November 18, 2018

Airport Stories

Collected notes and photos from getting around.

The actual thrill is in what is to come. A flight. A journey elsewhere. Whether for a job or pleasure, it always means some change. But whether it is a temporary difference in the environment or a substantial step into a new life chapter, these changes start at airports. And so, here are short stories from some of those I travelled through:

Amsterdam Schiphol (AMS)

The adventure sometimes begins even before reaching the airport. Many of them offer a connection to-and-from the city centre by train. But while many airports are terminal stations on the railway, Schiphol's line goes through. This can result in a bit of trouble when you miss the stop — like me, in 2017, I fell asleep as soon as I sat down on the train in downtown. And when I woke up, I realised that the train had already passed the airport stop, and I headed somewhere further into the country. However, a few rather uncomfortable jumps between the platforms of the following station and catching a train in the opposite direction thankfully worked, and I made it to the gate in time. Just.

Similar situation I experienced while going to the..

Paris Orly (ORY)

The best connection between Orly and downtown is by the subway. Piece of cake when you travel from the airport, as there is no room for a mistake. But when I was going back in 2017... Once at the subway station, a train with "Orly" written on it arrived on my platform, and I hopped on. Well, I found out that while there is the direct link going straight to the airport, there's also a second one, which takes a good size detour through the suburbs. As you probably guessed, I learned it the hard way. When I looked into my phone, I couldn't believe what the gps was showing. The map calibration must be messed up," I thought. But then it said, "accuracy 2m / 6ft," and I knew it was me who messed up. The issue was, I planned my time tight, so I'd have hardly any time to spare even if I'll board the correct train. Now, sitting in the wrong one, my nervousness took off faster than a jet off a runway. Counting my chances, I got off the train, ran to the main road nearby, and hitchhiked. Luckily enough, one guy stopped and saved the day. Ufff!

So we get to the airports, but there's still room for unexpected before boarding the plane:

Edinburgh (EDI)

Many of my flights from Edinburgh were leaving early in the morning. So early, I ended up sleeping in the airport quite a few times. There are a few hotels around, but not being that rich, the terminal had to do. Once in 2019, I fell asleep on a bench, above which was located an emergency button. No worries for an average-sized person, but me being 6'6", it happened that at around 3am, my head dropped right at that button. The thing started beeping, and I had to explain to the person on the other side of the line that there's no disaster; I just fell asleep. Surprisingly, he took it rather well, as if it would happen often. And that might actually be the case, as the next time I came here, the bench was removed.

Most times, Edinburgh proved itself as an efficient and friendly airport. However, when I had a broken knee in 2016, their security workers were so proactive, it was painful. They insisted on checking my leg brace, took it off me, and sent me to the scanner. When I nearly passed out from the pain, they were like, "Ooh, we didn't know that you need it to walk.."

A somehow analogous proactive approach I experienced in..

Chengdu Shuangliu (CTU)

in 2019, I went to the information point to find out where I could get my boarding pass printed, a guy told me the number of the check-in desk, and I said thanks. But just as I turned away, the guy started shouting: "Xiexie (Thanks in Chinese), you should say xiexie, no thank you..!" I was surprised that asking for directions comes with an unsolicited language lesson. I also noted that the airport had a feeling of an overstaffed place. There are three security checkpoints: one at the entrance to the building, the second before entering the ID check zone, and then a third one, the actual security screening. While at all this excitement, I was asked for my passport five times. At least their plugs were working. It is worth mentioning, because, seriously, what is it with airports and plugs? In many cases, they are either non-working or non-existent to be safe. It made me wonder about some power consumption stats of the passengers' lounges; it's not like you'd see many passengers taking a toaster or a fridge out of their carry-on luggage and pluggin' them into the mains, is it? Anyway, Chengdu's plugs work as they should.

Another kind of questionable safety measurements I experienced in:

Chicago O'Hare (ORD)

Chicago was my first entry point to the US (2012), so it was the first place where, as a non-US citizen travelling to the US, I got harassed with questions such as, "Are you, or a member of your family, a member of a terrorist organisation?" Seriously, that's as stupid as if a bank where you want to open an account asked you, "Do you intend to rob us?"

Regardless, ORD is among my favourite airports. While the buildings aren't as stylish as some others, it felt somewhat special every time I passed through. Partially due to its size, partially because of what I saw beyond the airport's gates.

Another place with a mixed affair is...

London Stansted (STN)

While I lived in London, I liked flying from/to here, as one could score very cheap flights to pretty much any European destination. The security's all right, most of the time — unless...

Once in 2015, having nothing metal on me besides the zipper on my trousers, the regular scanner started beeping. "We need to scan you in the more advanced scanner." "Aye, no problem," I thought. But these "more advanced" scanners require the scanned person to stand in a particular posture, which can be an issue for a tall person like me. "Sir, you need to put your arms higher," the officer said while I was already touching the scanner's ceiling. "I don't think I can," I replied, but without looking at me, the guard repeated: "Higher, sir!" So I banged into the ceiling, pointing out that it was not happening. Suddenly another officer ran towards me: "Please, stay calm and focus on the instructions given to you. You need to put your arms all the way up" ~ "We'll be here for long then..." After an examination that I truly couldn't put the arms any higher than I already had, they ran the scanner, which, of course, showed that I had some suspicious content on my back. "What a waste of time and resources!" I thought while one of the guards approached me: "I need to do a personal search. Do you have anything sharp on you, sir?" Additional moments later: "Ah, nothing," as if it would be a surprise. "You are free to go."

Another time, in 2019, I came here and got stuck in a line for border control. Each person ahead of me took ages to get through. When I finally got to the counter, the agent took my ID card and started asking: "Which airport did you come from?" I answered, and he continued, "Where are you going, and how long are you going to stay here?" Now, this raised a red flag — I know these sorts of questions are common when travelling to a country where you need special visas and such. But when flying within the European Union (the good old days when the UK was a part of it...), you shouldn't be bothered by these questions. So instead of telling the guy a detailed itinerary of my trip, I asked if there's a new regulation requiring him to ask such questions. The guy, surprised, replied: "No, um, I'm just asking, curious." Well, good grief, there are hundreds of people waiting, and he just wanted to chat with folks.

The security, as much as it can be annoying, makes for good stories. More of them I got in...

Prague Václav Havel (PRG)

In 2017, I learned that if you try to board a plane with an analogue synthesiser, it can classify you as a terrorist. First, the Prague security officers scanned the synth multiple times from all angles. Then they tried to take it apart, and finally, they took it for some chemical examination. Shockingly, no TNT was found. To deal with such disappointment, they checked every single item from my backpack, twice as precisely as when I went to photograph a US president on a military base. Seriously, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. And hearing, too, because the lines the officers said meanwhile, like: "You could choke someone with a USB cable ... but the TSA-approved lock wire would do a better job," left me speechless.

While some security guards consider things like synth as a lethal weapon, others do not...

London Heathrow (LHR)

saw me when I was moving from the US to Europe in 2015, and I was carrying massive metal tripods attached to my backpack. No problem.

Moreover, some years before that, I managed to get through with a Swiss knife. It was by accident, I was still new to flying, and I forgot to put it into the check-in luggage. Then, I was emptying my pockets before entering the metal detector, and, oh-uh! I placed it on the tray together with a wallet full of change, and nobody noticed.

Strangely enough, this trick worked for me twice; the second time it was in the US. My knife never got confiscated, but then I got yelled at for having half-empty toothpaste.. Go figure! And even if everyone follows all their safety notices, the threats will always find their way...:

Shenyang Taoxian (SHE)

This good-looking terminal is located nearby the North Korean borders, which resulted in an unexpected adventure during the summer of 2017. The NK shot a warhead into the air the night before my flight, which triggered Chinese military activities. All civilian flights were suspended or delayed, and people were grounded in the buildings. My flight eventually happened; we just didn't depart at 9am, but past 6pm. The joy of joys, but what can one do?

On the other side of time spectrum was my experience of...

Riga (RIX)

...where I had my shortest airport stay. I had a tight transfer there in 2022, and my flight there was delayed. Oh, uh. However, just after getting onto the plane, the captain announced, "Sorry for the delay, they couldn't get the plane in time. But I'll try to get some of the time back, so buckle up and keep your seatbelt fastened." All right then, clearly, not all was lost. Conveniently, the screen in front of my seat displayed which gate I would arrive at, as well as where the connecting flights leave. I would get in by Gate B6 and hopefully leave from Gate C4. I found the airport's map in the in-flight magazine and discovered C4 is on the other side of the airport, but since Riga doesn't have the silly scale of Heathrow or O'Hare, it shouldn't take too long. So, I memorized the way, so I would know what to do in case the captain held her promise and we land in a reasonable time. She did, and less than ten minutes after I entered the airport, I was queueing to leave it again. Smooth as butter!

That was not the case of...

Warsaw Chopin (WAW)

The first time I flew through here was in 2013. The good part was that this was the cheapest connection between the Midwest and central Europe at that time. The bad was that as I got out of the plane, they took me and a handful of other passengers into a small room, patrolled by a guy with a Kalashnikov, and asked questions like, "Why do you want to emigrate into Poland?" I was just transferring, so after presenting my boarding passes, I was released. Still, tho, I couldn't stop thinking that they must've smoked some darn material. But I also remember that they had free wifi back when it wasn't a standard yet. And maybe, one day I would have a chance to reevaluate the staff, too. Airports can change. For instance...

Vienna Schwechat (VIE)

My first impression of the airport was nice, as the building looks all right. However, the user experience during my first visit (2017) was severly lacking. After about ten minutes of standing in a queue for an ID check, my counter closed. When I moved to the next one, I wondered why I tend to pick the slowest line — in grocery stores, airports... And this got real: the counter into which I moved closed after the next five minutes too. I had to stand through yet another queue. It finally got me through, but only to reveal another queue, this time to the security. Holy cow, it was massive! Then, I wanted to chill on one of the benches and charge my phone. The waiting area had an abundance of plugs, but I tried eight of them, and none worked. However, the airport redeemed itself in 2021, when all was smooth beyond belief. There was just one okay-sized queue for security, and the plugs worked. Moreover, nobody asked for my ID. They saw my boarding pass, and that was enough. This was my first trip by a plane where I did not touch the ID once. Not here when departing, not after landing. Elating!

Stories sometimes happen in airports. However, in most cases, airports are only the point where the story begins or ends. Below are some that took me on memorable journeys:

Athens (ATH)
Bergamo Orio al Serio (BGY)

The start and the endpoint of my 2016 Italian Getaway. (2019)

Brussels (BRU)
Diqing Shangri-La (DIG)

The highest airport I went through. It is at an elevation of 3280m / 10761ft. And the landscapes around, oh, yes!! (2019)

Dublin (DUB)

An impressive airport with nice lounges and swift security. See my story about my visit of the city! (2018)

Gdansk (GDN)

Perhaps the cheapest flight I've ever taken was to here. And the city was good, too. (2017)

Lyon-Saint Exupéry (LYS)
New Orleans Louis Armstrong (MSY)

I remember that as soon as I got off the plane, they welcomed me with the jazz culture. Music, pictures... Kinda like when I got off in Vegas, and the first thing I saw were the slot machines. See my post about NOLA's cityscapes. (2013)

Porto Francisco Sá Carneiro (OPO)

That's where I began the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. (2018)

Shanghai Pudong (PVG)

This was my entrance to China in 2017. Hard to express how much awesomeness awaited me once I landed here.

Zagreb (ZAG)

The end of my trip to the Croatian capital in 2022

Lastly, below is a few pics from other airports with no big story attached, but I still like 'em.

Abu Dhabi (AUH)

As this place sits on tons of oil, it shows. Their last terminal expansion was nearly $3bn, and you can see plenty of BMWs and Rolls Royces riding down runways to accompany planes... On the "normal user scale," you get unlimited fast wifi to blast some tunes before you set off. And their plugs work too, which is a plus. Weirdly, you have to take off your shoes, but nobody cares about laptops and tablets in your bag. (2019)

Bratislava (BTS)

A tiny airport with a cosy feel. (2019)

Copenhagen (CPH)

This was among the first destinations I flew to. Everything felt fresh and adventurous. (2000s)

Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW)

The infrastructure around the airport looks like some spines of concrete beasts. Pretty cool. A few weeks after I flew through here, I returned to explore the cities. See the story here. (2013)

Denver (DEN)

The architecture and decoration of this place left a very good impression on me. All of Denver did, actually. (2014)

London City (LCY)

Airport right next to London's financial hub at Canary Wharf — Mainly during the mornings, it feels surreal. Every passenger is in a suit, talking into a headset, or watching numbers on a corporate laptop. (2019)

Rome Fiumicino (FCO)

Here, when coming from another EU country, you don't go through any security checkpoint. No queues, no fuss. You just arrive, collect your baggage — if you have any, and leave. It is beautiful. Friendly people, free wifi without time restrictions, and plugs that work. Moreover, you can get insanely good ice cream to improve your layover here. (2019)

Santiago de Compostela (SCQ)

A modern airport with good organisation and hardly any queues. But when I flew out of there in 2018, some greedy staff member opened my check-in bag and nicked my Ray-Bans.

So yeah, airports. They are like pharmacies — not many people enjoy going there, but they are rather handy if you need their services. I could go on about the strange and inconsistent rules, stupid weight distribution restrictions and unequal space issues for tall people like I am. And of course, all the security weirdness. I get why the checks are in place, but when a 2hrs flight takes 6hrs, and when you see how poor their results actually are.. Oh wait, that's not where I was going with this.

The point is that airports are a part of the bigger picture. Airports are hubs that gather people of various backgrounds to put them together for a few hours and propel them across the world. It is an exciting event. It is entering a new dimension away from ordinary life, as all the ads around you present those Omega watches, penthouse investments, and 5-star hotels as affordable, sweet deals.

USD 14,480 for a ballpoint pen? Oh yeah, I will take five, thanks.

You get to listen to a safety lecture about how to stay cool in case of landing on water, or at least about how to fasten your seatbelt. And later, as the thrust glue your body into that seat, you take off, and the social experiment of being placed with random strangers begin: will you talk to them, find out their story, or will you instead read about other strangers in the onboard magazine? Or will you zone out, sleep the whole time? Will you use the aeroplane as a sanctuary, a place to think, establish plans, and conquer personal issues? Eventually, you land in a different world, sometimes as a different person.

Flying is a privilege, flying is grand. And airports have a good share on it.

Thanks for reading! If you liked this post, you might also enjoy my other articles, such as..:

Cheap air travel tips

How to make the most from budget airlines.


Celebrating the windshield views 

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Published by: Jakub Stepanovic in Collections, Stories