There Are Two Types of Airport People
Last week, Amanda Mull wrote about why some travelers get to the airport compulsively early—and why others relish the thrill of a late arrival. After talking with friends and colleagues, Mull concluded that “baseline differences in outlook can make the virtues of both earliness and lateness impossible to explain to people in the opposite camp.”
First, nobody who arrives two hours in advance is “overprepared.” They’re just organized. I arrive three hours early, especially for long-distance flights like the ones I just had from Scotland to New Zealand and back.
Second, flying is fun. Airports are fun, or at least should be for journalists because there’s so much to see and learn. Why hang around that extra hour in the hotel or at home when you can sit in an airport, nursing a beer and watching the planes go by?
Third, lateness is a highly stressful habit. As my grandfather, a Methodist clergyman, used to say to me: “Selwyn, if you’re not five minutes early, you’re late.” He never took a flight in his life but, if he had, I’m sure he would say: “If you’re not three hours early, you’re late.”
In February 2002, my family of five arrived at the Salt Lake City International Airport two and a half hours ahead of our scheduled departure to Thimphu, Bhutan, where we would spend four months living and doing volunteer work.
The sight that greeted us as we approached the terminal was one that I will never forget—a literal sea of humans, all waiting to check in for their flights.
In a classic case of oversight, we had neglected to take into account that the Salt Lake City Olympics had just finished the evening before; thousands of athletes and fans were also scheduled to leave that morning.
Traveling with three kids, ages 4, 6, and 8, we’d carefully planned an extra-early arrival to minimize the stress of traveling halfway around the globe. Our plans were immediately shattered as we spotted the check-in line snaking out the terminal door, well over 300 feet long.
After finally checking our mountains of luggage, we raced to the crowded security gate, where I used my powers as a mother to ask others in the line if they would kindly let us move ahead of them.
In the end, we made it to our flight with about 10 minutes to spare—ample time, really—but suffering from a cold sweat and racing heartbeat.
When a schedule is set for a bunch of strangers to do something together at a certain time, such as fly on an airplane, people who are not making their best effort to go along with that program are being inconsiderate to every other person involved, particularly the plane crew and workers at the airport. Psychological excuses are meaningless when other travelers and those trying to help them are inconvenienced because one person can’t get their act together.
John P. McMahon
While I suppose there are people who enjoy arriving two hours early so they can sit in uncomfortable seats facing blaring TVs while eating overpriced cinnamon-sugar pretzel nuggets (a real thing), I am not one of them.
Occasionally I am the guy sprinting for the gate, but I think I am not atypical in trying to leave adequate time while not hanging around the airport for very long.
I do have some sympathy for the late arrivals, and I have always preferred trains to planes, because you can jump on the train after it’s started moving.
This article makes it sound as if thrill seeking is the only reason folks chronically arrive at the airport with a tight window of time before their flight (if it is intentional, I don’t think late is the correct term). For frequent business travelers, like I was in the past, something different is going on. Because they travel in large volumes, and are intimately familiar with the systems involved, tighter windows seem inherently less risky. And missing one flight in 50 due to a confluence of negative events is simply worth it to gain hundreds of hours of time over the course of a year.
Readers responded on Twitter:
The unreal privilege of flying while not brown. I arrived at the airport two hours early today (per routine) and still almost missed my flight because of a long sit down with US border agents in Toronto: https://t.co/pIw8UVMmNj— Tamer El-Ghobashy (@TamerELG) May 30, 2019
my tragedy is that I am a traveler who loves cutting it close but also truly and genuinely enjoys spending time in airports, which are cornucopias of delight https://t.co/g8IY3s2SWb— Alexandra Petri (@petridishes) May 30, 2019
Ive adopted @kainazamaria’s “aim to get to the airport two hours early for contingencies” approach which used to seem like doing way too much until i missed a flight bc of an hour-long wait at security— Tim Bae-akabutuka (@GeeDee215) May 30, 2019
Now I’m firmly Team Get There Early And Be Bored https://t.co/qHp7qVWAa7
People who miss flights end up spending way more time in the airport than people who don't. I really don't understand this approach! https://t.co/0BVT7hNS2K— Marin Cogan (@marincogan) May 30, 2019
*waves from Newark Airport where her flight doesn’t take off for another 3 hours* https://t.co/9Q0Rg8Ecqq— Elana Brooke Fishman (@elanafishman) May 30, 2019
Fun fact: If you arrive at the international terminal at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris before 5 am, the lights will be dim, the boarding pass machines off, and the security lines closed and unattended. https://t.co/3DduviZi1Q— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) May 30, 2019
I am a chronically early airport person. I also like to pick up/take people to the airport, especially very early & very late, as a kind of religious practice. https://t.co/gZpoFLpU2F— Elizabeth McCracken (@elizmccracken) May 30, 2019
Amanda Mull replies:
In the avalanche of response to my article about airport punctuality, one theme emerged from the late crowd: Many of them argued that their last-minute arrivals weren’t just an attempt to manage anxiety by acting out, but a principled response to the indignity of airports themselves. No one, they insisted, could want to spend more time in an airport than is absolutely necessary.
The later-arrivers might be right that no one enjoys waiting in line or submitting to the mundane humiliation of TSA screening, but they’re wrong about the rest of the experience. It might not be what I’d choose to do with a Saturday night, but given the options—going to the airport early, or sitting in my apartment for an extra half hour, slowly becoming nervous that I will miss my flight—the choice is very easy.
Part of my affection for the airport stems from the exact reason some people find it intolerable: It’s a place that exists tangential (at best) to the norms that otherwise govern everyday American life, which means it frees people up to be huge weirdos. Most people waiting for a commercial flight might be opposed to sleeping in public or sidling up to a bar at nine in the morning in their regular life, but the airport is a space just far enough removed from polite society that a whole new set of behaviors becomes possible. It’s just wretched enough to be sublime, if you like watching people be weirdos.
And I do. I love to buy a Bojangles’ biscuit or Shake Shack breakfast sandwich, put my favorite music in my headphones, and do nothing but read a book, play a game on my phone, or look at the people around me for an hour or two. The airport’s social separateness has an advantage: It’s a place where most people in your life don’t really expect you to do anything constructive or accomplish much work unless you’re traveling for your job, so waiting for a flight is one of the few times in life where I feel no pressure to be social or productive. It’s a liminal space in which I have succeeded by just getting there in time to exist for a while. The airline might require my presence, but once I’m through security, the time is otherwise my own, uncolonized by the usual concerns of relationships or work or health.
At the airport, people are all id. If you want to eat fast food in your comfy pants while reading a romance novel on your phone, you have an hour to do that. If you want to sip a coffee while you watch harried travelers book it through the airport with their shoes in their hands, you can do that too. If my Twitter mentions are any indication, there will always be plenty of avowedly late people to entertain those of us who arrived early enough to witness their misfortune.