As I’m sure is the case with many of you, my travel plans for 2021 didn’t pan out exactly how I had hoped. Speculative aspirational bookings and long-awaited travel experiences fizzled out with a spectacular thud due to ever-changing COVID-19 border restrictions and a host of other factors.
As we prepare to complete another lap around the sun, I have been taking some time to reflect on past and future travels. One aspect that keeps crossing my mind is the role airports have played in my travels.
This post is a reflective look at airports and my argument for why they are such fascinating, and frustrating, places.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been intrigued by hospitals and airports. Perhaps I just have a thing for large, unfriendly buildings, but as I have grown older, I’ve come to appreciate how both are miniature, strange worlds.
Long before I began my pursuit of university degrees, I set out to explore the world. I was fortunate to have travelled across Canada and the United States in my childhood on family trips, although much of the travel was done by car.
Upon finishing high school, and much to my father’s chagrin, I decided that learning about the world was more important to me than heading straight into higher education. Looking back on this many years later, my father and I both agree that this was the right decision.
What began as a backpacking trip to Europe with my best friend at 18-years old turned into a desire to travel everywhere I could. Over the course of my 20s (and now into my mid-30s), it didn’t take much to convince me to quit whatever job I was working and hop on a plane to anywhere.
With each experience, I found myself looking forward to visiting new airports as they can be so interesting. As I’ve been reflecting on some of my past trips, I’ve broken down my view of the airport experience into several broad themes.
Airports Are a Beginning and an End
Airports aren’t places most people casually just go to. They can be remarkably out of the way (anyone who has been to Istanbul’s new airport can attest to this) and expensive or difficult to get to (I’m looking at you, Edmonton). Once you’re there, your options of what to do are pretty limited, too.
For me, the trip to or from the airport has become part of the allure (especially in new countries). Unless I’m in a particular hurry, I’ll budget time to take the trip in the most affordable manner possible, which usually winds up being the long way there on public transportation.
For those who are fortunate to have someone drop them off, and especially as pandemic-related border restrictions have prevented people from seeing each other, airports are places where we bid farewell to or greet loved ones. Indeed, these situations can create very strong memories associated with airports.
When my (now) wife and I were courting in 2007, I flew from British Columbia to Toronto for a whirlwind visit. It was my first time arriving at Pearson and I recall feeling both intensely nervous and excited as I passed through the luggage area into the arrivals zone to see her after almost two years.
To this day, every time I walk through those same doors I am reminded of that trip and it brings a warm smile to my face. We met overseas and travelling has become a large part of our lives.
Given their function, airports afford travellers both their first and last steps in a country. Stepping off of the plane onto a new continent can be a memorable experience, but depending on the country, these first and last steps can also be unnerving.
In 2008, I flew to Nepal to do some trekking in the Himalayas with some friends. It was part of a 7-month round-the-world trip for me.
As I stepped out into a loud crowd in Kathmandu, I found myself feeling that something was amiss but I couldn’t quite figure out exactly what it was. I had all of my baggage and found my slightly intoxicated friends who had arrived on an earlier flight. They had arranged transportation to our guesthouse, so we left the airport shortly thereafter.
As I was flipping through my friend’s passport the next day, I realized that I didn’t have a Nepalese visa in my passport. After my flight, it appeared that I walked through immigration while the workers were getting set up or having tea and no one seemed to have noticed.
I took a taxi back to the airport and explained my situation to a kind machine gun-toting gentleman who instructed me to simply walk back through the arrivals process to get my visa. I received many strange looks as I went against the usual flow of traffic, but in the end I got my visa and everything was fine.
Not all entry or exit experiences at airports are pleasant, though.
In 2010, I spent six months studying in Saint Petersburg, Russia. At the end of my time, I did a trip through Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.
On the last day of my trip, I had entered Russia on a multiple-entry visa by train from Latvia in the middle of the night. The border official gave me back my passport and I assumed everything was fine.
Later on that day at the airport, as I presented my passport to exit the Russian Federation, a lady explained that I didn’t have a valid visa and couldn’t leave the country. An angry man stormed out of a nearby room, took me and my friend in, and then proceeded to loudly explain what was going to happen (which didn’t involve us leaving Russia and did involve a lot of time and money).
After a few hours of him explaining the issue (which wound up being the fault of the border officer when we re-entered Russia earlier that day) and us pleading our case, he finally let us through with seconds to spare before our flight closed.
I like to think of it as Russia holding onto me until the very last minute, but it made for a very stressful departure after a very wonderful six months.
Airports Are Frustrating and Divisive
If a recent depiction of airports in an American Express Aeroplan Reserve Card advertisement is true, then passengers should be seen dancing in unison on their way through the airport and strutting onboard without a care in the world. The reality for the vast majority of travellers, though, is a much less seamless experience.
As soon as you arrive at the airport, you must resign to the fact that everything from this point forward is pretty much out of your control.
There are lineups at every step along the way. It never ceases to amaze me that so many people voluntarily congregate in impossibly long lines at some ungodly hour to get to where they need to be. Aside from a Tim Hortons drive-through in rural Canada on a cold winter day, I can’t think of many other places where so many people appear all at once so early.
Stanchions have no meaning when the actual line stretches long beyond a fabric corral past entrances and into an unused check-in bay. By the time you reach the human or the robot at the front of the line, you experience a moment of relief only to gawk in disbelief as you rejoin another lengthy queue at security.
Once you’ve unpacked and repacked your belongings and surrendered a minor amount of your privacy, maybe you have time to grab an overpriced coffee or a stale cellophane-wrapped baked good before you head to the gate. It’s the only joy you’ve had so far after waking up at 0300 to catch a ride at 0400 to arrive at the airport before 0500 to catch a flight at 0700.
The gate is one of my favourite places to observe other humans. In a best-case scenario, everyone would pay attention to the monotonous recorded announcements playing over the gate’s public address system and would form nice, orderly lines.
In reality, people are busy staring into their phones, chatting with each other, or hovering around forming zone-based amoebas instead of actual lines. If the robotic voice had feelings, I wonder if it would be sad that no one takes it seriously.
When boarding actually begins, all bets are off as people jockey for position to snag some precious overhead space before Carry-On Carl fills up an entire bin with his four pieces. Once on board, your eyes roll as you’re stuck in yet another line examining the features of the pod seat that you’re definitely not in while others block the aisle as they take their sweet time getting settled.
And if being told exactly what to do and how to do it wasn’t fulfilling enough, the fact that everyone is judging each other at every point along the journey makes the process even more interesting.
After slowly pushing a luggage buggy for an eternity to the front of the line, you cringe as the check-in agent leans over and invites someone else who arrived at the airport 30 seconds ago but is standing in a different line with an actual carpet. “Sorry, sir. You’ll have to wait a bit longer. She has status.”
After arriving at your destination, you’re stuck on board for a few moments longer while a flight attendant physically blocks you from leaving the aircraft until everyone at the front has successfully sauntered off the plane. “But I’m not going to make my connection!” “You’ll just have to stand in another line in the terminal to maybe get some help.”
Airports Are Wonderful
While I’ve always loved the idea of going to the airport, as it usually means I’m going somewhere, my experience has changed dramatically for the better since becoming a Miles & Points enthusiast.
Flying in business class or having airline status essentially removes the most unpleasant aspects of the airport experience. In fact, I would argue that priority airport services are an undervalued benefit.
I recently flew during what is usually the busiest travel period of the year. Indeed, it’s a time when most people must mentally prepare for what lies ahead of them.
Checking a bag took no more than five minutes through the separate Air Canada check-in for passengers with status. I was through priority security and had already disappeared into the lounge just as quickly. I boarded the plane at my leisure through Zone 1 and was comfortably seated and enjoying a show while the rest of the plane boarded. Upon arrival, my bag was one of the first to appear, and I continued on with my day.
As much as I love Canadian airports, though, I’ve sorely missed exploring the great airports of the world during international travels.
Prior to the onset of the pandemic, I was just beginning to hit my stride – sipping on champagne while having a bath at the Lufthansa First Class Terminal, eating a week’s worth of food at the Turkish Airlines Business Class Lounge in Istanbul, enjoying a fantastic cocktail with my wife at the United Polaris Lounge in Chicago, lounge-hopping in London Heathrow, and exploring everything that Singapore Changi has to offer.
There are so many other airports that I’d love to spend a day in and others that I’d like to rediscover. I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit watching lounge and airline product walkthroughs on YouTube over the past two years. It’s high time for us all to experience it for ourselves once again.
Spending time enjoying all of the added amenities airports have to offer for premium cabin travel has become one of my favourite aspects of this hobby. Travelling with Miles & Points has unlocked areas of airports that were previously foreign to me – priority lines everywhere, a selection of lounges, and ground transportation to the aircraft.
10 years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed that airports would have become such a key part of my travel experiences. Before the trip has even begun, there are many opportunities to enhance the experience by getting to know what is available to you at each airport you visit.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a chance to reflect on some of the most memorable experiences I’ve had at airports. This reminiscing has led to me to acknowledge how much I love airports and why I’ve missed them so much.
I’ve also been busy planning some speculative adventures for 2022 to reconnect with people and places. I’m hopeful that most of them will come to fruition, but I’ve also prepared myself for the event that they get derailed (again).
Whenever the time comes, I’ll be thoroughly pleased to be back in action exploring airports near and far.