built about the same time as his TWA terminal at Kennedy.

The detour was well worth it. I stood and admired the terminal’s vast, pendulous underbelly as other travelers pooled and eddied around me. Walter Kirn nicely captured the appeal of such a moment in his 2001 novel, Up in the Air. “Stopping off in transit beats arriving,” he wrote. “There’s the feeling of visiting an island, of stepping, briefly and sweetly, out of time into a scene you’ve had absolutely no hand in and have no designs on, no intentions toward.”

Just so. An airport is neither here nor there; it’s that interesting space in between. And I suggest you visit soon, before all the wrong people show up and ruin it.

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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Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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