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Introduction to Applied Airport Studies

As I began reading Christopher Schaberg’s The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight (2011)–a book I’d already thumbed through on several occasions, and one that I knew quite a bit about after editing a colleague’s thorough review some years before–I was struck by just how much the opening pages caused me to think about how much I’d been lapsing into extended reveries about airports over the preceding months. Schaberg, the critic-laureate of airport studies, lays out strategies for the semiotic analysis of airports, a task which he performs quite consciously and most intriguingly. What struck me upon reading his book from the beginning, with the attention that it demands, is just how much I (and, I suspect, many of you) have been doing some of the things mentioned in the book, in some cases for years, but usually in an unconsciously selective or ambient way. Like most of the best books of criticism, Schaberg’s reveals the layers, and probes the depths, of the things that most of us skim, take for granted, or ignore.

Dulles: By Jérôme (CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (

Airports and the culture of flight are ripe for textual analysis. Roland Barthes’s “The Jet-Man” is a widely known example of a “reading” of a figure that, characteristically of this type of discourse, uncovers an inherent contradiction in this new type of person (in this case, the pilot-hero is at-once a man of speed and the ultimate in repose and retarded movement). Or, consider interpretations of two monumental architectural works by Eero Saarinen (carried out in Schaberg’s book, but familiar to a wide audience because of their canonized, iconic pedigree). His TWA Flight Center (1962), a stand-alone concourse at JFK Airport, and his main terminal of Dulles Airport (also 1962), are as much abstract evocations of dynamic bird-shapes as they are post-Bauhaus public spaces that actualize ascendant ideas about concrete, steel, light, and the outward projection of power and plenty.

My experience reading Schaberg’s book ended up being precisely the kind of encounter that he writes about: seemingly quotidian, yet indicative of a space that yields new categories of being and experience. I cracked open The Textual Life of Airports at the Old Dominion Brewing Co. pub at Dulles Airport (IAD) before my trans-Atlantic flight (to London, via Reykjavik). Reading with a beer is a pleasure that I (re) discovered during my first year of dissertation writing. It is great for a certain kind of reading (for me, engaging non fiction that is not high theory) and helps extend the working day for another hour.

As the waiter took my order, I glanced around the pub. Behind me, a big group of early 20-somethings getting “loaded” before a flight to Paris; to my right, an efficient table of businessmen eating a quick sandwich before a weekly flight. My experience was exceptional: I had not been to an Old Dominion facility since they were bought by Fordham Brewing, in partnership with Anheuser-Busch, nor I had spent much time in the international terminal at Dulles. I had plenty of time before my flight, and wanted to soak in the space, the people, and the text. I began Schaberg’s book. My food and drink came quickly. The server kept visiting me at the table, in that friendly-but-firm manner that suggests that they were used to faster turnover than my leisurely eating, drinking, and reading suggested.

This is a key theme of airport studies: the difference between one’s personal time (as felt, as planned, as suffered through) and the institutional time that governs the airport as an organism (strict timetables keep things running efficiently, with variations causing all sorts of chaos). Abstracted further, this seems to me the key rhetorical move in much writing about airports and air travel: the recognition, and tentative reconciliation, of contradictory cultural functions. Without so much as starting my trip, and without so much as registering it until over a month later, I realized that the subconscious experience of my March 2014 travel would be a kind of introductory masterclass in airport studies. On paper, my trip was geared toward archival research, a conference, and catching up with friends. What I hadn’t bargained for were deep thoughts on airports.

On Time/Too Late

I am a punctual person. I tend to arrive early for appointments and meetings. I rarely feel anxious about time, except around air travel. The airport-machine (to borrow an evocative image from Schaberg) is a hybrid thing, which aspires to clockwork productivity (on time!), while often settling for human or natural interference (delayed!), with occasional good luck (for small flights and off-days, the rare early departure), and frequent catastrophe (cancelled!). All of these relationships to time make me anxious. I want to be on time (I end up being early). I have to endure a delay (time becomes elastic, its horizons extending to the vanishing point, as in a perspectival painting). The worst of these relationships is “too late!” Missing a flight is the stuff of nightmares. Well, my nightmares, at least. I’ve never actually missed a flight on my own accord. I can only imagine what it’s like. Such a possibility ranks up there with the dream of losing one’s teeth. In that scenario, agency and free will are bygone memories. The airport-machine marches on.


Lounging at KEF (Author's photo)

I arrived at Reykjavik-Keflavik Airport (KEF) after an overnight flight across “the pond.” On arrival, I’m greeted by a veritable semiotic billboard for “Europe” and “Europeaness.” The airport appears to be a cozy structure that uses minimalist design, tasteful decor, and a human scale to alleviate the coldness usually inherent in air travel. In the USA, many airports tend toward the cold, the impersonal, and the concrete. Glimpsed from certain angles, KEF is like a clipping from an Ikea catalog. My connecting flight’s gate is mere feet from where I arrive. I think back to the usual experience of air travel: running from one gate to the next.

When I say running, I mean it. Sometimes that running turns into a flailing hybrid of skipping, stumbling, and marching. With delays, some connecting flights only allow the smallest of windows. Since 2009, I’ve had several such experiences. I recall huffing and puffing across the length of Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW) with two dense carry-on items. In retrospect, I’m alarmed to learn that Concourse A is nearly a mile long. That bad situation was partially to do with my misanthropic hubris: I was too frazzled and distrustful to seek the machine assistance of moving walkways. In 2011, I power-walked George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) in Houston, seemingly going from one corner of this labyrinthine structure to another. I was rewarded by learning that my flight to San Antonio had been delayed for another hour. Most recently, in 2013, I ran for 10 minutes in Cleveland Hopkins Airport (CLE), this time in flip-flops, in order to make up for my delayed first flight. As I entered the plane, the doors closed and my stomach full of coffee nearly made a sudden, unticketed appearance.

As I flew back to the United States several weeks after my first taste of KEF, I was rudely reminded just how elastic these concepts of nearness and farness can be. On having my ticket scanned at the gate, I was told that I was one of those lucky schlubs who was selected for further security screening. Had they known about the intimate wanding I’d received at Heathrow (LHR) not hours before? No matter. Empirical experience caused me to revise my take on the scale of KEF. I had to run with the airline employee to the security area. On being cleared, I was lucky enough to SPRINT back to the gate, where I was among the last handful of people to be let on the plane before departure. Like the famous shot of Brody (Roy Schneider) on the beach in Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg), in which the camera dollies forward while zooming out, I experienced the simultaneous contraction and expansion of space. So much for my initial thoughts about the airport’s cozy, tasteful design.


On this trip to Europe, I did a lot of inadvertent eavesdropping. I was travelling alone and inevitably overheard people personalize their experience of public spaces. From film talk in the customs line at Heathrow (a group trying to remember the name of From Here to Eternity [1953, Fred Zinnemann] based on its famous beach-kissing scene) to scattered health updates (“I think I need some Beano…”), I focused anew on our collective, active production of these buildings as social spaces. For me, the resonances of their histories, combined with their “nowness” (i.e. who was in them with me, breathing the same air), was as important as my static preconceptions. (Though I must say that I’m glad I didn’t breathe the same air as the Beano woman for long!) Best to let the preconceptions and the cultural artifacts combine with the experience.


Recollected in tranquility, this inevitably has to do with audio-visual memorialization. When I flew to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) several years ago for SCMS, I had visions of films remembered. The most concrete feeling hit me as I waited for a bus. The exterior of the airport has featured in too many productions to list by name. That approach felt familiar, even though I’d never stood on that curbside. What I did not get on that trip was the iconic verve of Jackie Brown (1997, Quentin Tarantino), of the titular character’s triumphant introduction, her cool ride across a people-mover (and “Across 110th Street,” as Bobby Womack’s song so brilliantly warns). Nor, could I have anticipated the jet-setting recreation from Mad Men’s Season 7 premiere, where Don rides into his new, still-fractured, life in L.A. Nor could I have imagined the hilarity of the combination of the two.

