Airport and Aviation Marketing Special Report


The Curious Effect of Terminal Isolation on the Traveling Psyche

By Published on .

Most Popular
AIRBORNE ( -- Enfolded in a blessedly cushioned airline seat and leveling off after a climb out of Orlando, I am inclined to seriously rethink my original idea that sleeping in airports will be some great adventure. Airworld, it turns out,
Kicking Off a Three Week Daily Series
A 'Cheap Chic' Flight With a MarketingTrendsetter

can be as much a grim gulag as a glitzy shopping mall.

Disheveled wretches
As I leave Florida behind and rocket west toward Los Angeles, I feel a sudden sense of deep kinship with those disheveled wretches one sees in newspaper photos that document every blizzard, electrical outage, aviation workers strike and assorted security incidents that suddenly shut airports, stranding the travelers within. It also took only two days entombed in the sterile bowels of Orlando's terminal for me to gain a new appreciation of the true ordeal of psychological endurance dramatized in the movie The Terminal.

I also have new respect for frequent fliers and their Darwinian cousins, the road warriors, who more or less “live” continuously in such conditions. The latter really do live in an Airworld ecosystem where seemingly every decision -- where to fly, who to fly, what to drive, where to stay, what to eat -- adds frequent flier miles, or points, or some other form of sub-currency that either circulates through Airworld in an endless series of upgrades or else is cashed in for something occasionally tangible -- magazine subscriptions or whatever.

Cyber preparation
I’ve been trying live this lifestyle vicariously for months on online communities like and the brand-new (think Friendster for the frequent-flying set) but learning to read the algebraic postings on those sites (no one will ever say “I’m flying to Orlando on JetBlue tomorrow” when they can post “B6, JFK -> MCO, 9/9/05" instead) is no substitute for experience.

And unlike the legions of management consultants who seem to populate Airworld (an extraordinarily lucrative demographic who become more monastic the more they fly), my life as a freelancer isn’t underwritten by a generous corporate patron (in exchange for every minute of my waking life, of course.)

I also wanted to answer another, more existential question: what would happen if you went to the airport with no intention to leave? I began to find

A typical stranded terminal refugee during a recent airport closing.
out that first morning after a bad sleep as I faced the prospect of killing nearly two more days before I could leave this place. At either end of the terminal are the security checkpoints for the “A” and “B” gates, which lie past a pair of public squares -- one of which is anchored by a Hyatt Regency, its rooms arrayed around an 8-story atrium --- connected by a mall and a food court.

Some random Florida mall
Until one heads out to the gates –- separate satellites connected by monorail trains on the far side of security –- there is little, other than the ticket counters, to dispel the notion that I’m in some random Floridian mall replete with a Chick-Fil-A, a fountain, inviting wooden benches and wicker chairs, pastels and palm trees.

What I want to know is: Did I have a headache already and didn’t notice or did the headache start upon realizing that this mall really was home?

My first priority was WiFi, and thanks to the Hyatt, the entire atrium was filled with it. My e-mail client wasn't working properly, and 10 hours’ worth of e-mail mysteriously disappeared from the server, but at least I had a lifeline out to the real world.

But I was exhausted, I had a throbbing head, I needed sleep and it was only 6:30 p.m. I ordered a beer from the Hyatt’s lobby bar (suddenly I couldn't bear to face the terminal -- I’m went to hide out in this plushly carpeted corner of Airworld for a while) and screw my face together so the bartender won’t see my panic.

Sleep deprived and panicked
I was panicking because I didn't feel like I could wait until midnight for the terminal to quiet down so I can sleep. I couldn’t sleep in the airport that night anyway -- I needed real sleep, not four hours of catnapping. I’m never going to be able to entertain myself in this mall for two days, I thought. And I’m never going to last 21 days breathing endlessly recirculated air, eating $10 sandwiches and power bars and sleeping on an air mattress. I was my

Airworld author Greg Lindsay and Snow White in the Orlando airport terminal.
8-year-old self again, the one who got homesick on his very first sleepover at a friend’s place. I e-mail Sophie: “Please call. I need to be talked off the ledge.”

