Every week, on the way to the supermarket, I pass Liverpool John Lennon airport with its very unreassuring sign (at least it is for a nervous non-flyer like me): ‘Above us only sky’. This has prompted a few disconnected thoughts about airports.
1. London Heathrow, the busiest airport in Europe, employs more people than the city of Oxford. The late architectural critic Martin Pawley argued that Heathrow ‘is not only better than London, it is everything that London isn’t’.
2. Airports are ‘designed around the needs of their collaborating technologies, and seem to be almost the only form of public architecture free from the pressures of kitsch and nostalgia. As far as I know, there are no half-timbered terminal buildings or pebble-dashed control towers.’ – J.G. Ballard
3. I remember an edition of You and Yours on Radio 4 from a few years ago, in which they interviewed a farmer with land near John Lennon Airport. He said that more than half of his annual income came from allowing people using the airport to park their cars in his fields. Cars were his most profitable cash crop.
4. Jock Kinneir, the designer of the blue motorway signs, also designed the British Airport Authority’s signage with black lettering on a yellow background and pictograms which has since become the international standard.
5. ‘It is not the limitless anarchic space of everyday life, where you must scrabble for a living. It is circumscribed. It is newer, cleaner and smarter than everyday life; and services wait to spring to the salute when you press the button. You are free to supply your own wants, but all the sources of supply are within stroll.’ - Brigid Brophy on the airport
6. In a typical episode of the BBC docusoap Airport, which deals with the comings and goings at Heathrow, there are four narrative strands. An Alsation dog in a stop-off from Hong Kong to America has to be relieved and taken by the animal squad to a special kennel because of the quarantine laws. Four Norwegian women have lost their bags and are refusing to fly on to Oslo until BA finds them. A photographer waits around for a supermodel but the supermodel refuses to be photographed. A womble dressed in a kilt and sporran arrives and finds that he cannot travel unidentified for security reasons, so he has to change.
7. ‘[The airport] is a miniaturised city. As a simulated metropolis it is inhabited by a community of modern nomads: a collective metaphor of cosmopolitan existence where the pleasure of travel is not only to arrive, but also not to be in any particular place.’ - Iain Chambers
8. For the French anthropologist Marc Augé, the airport is the classic example of a ‘non-place,’ a new type of environment that renders the role of the anthropologist redundant. A Durkheimian analysis of the transit lounge at Roissy is impossible, he writes, because here the ‘organically social’ has been replaced by ‘solitary contractuality’. The airport offers a series of stable reference points – internationally standardised icons signifying toilets, duty-free shops and departure gates, internationally recognised zones such as passport control, customs and baggage reclaim, internationally known retail outlets. In the airport, we surrender to the authority of experts who check us in, take our baggage, usher us through security barriers and relieve us of responsibility and identity. Once we go through the passengers-only gate, navigate the passport and security checks and enter the transit lounge, we are literally nowhere, a kind of international non-place where different rules apply. Airports are self-contained little worlds, microcosmic societies which lack the geographical justification of traditional cities, owing their existence instead to the distribution of international trade and tourism.
9. If we surrender our identity in the airport as Augé argues, we do so by adopting the persona of the airlines’ most valued customer: the white, middle-aged, businessman. Airports and aeroplanes are the last bastions of the old-fashioned hierarchies of commercial travel. Airlines ruthlessly segregate the flying elite from what is known contemptuously in the trade as ‘zoo class,’ the economy fliers who are offered less facilities, less oxygen and less legroom (thus being exposed to the greater risk of deep vein thrombosis, or ‘economy-class syndrome’). This is not simply a matter of money – the frequent flying or loyalty to a particular airline which will give the customer access to executive clubs and luxurious lounges – but the successfulness of one’s impersonation of the ideal customer. Economy-class passengers are far more likely to blag an upgrade or be able to check in at the business-class desk if they are well-groomed and besuited, not dressed like a backpacker.
10. Airports are not always spaces of smooth contractuality, as Augé suggests. Or at least, the contract is unfairly weighted to the producers, thanks to the Warsaw Convention which gives air passengers virtually no right of redress if things go wrong. Airlines always overbook their flights in the expectation that passengers will cancel or not show (a highly likely eventuality since full-fare tickets are block-booked by businesses who know they are fully refundable after the event). A customer is far more likely to be ‘bumped’ – taken off the flight because it is overbooked – if she is not an exalted member of the frequent-flyer club. Business-class travellers stuck in transit because of missed connections are given hotel rooms, meals, free long-distance calls; those in economy class are fobbed off with a token for a cup of coffee.
If anyone else is interested in airports I recommend David Pascoe’s Airspaces (Reaktion, 2001), an elegant meld of cultural history, architectural/literary/filmic criticism and personal observation.