(A Story of Airports)
Between Friday morning Pacific time and Saturday night Greenwich time, I spent approximately eleven hours in various airports. It seems that, involuntarily, I am becoming an expert at waiting. There are a number of ways to pass the time while waiting in an airport, and here are some of the things I tried this past weekend: made a phone call, read a book, knitted, read a foreign language newspaper, talked for an hour to a stranger (who operates a hotel in Iceland), and slept. By the end of the day on Saturday, this last one was becoming predominant. However, I think my all-time favorite airport activity is people-watching.
I wonder how much you can tell about a culture by watching people in airports. I suspect it is quite a lot.
Airport number one was in San Francisco. Everything proceeded on schedule until our plane pulled away from the terminal to taxi out to the runway, where we joined a queue of 20-30 planes waiting for takeoff. This was San Francisco’s Fleet Week, and the Navy’s Blue Angel fighter jets were using the airport to prepare for the air show over the San Francisco Bay on Saturday. While we were waiting, I watched as four jets lined up across the adjacent runway, wing-tip to wing-tip, accelerated down the runway side by side, and thundered off over the bay in a cloud of smoke. As a result, we were an hour late leaving SF, but we arrived in Chicago only thirty minutes late.
Some of the thoughts that came to my mind in SFO were: don’t talk to strangers unless absolutely necessary, hurry or get out of the way, and keep your eyes on your luggage except to check your watch. My overall impression there is that people travel in a polite isolation.
Airport number two was Chicago/O’Hare, where I had to make my way from one edge of the domestic airport to the far side of the international terminal. However, I had an hour and a half, which sounded like a lot of time. Direction signs in this airport are not only confusing, but contradictory. I followed several signs and arrows toward terminal 5 (going west, I think). Then the signs disappeared, so I stopped and looked all around me for more signs. I saw signs for terminal 5 behind me, so I turned around and headed back east, as several signs directed. Then the signs disappeared again, so I stopped again, changed direction again, and followed the signs pointing west again. This could have gone on for a long time. I even stopped under one sign and carefully looked at both sides, and each side had an arrow pointing straight ahead to terminal 5, one pointing east and one west. I changed my tactic and decided ask for directions, walk a couple hundred feet, and ask directions again. Most often, when I asked how to get to the international terminal, the response was, “Oh, that’s a long ways away.” By the time I got to the international terminal, through another security check-point, and down long corridors to my gate, they were already starting to load the plane.
This waiting room had a very different feel from the one in San Francisco. It was a Scandinavian Air flight with a destination of Copenhagen, and most of the crew, staff, and passengers were chatting in Danish.
My next airport was Copenhagen’s Kastrup airport. This is a major transfer point for Europe, Africa, Asia, and the West, and I was surrounded by a bedlam of different languages. Once again, I was relieved that the rest of the world has learned English, since my fluency in any foreign language is very limited. Here I had to pick up my checked luggage, take it through terminal 3 to terminal 2, and re-check my bags on Atlantic Air. I have travelled this route enough that this step is fairly routine, and I was hoping for a chance for a nap during my 5½ hour stay in Copenhagen. While checking in for this last leg of my flight I heard the bad news first. My flight, due to leave at 7:00 p.m., was delayed until 11:00 p.m. The good news soon followed. The flight from 8:35 in the morning had not left yet, it should be leaving in a couple of hours, and they had room for me. The Faroe Island Airport, where I was headed, had been closed for most of the past two days because of fierce storms, but the weather had cleared, and all of the delayed planes were en route to Copenhagen from the Faroes, and would immediately turn around and fly back to the Faroes with a load of passengers.
I got a revised boarding pass, and went upstairs to go through another security check-point. I’m getting quite good at security check-points. Get 3-4 plastic trays, remove shoes, remove coat, remove plastic bag with liquids, and put these items plus purse in plastic trays. Open suitcase, remove computer, remove CPAP breathing machine, put these items each into their own trays, close suitcase and put it on the moving belt. Then go through security, wait for security personnel to run a test on the CPAP machine, and finally try to put everything back together and zip the suitcase. However, this step had a little glitch. The security guard who checked my passport and boarding pass saw that my plane left at 8:35 in the morning, some six or seven hours earlier, and he didn’t think I should be allowed in the boarding area to wait for a plane that had already left. He didn’t seem to believe me when I said the plane was delayed. After everyone in the long line had gone through security, he asked one of his co-workers about the flight, and they waved me in. I picked the wrong line that time.
The waiting area of the Copenhagen Airport has more shops and stores than the entire country of the Faroe Islands, and with the high tax rate on commodities in that part of the world, tax-free airport shopping is very popular. I found a comfortable seat in the middle the shops near Terminal A, and prepared to ignore the bedlam around me. After an hour’s wait, they finally posted the gate number for my Atlantic Air flight to the Faroe Islands. Gates 7, 9, and 11 in terminal A were like a different world. These were the gates used that afternoon for the three daily flights from Copenhagen to the Faroes, the 8:35 a.m., the 12:35 p.m., and the 7:00 p.m. flights. I have often joked that in the Faroe Islands everyone knows everyone else, and when you are in an airport waiting room waiting for a flight to the Faroes, it certainly seems to be true. People were talking, laughing, and moving about the room to talk with their friends. Except for the luggage piled everywhere, it could have been a noisy birthday party or a church social. Since I am only half Faroese, I didn’t know everyone, but I did know three passengers. When I entered the waiting room there were only a few people there, but two were my relatives, Eiler and Jóna, returning from a month vacation in the Grand Canary Islands. Then a short time later Sigvør walked in. Most times when I go to the airport in the Faroes, I see Sigvør there, but this is the first time she met me in Copenhagen.
I have great admiration for the pilots who fly to the Faroe Islands. Most often the islands are covered in clouds or fog, and the tiny airport landing strip is surrounded by mountains. Yet Atlantic Air has one of the best safety records of any airline. Normally I enjoy watching out the window as my airplane is landing, but in the clouds and darkness and between mountains, I realized I was grasping the arm rest very tightly. I couldn’t even see any lights, since the small terminal was on the other side of the plane.
I arrived safely and in good time in the Faroes, but my luggage didn’t. With three flights leaving at about the same time, the luggage handlers in Copenhagen seemed to feel free to put Faroe Island luggage on any of the three airplanes. About a third of the people on my flight were missing luggage. I opted to stay and wait for the other two planes, which arrived about an hour later, and my luggage arrived with them.
I had arranged to have a rental car at the airport, and I had offered to take the owner of the car to his home a half hour away, since it was on my way home to Fuglafjørður. That way his wife didn’t have to come with a second car to take him home. He took the delay in stride, as part of life, and spent the time chatting with friends. During our wait for the luggage, the airport began filling with people coming to meet friends and relatives on the next two flights, and once again the airport was filled with sounds of noisy, talking, laughing people, who all knew each other. Everyone there had had to change their plans many times during the course of the day, as changes in the weather resulted in changes to airline schedules, but everyone seemed to accept the delays cheerfully, and there was a general atmosphere of joie de vivre and good will. I have never seen anything like this in any other airport, except for Kastrup’s Terminal A, gates 7, 9, and 11. Airport waiting rooms reveal something about the Faroese culture and people that I find very appealing. It is the embracing of life as it comes, valuing friends and family, and talking to anyone and everyone.
Sometimes you wait, sometimes you don’t. But if you have to wait, everything is fine as long as you have someone to talk to.