Surviving the Airport

Anyone who has flown to Charlottetown from Montreal is familiar with the remote bunker to which Charlottetown-bound passengers are consigned by Air Canada, forced to crowd into a cattle yard-like waiting room with uncomfortable seats, distant washrooms, and a single, moribund place to buy food.

While the Charlottetown bunker is a particularly gruesome example, waiting around in airports, especially of the “five hour layover in Philadelphia” variety, is one of the most stressful parts of travel. It’s boring, the food is generally horrible, and there’s a unique quality to the noise and air in airports that makes them feel frenetic.

There are exceptions to this: I could happily move right in to Keflavik airport in Iceland – the transit point for flight from North America to Europe on Icelandair – given its variety of seating, food, shops, and general air of calm. But it’s a rare exception, and even Charlottetown, which used to feature a delightful orbly-shaped couch in the waiting room, has recently invested in the same standard discomfortable chairs as larger airports.

There are ways to counter the frenetic insanity of airport layovers, though; here are some tips that I’ve arrived at through experience.

Sometimes it’s worth investing in airline lounges; they’re overpriced, have a disquieting aura of elitism, and seem extremely focused on the provision of free alcohol, but if you’re going to be in an airport for more than a couple of hours, even $50 begins to feel like a good deal for a day-pass to get away from the hubbub of the general waiting room. The best deal in this regard, if you can swing it, isn’t about departure, it’s about arrival: the Air Canada Arrivals Lounge at Heathrow isn’t lavish, but a shower, breakfast, and a coffee there, along with a chance to relax after an overnight flight, seems priceless when you’re there. Note that some Air Canada fare classes now present you with the option of purchasing a one-time pass to their lounges, so you don’t need to splash out on the full crazily-priced year-long membership or have enough points to fly around the world to get lounge access.

Don’t sit in the waiting room: if you sit on the uncomfortable sardine seats, you will inevitably inherit the stale, cramped, grumpiness that infects the waiting room. Fortunately there are often alternatives: Boston and Philadelphia, for example, have rocking chairs scattered around their terminals, and even the small act of sitting in a chair with a different profile can be enough to snap you out of the doldrums. In Munich last month we parked out for 2 hours around a table in the beer garden cum coffee shop at our gate and it was a much more relaxed way to spend the time. The key, whatever you do, is to find some way of tricking your mind into thinking it’s not at an airport. (Honourable mention goes to the Montreal Bagel Company near domestic security in Montreal: great, fresh food, real tables, and near enough to security that you can monitor the length of the line).

Find a mission. Oliver and I have spent a lot of time in Luton, Gatwick and Stansted airports in London in transit to other places in Europe, something that often means a wait of many hours. If we find ourselves a mission – “we need to buy hand cream,” or “let’s see if we can find that new book we read about” or “let’s find red licorice” – we can keep ourselves busy, get a good walk around, and, again, it feels less airport-like than just sitting around would feel.  At our last time through Gatwick I decided we would try to print out our easyJet boarding passes ourselves rather than waiting in the long, long lineup at the counter; although it cost about $15 by the time we’d rented the Internet time and paid the high per-sheet printing charge at the Internet café, it was a learning experience, and killed 90 minutes that would have been spent dawdling around.

Get outside. It’s often impossible to do if you’re in transit, but if you’re shunted outside security anyway, nothing refreshes the mind and body better than going for a walk outside during a layover. I wish more airports (any airports) would invest in green space or trails to make this easier; as it is the best you can usually do is loop find a corner with less automobile exhaust and make the best of it.

Go downtown. Depending on the length of your layover, and the airport you’re at, it’s often possible to get right out of the airport and take a visit into the city. Having a lot of carry-on luggage makes the harder to pull off, especially now that most airports no longer have lockers or left-luggage areas. But there are ways around this too: if you take the water taxi from Logan Airport into Boston, for example, they’ll often let you leave your luggage on-board for the return journey, leaving you free to wander around unfettered.

Drink lots of water. I’m not a water-drinking zealot, but keeping hydrated has the benefits of being a mission unto itself, of making it easier to survive the dry air of most airports, and of preparing you for the long and horribly dry experience of flying itself that’s about to come.

Nintendo DS. If your a parent, the Nintendo DS is your friend. You run the danger, of course, of the better parts of the trip – the mountain vistas, etc. – being ignored in favour of the DS, but if you ration things our, and use the DS as a boredom averting tool only, there’s nothing that can make the grumpy airport hours fly by faster for families traveling. The DS comes with the additional benefit of turning itself into a mission of its own at opportune times: not a trip has gone by since we became a DS family that we’ve not had to go in search of replacement case, charger and/or stylus that’s somehow gone missing along the way.

I was prompted to think about all this after seeing this interesting video from KLM:

Their project – to identify KLM passengers through social networking sites and give them impromptu gifts – is either delightful or creepy depending on how you feel about such things. It strikes me as equal parts of both. But what is heartening is that an airline is turning its attention to the pre-flight life of its passengers at all. Look at the copy in the introduction to the video:

Is it all that exciting?
Waiting for take-off. Passing time.
We see our passengers fighting boredom while they wait.

In an environment where most airlines treat you as a hostile force on the other side of a threshold while you’re in the waiting room, the mere fact that KLM acknowledges that the waiting room isn’t fun is revolutionary.

The only airline I’ve flown that seems to pay regular, everyday, practical attention to pre-flight is Porter, at least in Toronto, where their lounge cum general waiting room has snacks, passable coffee, newspapers and slightly-less-uncomfortable seating.

Flying otherwise, alas, you’re best bet is to try and fool yourself into thinking you just popped out for a bit.


Dan James's picture
Dan James on January 7, 2011 - 20:40 Permalink

Changi airport in Singapore is the best I’ve experienced. A movie theatre (free) massage chairs (free), multiple nature hikes, free gadget chargers, art stations for kids, and a gym all make the place more of an attraction than a place to kill time. I’d recommend going 3-4 hours before your flight just to experience the airport!

Regarding lounges: I’m a regular visitor in the Maple Leaf Lounges. They have a lot against them (food, slow internet, etc) but have enough going for them that I keep renewing my membership. The arrivals lounges are worth every penny for me. We’ll be flying into Toronto at 6am from Buenos Aires later this month and will be able to grab hot showers, change our clothes, and a bite to eat.

jane harris's picture
jane harris on January 9, 2011 - 22:06 Permalink

The lounge idea is a great one and once saved my mother and I during a 4-hour layover in Toronto. It was a WestJet lounge and was exceedingly quiet and restful as well as well-appointed and roomy. Thanks for the Heathrow tip.