Airports are strange places. They remind me of hospitals, in so much as you never really want to go to the airport itself, you want what comes after that, be it the destination or the cure, which in some cases might be the same thing.
I’ve spent a fair few hours of my life in airports. I tend to sit somewhere other than the gate where my fellow passengers await the boarding announcement then dutifully stand in line to shuffle onto the plane. Instead, I find a quiet spot where I can sit and people watch like some unnoticed surveillance camera.
I watch for the hellos and goodbyes, the red eyes of wrenching farewells, and the bounce in the step of the person who can’t wait to get away. I watch for the meanderes who have time to kill, and the last-minute runners who breathlessly rush to catch that flight that’s calling their name.
I invent stories in my mind for the people as they weave their way around the familiar props that make airports seem so generic and clinical at times. The potted plants, the wall mounted telephones, magazine kiosks, and rows of seats near doorways that have the names of far away places above them.
I sometimes watch the security staff as they snap and snarl at people, making them perform largely pointless acts of security theatre. Belts off, shoes off, laptops in the tray please.
Then there are the people who drive those electric buggies. I don’t envy many people who work in airports, but a part of me envies them as they speed through the terminal, orange light flashing, electronic horn beeping. I’ve never driven one of those. I’d quite like to one day. If I was the kind of person who made lists I would put that on one, but I’m not that kind of person. Instead, I’m the guy who waits until everyone else is on the flight, then I walk up to the door with the name of the destination above it, smile at the ground crew as I hand them my ticket, apologise for being late then make my way onto the plane.
The only time I’m among the first people to board a flight is when I’ve been upgraded. On those occasions I want to be one of those conceited assholes who sips a glass of bubbles as you walk through business class wondering how a scruffy bastard like me can afford to be so extravagant. I pretend I don’t notice you, but probably like everyone else around me, I do notice. I see every glance as I enjoy that glass of bubbles which tastes so much better in the big leather chair from which high-flying ‘business’ is apparently done.
Normally though, I’m back there in ‘cattle class’ with the rest of the herd. 28F, 31A, 52C, 44B. Those are the kind of numbers I’m used to when I take to the air. Ladies and gentlemen, fasten your seat belts you cheapskates because it’s going to be a cramped, noisy, and generally uncomfortable flight.
Later, when we touch down wherever that might be, I reach for my mobile phone wondering what possible disaster could happen if I switch it on before we get to the gate and are “well inside the terminal building.” I remain seated when the plane comes to a standstill and everyone around me leaps to their feet, as if their haste will somehow make their luggage reach baggage claim faster than mine.
It’s not the airport I enjoy, it’s not the flight, it’s not even the arrival, but instead the moment I leave the clinical confines of the terminal building, when I’ve collected my luggage and wheeled it through those doors past the people looking for loved ones, friends, colleagues, and “Mr Wong” whose driver awaits. That moment when the airport doors open and the foreign air hits me is when I smile because I’ve made it, I’ve done my time, and I am once again a free man!