Greetings from Airworld!

Six days in five airports—a survivor’s guide
More

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!”

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.

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.

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.
Jump to comments
Presented by

Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic contributing editor.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In