How Airports Liberate—and Constrain—Those Who Pass Through Them
“In the airport, we are all divorced from whoever we were previously.”
“I never get bored while waiting for a plane in an airport.”
People always look so surprised when I tell them of my fondness for airports. “I don’t understand,” they say, the first thing they always say is I don’t understand. The second: how boring airports are, how tedious, how they always have to wait. Inevitably, there will be delays. Inevitably, their plane will be late. I smile, nod, and agree. So, what—and now their voice always grows suspicious, as though I’ve taken the side of the plane—do you see in them, what is it that you find so appealing? The implication: you crazy person. You traitor. As though I’ve abandoned them to the machines.
I never quite know how to answer. It’s not like I don’t know the score; I’ve fallen asleep in airports, spent the night in airports, brushed my teeth and cried awkwardly out of frustration in airports. I’m a people-watcher, I tell them, shrugging, and then watch how they react in turn. Usually this response satisfies most people, but others still press on. Sometimes it’s nice to be forced to sit in one place, I continue; the passivity of it can be very soothing. I love the idea of miniature toothpaste, tiny bottles of shampoo and conditioner. Planes are cool to see.
But there is something else. Context disappears inside of an airport. Often, I am confused when I navigate my way through an airport; even when it is associated with the city that I live in, it is still not on my everyday commute. The architecture of the contemporary airport is so specific and yet so alien, so wholly and completely an architecture of borders, that even to step inside of one renders a person immediately unfamiliar, especially to themselves.
My shoes, my bag, the subway stop where I get off—a few fellow travelers might recognize what these symbols mean in regard to demographics, age, social status. But many more do not. And vice versa: in an airport, my own contexts and my ways of understanding the people around me disappear as well. At the terminal I could be any sort of person. Could be thinking any kind of thoughts. I could be a spy, say—sitting alone at night during the pandemic, alone in my tedious living room and wondering if I’d ever travel again or see my family, this silly thought made me smile.In an airport, my own contexts and my ways of understanding the people around me disappear.
At the terminal all that matters is the present. My ticket, my boarding pass, my passport. The backpack I take everywhere, I like to keep things light. My name. (Someone clears her throat over the loudspeaker; we must be boarding soon.) These are the things that matter. At the terminal I have everything I need. Ears open and listening. Waiting to be called.
An airport is a tidy microcosm, a world of its own making, complete with restaurants, shops, entire categories of jobs related only to its operation. An airport is its own miniature fiefdom, a parallel universe, a city-state where the normal rules of time and space are suspended. As a passenger, the ticket in your hand changes you. Once you pass that threshold, cross that divide, the airport consumes you, it gobbles you up. You gain and lose context. Your identity is not your own.
The airport is a perfect symbol of the twentieth century and an even better symbol of the twenty-first. “Once they were on the outskirts, supplementing cities, like train stations,” the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk writes of the airport in her novel of motion, Flights (as translated by Jennifer Croft). “But now airports have emancipated themselves, so that they have a whole identity of their own…It is widely known, after all, that real life takes place in movement.”
And the rhythm of the airport is one of constant movement, despite all the associations with delay. It has its own kind of dance: travelers move from terminal to terminal; flight crews move from plane to plane. Outside, the planes break through gravity, onwards and up. A one-sentence poem called “Airplanes,” from the American poet Anne Waldman in 1968 states this plainly: “Airplanes take us where we’re going and leave us there, then take off for parts unknown on their own.”
When I think of an airport, my mind goes blank. Linoleum and fluorescent lighting. The soft whirr of air conditioning, its strange stale scent. One of the reasons there are so many works of art and books and essays on airplanes and airports, alongside trains and train stations and bicycles, is that these are relatively new inventions, and we humans are in thrall. The tourist wanders through the airport with their luggage; they too are a new invention. “It was necessity, biological or economic in nature, that made people migrate,” the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger observes in his landmark 1958 essay, “A Theory of Tourism.” “Travel, as an end to itself, was unknown until well into the eighteenth century.”
An airport is a contradiction: at once the site where a country’s borders are imposed, it is also strangely nationless, a no man’s land of occasional and abrupt neutrality. This is the conceit of the 2004 movie The Terminal, Hollywood’s take on the peculiar case of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who spent eighteen years, from 1988 to 2006, living in Paris’s Charles de Gaulle. In Steven Spielberg’s hands, Nasseri becomes Victor Navorski, played by Tom Hanks with a generic Eastern European accent.
Following a revolution in his home country, Navorski swiftly becomes stateless, his passport no longer recognized by the U.S. (“You are a citizen to nowhere,” Stanley Tucci declares to him dramatically near the movie’s beginning). Many plot holes follow—if his English is so bad that he barely understands that he’s not allowed outside of the airport, I wondered as I rewatched it for the first time in years, how is he able to aid and abet a love affair between an airport worker and a border control officer, and later his own with a United Airlines flight attendant played by Catherine Zeta-Jones?—but after nine months, Navorski is finally allowed to leave the airport, announcing that he will be going “home”—to New York.