She does, and she has a succinct recommendation: Get a room. And keep getting them as the trip goes on.

“You’re already spending 18 hours a day in an entirely enclosed space watched by the FAA,” she says. “You’ve got to get out of there occasionally. You can’t push yourself in every direction at once; think about the hierarchy of needs -- you’ve left behind shelter, food, the woman who loooooves you. You have to get one of them back, and I think it should be sleep. If you’re continually exhausted and hungry, then no matter what you do, the world will just suck. If you really want to write about this, you need to splurge now and then on a room in order to be at your best.”

Beyond typical exposure
Of course, the whole point of this trip is to explore just how badly airports can become when your exposure is more than the typical two hours -- just long enough that the combination of McDonalds, the SeaWorld store and the Fox Sports Bar & Grill to sufficiently dull your senses. I mutter something about “wanting to experience psychic breakage” with my real life back home, but clearly I don’t have the mental toughness at the moment to sincerely mean it.

Airworld isn’t home right now. It’s alien and frightening, and I have too much mental static to cope. I hand over my credit card at the front desk of the Hyatt and pay the going rate. After I explain to the manager on duty that I had intended to sleep on the floor again tonight, he takes pity on me and hands me two drink tickets.

I’ll need them tomorrow, but right then I headed up to my room, strip and sleep for 12 hours. At one point during the night I dream about plane crashes.

Don't fight it
The next morning, I don't feel refreshed. Don’t fight it, I kept telling myself. I'm the one who wanted to live in the most secure malls in America for three weeks. Like others who are forced to, I need to accept the airport on its own terms.

I gathered my wits, took a determined deep breathe and thought, If I'm going to be stuck in a mall for this long, there is only one thing to do: Go shopping.

I started at Starbucks, a place of reassuring comfort for me. Even with the security queues piling up just outside, the blonde wood tables and piped-in Dylan successfully preserved that “third space” the company is always talking about. (They preserved it so well that Starbucks became my command center for the rest of the day -- it was the only place in the airport that remotely hinted of home.)

In an effort to lighten up, I pass the Busch Garden's boutique and slip across the way to have my photo taken with Snow White before wandering into the Disney "Earport" to buy an accompanying frame inscribed with “I can still remember the magic of our first visit to Walt Disney World ...” ($16).

Astrochimp named 'Ham'
Nearby, I could have bought a flight suit or a stick of freeze-dried ice cream or a $20 talking “astrochimp” named “Ham” from the Kennedy Space Center, just next door to the Earport. A pair of tourists browsing the racks beside me asked the cashier “Is all of this available at the Space Center?” “Everything and more,” she replied. “Same prices?” “Same prices.”

Not that this or the SpongeBob t-shirt from the Universal Studios store or the alligator seasoning sauce from the “Florida Market” or the short boards on display at Ron Jon's Surf Shop are atypical of terminal commercial life.

Airports’ evolution into secure shopping malls has been in the works for nearly a decade now. According to the Airports Council International, non-aeronautical revenues began outstripping the aeronautical kind as far back as 1997. In 2002 (the last year for which I currently have data), U.S. airports generated roughly $14 billion in revenue, 58% of which (or $8.15 billion) stemmed from "non-aeronautical" sources -- the services and concessions that have become as integral a part of Airworld as glass walls and escalators.

Concession boom
At Orlando International -- the fourth busiest airport in the U.S. -- concession revenue grew 9.3% in fiscal 2004, to the point where “concessions” (defined as food, shopping, rental cars and parking) comprised 50% of revenues, or 60% if you tossed in the Hyatt.

After some more interviews about the logistics of Airworld, of which I will write later, I am focused and back in sync with the project. But when I finally trudge down the boarding ramp and climb into this airliner bound for Los Angeles, I am taken by a sense of sudden lightness and relief. It's probably the drug-like elation experienced by those frequent-flier junkies who travel for the sake of the movement itself and the chance to go anywhere other than the place where there are right now.

In this article: