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Transport / Mass transit

How airports can change how we think of places

I remember a time I became part of a mass of impatient flyers, as the technology collapsed in front of me at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. Airports have become sites of big data and code – and when this vital lifeblood collapses, so does the airport. It becomes like a chaotic doctors’ waiting room.

Despite the inconvenience and chagrin, it is in moments like this where we can stop, stand still, and think about the space in which we find ourselves. Perhaps we should reflect more deeply on the place of the airport, a space that we so often neglect when we treat is merely as a waiting room from A to B. 

Airports are not just hubs of dizzying heights of technology, where the barcodes on the luggage tags allow the sorting of luggage according to flights. They are more abstract places of beauty, imbued with meaning, emotion, and identity.

Marc Augé wrote how airports, just like hotels and shopping malls, fall into the generic category of ‘non-place’ – devoid of any identity, a mere ‘space’, not even a ‘place’, through which one travels out of necessity.

Of course, the practical function of airports must not be overlooked – but what about the feelings of disorientation triggered by the confusing signs pointing us to a myriad of places as we pass through Heathrow Terminal 5? Or what about the architectural beauty of Denver International Airport with its marque-like exterior? Airports are too often synonymous with feelings of angst and hassle, and it is time to appreciate them as places in their own right, each one unique compared to the other.  

For British Airways pilot Mark Vanhoenacker, the life of pilots is besotted not just by jetlag but also ‘place lag’: is the non-biological sensation of disorientation and change when you start your day in daylight in London Heathrow, spend a few hours in the air, and arrive in San Francisco on the BA287 when the San Franciscan population is eating their dinner. It is the sense of wonder and adapting to change that is part of the process of air travel. The smells of New York espresso bars become replaced by the aroma of spices in the souks in Marrakech.

Yet such change does not happen instantly, nor in the space of a few hours at 42,000 feet. It all starts at the airport.

Shanghai Pudong International Airport (IATA Code: PVG) may look like something out of the 21st century on the outside, but on the inside, it feels like a trip back in time to Maoist China. The smells of Shanghainese food traverse across the poorly ventilated departures area, and on a short trip from Shanghai to Seoul, it was in PVG where the place lag hit me. The contrast between PVG and Seoul Incheon – with its robots cleaning the floors – could not have been greater.

What’s more, the Chinese outward migration stamp is far from subtle: a huge red circle with the letters ‘EXIT’ printed in bold. Each time I have gone past border control upon exiting a country, I am left baffled. Geopolitical questions of the form “What country am I in?” fill my mind.


And what does it mean to be airside? Being airside in Pudong may mean one is physically on Chinese soil – but in terms of your sensory experiences, the airport has this wonderful way of gripping hold of you, making you feel part of its magic, as if in a state-less limbo. Neither here nor there, as you wait in trepidation for your flight.

Yet place lag does not just have to happen in the largest of airports, where exiting a country is met with a colourful passport stamp. L.F. Wade International Airport in Bermuda, with just 11 departures a day, is not the first airport that springs to mind when we think of ‘international’ airports.

But departing from Bermuda was an experience in itself – not just the walking onto the runway to board the aircraft, as if I were the US president boarding Air Force One, but the departures loung which made a doctor’s waiting room seem like a mansion. The scarcity of people, the lack of hustle and bustle, and sleepy pace of operations was a stark contrast to the chaotic airport of London Gatwick where my flight would take me.

In Bermuda, I also experienced place lag, but of a different sort. There was no border control upon exit, no rubber mark in my passport to show I had ‘left’ – but I knew I had left when I had managed to browse all of the duty free stores in five minutes, and stepped onto the runway to board my British Airways flight to London Gatwick. The multicoloured houses, the blue seas, and the adagio tempo of life in this airport, would all become a distant memory. As flight BA2232 descended into the grey expanse of Gatwick, the island airport that would greet me, accompanied by the noises of people waiting for delayed luggage, and the frustration of travellers unable to use the e-Passport gates, would cultivate a whole new sense of place.

Airports make us think about place not just as a fixed dot on a map, but as relational: a fusion of experiences and processes. It is a shame that it’s only when time stands still – when forced to, by a technological malfunction – that we devote time to think about the things that make the airport the place it is. This could be be the data sets, the sights, sounds, and smells, or the more emotional ways that airports alter how we think about place.

Airports are not mere spaces of nothingness: they are places of beauty, whether architecturally or emotionally. And it is important we do not ignore them in our contemporary, cosmopolitan obsession with travelling from one place to another.
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