This is airport as nationalist fantasy, a portal to the United States and the benevolence of the American Dream, and so of course it was made in the years immediately after 9/11, and of course the nationality of the man trapped in the airport changes from Iranian to the made-up, vaguely post-Soviet country of “Krakozhia.” Hollywood produced an unusual number of films related to flying, airports, and airplanes in the decade after 9/11, from 2005’s Red Eye (airport as thriller, and the threat of terrorism as aphrodisiac), 2009’s Up in the Air (in the midst of the financial crisis, of course George Clooney’s slick corporate downsizer is a committed and obsessive business traveler), and 2006’s goofy Snakes on a Plane (planes as memes in one of the earliest examples of contemporary internet virality).
In these movies, airplanes and airports are sites of failure, frustration, but also a thrilling sense of danger. They are places where one can be a hero, and defeat the charming terrorist seated next to you threatening to kill your dad, as Rachel McAdams does to Cillian Murphy in Red Eye, or successfully land a plane with the skills you’ve cultivated playing video games, as Kenan Thompson does in Snakes on a Plane.
For the most part, these movies obscure the actual dangers present in the airport, where the imposition of national borders can turn some people into innocuous travelers and tourists and others into refugees, migrants, and exiles. The Cameroonian artist Bathélémy Toguo’s Transit series of performances, conducted and photographed from between 1996 to 1999, portrayed the reality that for certain people and nationalities, to be perceived by the developed world can be a threat. In Transit 1, he travels to a French airport where he had once been forcibly searched, bringing with him three suitcases made of wood, prompting detainment and examination.
In Transit 4, he dresses as a much-older man, and the police at the Lyon airport confiscate his walking stick. In Transit 8, the last in the series, he travels to Helsinki’s airport without a visa to experience and witness the poor conditions in which undocumented travelers are kept. “I couldn’t put up any longer with customs officers and their meticulous controls, which have a foundation in racial prejudice and preconceived notions,” reads an artist’s statement accompanying a 2006 exhibition of the work in Belgrade. “I decided to provide them with an opportunity for exercising their searching talent and to make them realize the absurdity of their own cliches.”However porous a border might be otherwise—however rooted in fantasy, a border isn’t real—it is at hard stops like airports where the indignity of borders…is reinforced.
In early 2017, airports across the United States became locations for protest following the Trump administration’s swift, unexpected executive order banning the admission of refugees into the U.S. and to block citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen from entering the country. It was obvious that these bans were motivated by anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments; this was the ruling party’s entire M.O. However porous a border might be otherwise—however rooted in fantasy, a border isn’t real—it is at hard stops like airports where the indignity of borders, the power constructions of citizenship, is reinforced. A poem by the U.S.-based Iranian poet and scholar Fatemah Shams, “Airport,” published recently in Poetry London and translated by Armen Davoudian, begins:
No one knew
that the woman wandering the airport by herself
her suitcase screeching on the tiles,
fleeing the irritated sleepy looks
of passengers waiting for delayed flights—
how dearly she had paid.
As of November 2022 there are 25 names listed on the Wikipedia page “List of people who have lived in airports,” ranging from the political—the Chinese dissident Feng Zhenghu, who lived in Tokyo’s Narita airport for 86 days from November 2009 to February 2010; Edward Snowden, who spent 39 days in Moscow’s airport in 2013—to the mundane (Yvonne Paul, a Dutch woman who did not leave the Amsterdam airport in 1968 for 80 days due to “wanting to go to the United States”; Wei Jianguo, a Chinese man still living in the Beijing airport out of a desire to “smoke and drink without his family bothering him.”)
“The airport protects us,” claims Anna, a woman living in Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Roissy airport in Tiffany Tavernier’s novel Roissy (translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan). There for mysterious reasons related to a past trauma, she spends her days wandering between terminals and stealing money from passengers in order to occasionally spend the night in a hotel. “It is our cocoon and, for me, my only true memory.”
Placelessness. Formlessness. In the airport, we are all divorced from whoever we were previously. Some more completely than others.
The German film director Angela Schanelec’s 2010 feature Orly is set entirely in one terminal in the Orly airport in Paris. Over the course of the movie, it becomes a place of transition, of abandonment; a teenage boy and his mother hold a frank discussion of sexuality; a French woman, en route to her husband in Montreal, unexpectedly falls in love with a stranger; a young German couple traveling together for the first time undergo their first argument, unsettling them.
Moving forward. It’s never like you think it is. In Schanelec’s careful hands, there is a tidy poetry to be found in transit, the rhythms of this century. Her characters enter the airport as one person and emerge from it as another. Like all of her films, they exist mostly in silence. The movie is filled with long shots of the busy airport corridors, where everyone is hurrying, everyone is bustling, everyone cannot wait to continue with their lives.
But Schanelec is so often a filmmaker of stillness. The almost imperceptible shifts that occur out of quietude, beneath the surface, until they have completely transformed a life. Maybe this is what I find interesting about airports, their forced sense of stillness, of sitting in one place. I once saw an old classmate, one who I had not seen in many years, at the airport. Maybe it was around a holiday. Maybe it was not. I can’t remember. It doesn’t matter.
I thought to myself, should I greet her? What were the social rules, the cues of polity? I flipped the pages of the fashion magazine I had bought in the airport bookshop, its pages heavy with perfume samples. No. I didn’t want to say hello. I didn’t want to say goodbye. I wanted, simply, to exist.