Airports are strange places. The last thing you want to do is spend 45 minutes waiting at the airport and sitting by other people’s crying children, just because they happen to be stationed near the only open outlet in the entire tri-state area. The bathrooms smell, there never seems to be enough space to get comfortable, and a simple walk from one terminal to the other can produce as much temperature variation as jumping from a hot tub into a pile of snow (I’m looking at you, ATL). But, for all there is to complain about, there’s still a certain charm to airports.
Be sure to read up on airport tips and tricks and learn some reasons why airports are more lovable than you think, and then maybe next time you’re stuck at gate E27 for three hours too long, you’ll find some fun things to do in an airport rather dreading the wait and cursing the airline.
1. You Can Feel the Anticipation in the Air.
People in airports are going somewhere. They have a place they need to be that is different from the place where they were before. This inevitably means they are moving quickly and sometimes not paying attention to the actual situation of being in an airport, which is understandable! The excitement of whatever will begin when they reach their final destination, whether it’s a study abroad adventure or heading home for the holidays, it can be too much to keep them focused on petty tasks, like deciding what they want from Starbucks or walking in a relatively straight line while wheeling a roller-board behind them (or worse, next to them). They have been planning this for a long time and probably have been talking about it for the past 57 days with anyone in their life that would listen. Maybe they spent the last two weeks packing for their multi-destination European adventure and they’re so antsy now they could burst.
Anticipate away, fellow travelers! Your trip is here! Today’s the day you’ll arrive at that place you’ve been dreaming of! But first, you have to deal with waiting at the airport.
2. It’s The Perfect Way to Learn About the Local Culture.
Airports can be excellent places to get to know the local culture—or a cheesy alternate-universe version of the local culture at the very least. This is especially true of layovers that force you into waiting at the airport, rather than going to visit the actual city.
If you are not sure what to do at the airport during your layover, but want to get a taste of local culture, pop into the gift shop to see what kinds of things the place is known for. Utah makes great green chile and SCL has a section where you can smoke indoors—who knew? (You wouldn’t have, if you hadn’t had a layover there!). Beyond offering overpriced souvenirs, airports can also give you insights into the people who live in that city or country.
Within the span of five minutes while going through security, the TSA agents in the Minneapolis airport joke about boarding passes, comment on how full the bins get during winter, and tell people to exit the scanning booth by proclaiming they are the next contestant and should, “Come on down!” If that’s not a prime example of “Minnesota Nice,” what is? In the Atlanta airport, you can’t get a sandwich or coffee without being called “honey” at least three times per purchase by women that you want to adopt as grandmas and aunts. If you pay attention to the people in airports, their accents, vocabulary, and mannerisms, you could almost think of airports as mini trips within a trip.
3. You’ll Never Meet Nicer Bartenders.
These people are gems. They love explaining the alcohol choices at their establishment, will tell you anything about the city you just visited, or are not visiting at all, and can give you advice on any other airport tips, such as what you should see if you have an absurdly long layover. They will also go out of their way to help you once you are friendly to them.
Exemplary anecdote: A traveler was leaving on a flight from Seattle to Japan and realized he forgot to mail some thank you notes, which he had brought to drop in the airport mailbox. When he asked the bartender where the airport mailbox was, he learned that the Seattle airport no longer had an outgoing USPS mailbox. The traveler was beyond bummed because he would not be back in the U.S. for another month! But, without being asked, the bartender offered to take the stamped envelopes and drop them in a mailbox in the city on his way home from work! He actually did it, and one week later the traveler’s aunts and grandparents confirmed the arrival of their thank you notes (and the traveler was the stellar nephew and grandson he claimed to be).
Come on, people! Let’s all act a little more like airport bartenders.
4. Some Airport Shops are Downright Hilarious.
You can’t make this stuff up. Who decides to buy a Southwestern-themed lamp while waiting at the airport? Is anyone really in the mindset to purchase fine jewelry while on the way to Terminal C? Oh, yes, this is the perfect time to try on several cashmere sweaters—it’s not like travelers have any luggage with them already and they are definitely trying to look their best. What is the process for getting approval to open up an airport shop? How are some of these places still in business? How many people choose to purchase their Coach bag from the San Francisco International Airport when they could just go to the mall? Who buys a two-foot-tall hand-blown glass sculpture minutes before they are about to board a metal tube that will shoot them through the air?
These are all mystical airport secrets that you can ponder during your layover.
5. There’s No Better Spot for People Watching.
An airport can bring out someone’s true colors like no place else. It’s the perfect storm of competing pressures, which leads to a higher percentage of “situations worth watching” (SWW’s). At any given time while waiting at the airport, you can probably notice at least five SWW’s just from a brief scan of the scene in front of you. Outlined below are some key pressures that are exacerbated for people in airports, which leads to better people watching:
- Pressure #1: No privacy. Traveling in a group can be more challenging than traveling alone. When you’re alone, you can go pee as many times as you want and place your order at Chick-Fil-A without any passive-aggressive hinting from someone in the group that the salad place would have been a better option (General PSA: Airport salads are boring, old, and just as expensive as a delicious chicken sandwich and waffle fries–there’s a clear choice here, people). Everyone has differing opinions about what should be done, but in an airport, there’s no private room where they can step aside for a quick chat. In public, problems are hinted at or glossed over and left unsaid, so as not to cause a scene. This usually results in tensions that build until they burst, ultimately causing an even bigger scene. SWW for sure.
- Pressure #2: Work. People in airports traveling on business like to use their status on this side of the “business vs. pleasure” equation as a trump card if the situation calls for it. No blame—everyone’s been there. Some business people give off the impression that every meeting in their final destination city is extremely important and has been on the books for weeks, no months, and is with one of the company’s most important clients they have ever had ever. Do you even understand how stressful this is for them? Or how good of an SWW this will be when something goes slightly not according to planned?
- Pressure #3: Jealousy. That’s right, the old green-eyed monster. Let’s not pretend to be above it. On any random trip, envy builds up for every passing girl who looks cuter-than-should-be-humanly-possible after a four hour plane ride and the first-class ladies and gents who are already sipping their second rum and diet Coke by the time the sorry Zone 3 schleps itself onto the airplane. If someone nearby brought pizza, a bagel, a breakfast sandwich, or a taco onto the plane to eat...jealousy ensues. But this is about people watching. Being in close quarters with other people who seem to be more attractive, wealthier, and who could possibly be going somewhere cooler, creates an underlying pressure that may or may not permeate into some SWW’s (Note: This is just a theory. All thoughts are welcome).
- Pressure #4: Pressure. This is probably the most powerful of all of the elements that lead to good people watching. Going on a trip should be fun, light-hearted, and problem-free..or that’s what everyone wants to think. In reality, air travel can be stressful, uncertain, and tends to throw you a curveball sometimes. People who have the idea of perfection in the back of their minds when they imagine a trip are bound to make the actual traveling part a bit more high-pressure. Example: “This is supposed to be our vacation, Richard!” The vacation-card is a powerful one to pull. From observation, it usually leaves the person on the receiving end in silence or responding with, “I know…”
The real thing that can be learned from this list of pressures is that the next time you feel upset, stressed, angry, and maybe about to create your very own SWW, it might be time to take a step back and tell yourself, “It’s not me, it’s the airport.”
Airports are never going to lose their strangeness. It’s just what happens when large masses of people are constantly filtering in and a out of a confined space; however, next time you’re patiently waiting at the airport to board your next flight, remember these charming secrets and fun things to do in an airport to pass the time. Don’t worry, you’ll soon love airports too.