Sometimes, a public tries to forget, or remake, the associations that come with an old airport. The simplest solution is to tear down and rebuild. Few (if any) airports from the early days of commercial air travel exist in anything like their original form. The expansion of routes, a general proliferation of passengers and providers, and post 9/11 security protocols have readily seen to that. Over the last few months, this kind of public forgetting has once again come to the fore. Berlin Tempelhof Airport, one of the last remnants of Nazi-inflected monumental architecture, stands at a cultural crossroads. It ceased operations in 2008, and is currently up for redevelopment into something that will shed its sinister overtones. In the meantime, the land it stands on (once owned by the Knights Templar) is a beloved public space, a kind of park and semi-permanent carnival. For a time, at least, “the people” have reclaimed an historical blemish.

But not all airport experiences are public, or open to public redemption. In his meditation on the significance of Silvercar, Uber and other privatized transportation services that fascinate the new moneyed elite, Ian Bogost reveals a trend that has made its way back into airports over the last decade: the avoidance of the public experience of the airport altogether. One step below the personal chartered jet, such private travel is available in larger airports. For the right price, airlines will protect you from the main TSA lines, will pick you up and take you to the plane itself in a luxury car, and will set you up with your outbound transport. With this kind of wealth, the closest one might come to a communal experience of air travel is a two minute wait for the first class cabin bathroom.

Bogost used the apt term “rabble” to describe the kind of social differentiation that these services tacitly produce. What is public, mainstream, and built around older regimes of technological organization (publicly funded, usable without a smartphone or QR code) become the exclusive property of the dupes and unwashed masses. Meanwhile, the new-flexible-neoliberal Lyft car or Google Bus become the playground of the cognoscenti.

This is all to say that the public/private tension in airports is necessarily a class tension. It is built into the language used to describe services and tiers of service. “Elite,” “gold,” “first class” = spacious, pampered, important. As close to private as possible. “Economy,” “budget,” “coach” = cramped, uncomfortable, ignorable. As public as a poorly-timed fart. Of course, such distinctions have been around for hundreds of years. Bogost’s point is that the new services try to have it all: the inherent elitism bound up in a language of coolness and nominal inclusivity. I prefer the public. As much as I like to be alone, the crowds and the masses of people are as much a part of air travel as baggage tags.


For all the bad things that have happened at airports, I tend to feel inordinately safe in them. This does not just have to do with the extensive security screenings. It’s nice to know that none of the irate people around me are packing heat, for sure. But my association is personal. Before retirement, my dad worked at an airport for decades. I can remember visiting him and being allowed to walk around the gate areas, not only an unticketed passenger, but also a little kid without a government-issued ID. Because of my memories of his job, airports have always been closer to oddly shaped shopping malls (he often dealt with the logistics of merchants that rented space) or poorly designed coffee shops (I experience this every time I travel: a bag of Dunkin Donuts, but no table, cup holder, or nearby power outlet) than potential sites of danger.

Yet airports are necessarily security obsessed. Dangerous things can and do happen in them. Some, like Flughafen Airport (FRA; Frankfurt, Germany’s major international hub) feature heavily armed guards in full battle gear. Most contain signs and loudspeaker announcements. Lax security can allow disaster on the runway or in the air. The legacy of politically motivated airplane hijacking in the 1970s and the vivid narratives of 9/11 inform the air of unease that hangs heavy over some airports.

Again, memorable sequences in film and digital media provide new expressions of said danger. Anybody who has played Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002) will think of the in-airport sniper mission whenever they visit Miami International Airport (MIA), despite the game’s historical remove and its fictionalized design. Viewers who have slogged through The Expendables 2 (2012, Simon West) will surely recall that bullet-riddled airport, where a small army battles with gleeful disregard. Maybe the greatest sequence of the latent violence in airports, of the hidden monstrosities they cannot hope to contain or suppress, is found in the first ten minutes of Nightmare City (1983), Umberto Lenzi’s messy masterpiece of techno-biological anxiety.


What Schaberg and other commentators on air travel teach us is that to submit to air travel is to enter into a world of contradictions, where the controlled, regulatory experience of making one’s way to a flight is inevitably tempered by the aleatory possibilities of the airport. What seems obvious is occluded. What seems innovative might be regressive.

Kevin M. Flanagan has recently written about airports for Airplane Reading and in the anthology Adapting Poe: Re-Imaginings in Popular Culture (eds. Dennis R. Perry and Carl H. Sederholm).