Terminal Philosophy

I can’t get enough of airports. Maybe it’s because I’m from a small town or maybe it’s because I like riding the moving sidewalks, but for me, airports have a certain allure, a mystique that really appeals.

Once you’ve checked your luggage, said goodbye to mom and dad and made it through security, you’ve really entered a different world. Time suddenly begins passing at an erratic rate, and you’re either late, and madly running around, or stuck with hours and hours to wait. And while, geographically, you’re still physically in a city or a country, theoretically, you’re in limbo. An airport is never a destination; it’s a place to be passed through.

There’s something humbling about being in such a place. Suddenly, no one can claim to have an upper hand over anyone else. In a place that is home to none of us, all of us are equal. In an airport, you can’t claim dominance or ownership over anything. Your belongings and those of your fellow travelers have been whisked away to a cargo hold somewhere. Your surroundings are not familiar or comfortable. You’re in transit, like everyone else, and so, you’re equal to everyone else.

A successful business person may be flying first class with an expensive set of matching luggage. They may have flown dozens of times. Sitting a few rows away from them in the airport lounge is a tourist, holding an economy class ticket, a camera and a backpack, eager to head off on the first big, expensive trip they’ve ever taken.

Although these two travelers appear very different at first glance, the airport strips away many of the distinctions between them. The common ground between tourist and jet-set is that both are removed from the comforts of home, familiar faces and the routines of daily life – things that form a vital part of one’s identity. Their faces merge into a sea of strangers.

The philosophically-minded reader might make the observation that life is a bit like passing through an airport. We are, after all, on a trip, waiting for a plane to whisk us off in a metaphorical blast of jet fuel to some great beyond, be it idyllic, hellish or non-existent.

Given this, I’d like to propose that maybe we should be treating one another with a bit of decency. Why not show a bit of respect for our fellow travelers? We’re all strangers here, equally ill- equipped to deal with the daily grind. Nobody should be pretending to be superior to anyone else.

There is, however, an unfortunate human tendency to be self-absorbed. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. The airport often brings out this undesirable trait. Everyone’s rushing, focusing only on their own concerns and forgetting that the people in front of them in the customs line also have somewhere to go. They too have a story of their own.

Sometimes when I’m in a crowded place, I stop myself in the middle of an internal monologue to wonder about the person sitting across from me. Sometimes I imagine wild things about the people I see around me. I once pretended the guy across from me on the subway was a contract killer. I think it keeps me from forgetting that my story is not the only interesting or important one. We miss so much of what happens around us, both in life and in airports.

I’m not suggesting a deep heart to heart with everyone we run into, but an awareness of others would go a long way toward bringing about a true appreciation for what is fascinating about a place like an airport: the meeting of cultures. It’s a place where people from opposite corners of the globe encounter one another; there are so many different people, and each has their own unique experiences and perspectives.

What I love most about airports is imagining the stories of the people I see, wondering who they are and where they’re going, and if I’m lucky, maybe finding out. After all, with a four hour wait before takeoff, I might as well be doing something interesting.The common ground between tourist and jet-set is that both are removed from the comforts of home, familiar faces and the routines of daily life.