Why aren’t airports happier places?

Airports should be happier places

If you think about it just on face — like literally, just on the surface of things — airports should be happy, exciting places. After all, your time is your most precious commodity, and your leisure time even more so. If you’re arriving at the airport to take a family trip somewhere, that should be a joyous time. The anticipation for things like that are often one of the high points (I work with a lot of travel advisors daily, and they all say that — the period from booking to touchdown at the location should be glorious, airport included).

The fact is, most airports are stressful and hellish. Why is this?

The first reason is fairly obvious: most people are simply traveling for business. That can be stressful — even though, again, it should be happier, since you’re (a) not at your desk/cubicle and (b) maybe you’re about to close some kind of big deal — and that mostly makes sense. (Business travel is a huge racket, FYI.)

The second series of reasons are perhaps best illustrated by my own most recent airport experience, which happened yesterday (DFW to MIA):

  • Arrival: Huge, massive line in D Terminal. I walk all the way around it and realize I can use a self-service kiosk and tag my bags at the far end. I do that within a few minutes — people still on main line, bitching — and then get in line to drop my tagged bag. In front of me, a four-person family. They look exasperated, so I glance at bag tags. Cabo San Lucas. Cannot feel empathy for them anymore (yes, I’m going to Miami, but that’s for family, which is always hellish this time of year). Husband perhaps forgot passport of youngest child and is raising voice at agent. Wife rolls her eyes at me. Agent goes somewhere and husband turns to me and says, “This is an industry that needs to be disrupted!” Perhaps, but I think disruption involves a lower cost of entry. Planes and fuel cost a lot of money.
  • The security line: This has gotten better in recent years, but this is something I absolutely cannot still understand. There are literally people in this world who travel seven days a week. There are tons of them! And yet, those same people, every fucking time they get on a security line, it’s like they got hit with a Men in Black neurolyzer. They totally forget what to do, how to get their stuff onto the ramp, what needs to come off and what doesn’t. I’ve seen this shit with hardened business travelers about 40 times+. It’s like they reverse-age once they get past TSA. Wait, my shoes should come off? This happens without fail.
  • Airport bars: I am almost always early to airports. Once, before I started dating my wife, a bunch of us were meeting in Vegas. I was flying from NYC and she was flying from Miami. Her flight was earlier than mine (same time zone) and she texted me, “Hey, headed to the airport now.” I had been at the airport in NYC for two hours already. I’m like that. I’ve spent a lot of time at airport bars. Probably more time than I care to admit. Airport bars are rare gems in the sense that people are completely comfortable getting totally fucked up, screaming at people into their phones, stumbling around, knocking over the luggage of others, etc. — at literally any point in the day. This can happen at 9pm, or it can happen at 6:45am. There’s really no difference.
  • Boarding of Planes: This can be fixed, and it can be fixed via science.
  • The Actual Plane Experience: Boarding this flight yesterday, some old guy on the jetway told me, “There is literally nothing positive left about air travel.” Harsh words, but potentially true. On the last flight I had before yesterday — DFW to BOS and back — I had an old couple in front of me. I was Row 32, so basically right at the back. The guy in the couple was directly in front of me. He clearly thought Row 31 was first class, because he was a dick to the attendant, reclined all the way back (FYI I’m about 6-7, 300+). I got off the plane and texted my friend who travels all the time (works for CNN). He wrote me back a funny one: “These people think it’s fucking Pan-Am in the glory days, but they don’t realize it’s literally worse than sitting in a crowded Chipotle.”
  • Deboarding: If I could mandate one rule on an airplane, it would be: “Please don’t put your carry-on six rows behind where you’re sitting. You’ll just massively disrupt the flow of de-boarding as a result.” People are morons.

And then you arrive.

So, it makes logical sense that airports aren’t happy places — I didn’t even talk about delays, gate changes, etc. — but there’s a flip side. If you’re a curious, intuitive person (which I realize a lot of people inherently are not), airports should give you some small sense of joy, as they’re great places for people-watching. I can’t write dialogue worth two shits, but if I could and I was writing a screenplay, I’d base about 12 side characters off people I met in airports. They are literally the crossroads of the world in the modern era. You may not get to Times Square or the Eiffel Tower or Toronto or Las Vegas, but you’ll definitely be inside an airport at some point, most likely.

Remember: happiness is about how you construe your time. Airports literally mess with your time and your comfort, but they can also represent the gateways to how you choose to spend your time. As a result, you’d think they’d be slightly happier places, right?

(I also realize airports are different in different countries, although I don’t necessarily think any 1-2 places are truly world-class. I met a guy from Edinburgh in Vegas in August. He asked me a great question: “For a country that flies as much as the U.S. does, why are all your airports such fucking shit?”)

Do you like airports? Why/why not? What did I miss?

Ted Bauer


  1. I traveled internationally on the trans-Pacific route for nearly 30 years, with a 48-hour whirlwind client-paid trip to Munich with a carton of computer parts during Oktoberfest in 1991 in the middle. The ONLY, and I mean the ONLY airport in Asia that I could stomach was Singapore’s. Singapore is the happiest place on earth. Fuck Disney. Even the airport, with its recorded birdsongs, its rippling creeks and its other psyops designed to pacify visitors there, none of which I mind. Because Singapore is the happiest place on earth. Changi Airport is so clean, so calming, so welcoming and so orderly, I could almost live there. But nooooooooooo, where did I get stuck with layovers? The old CKS in Taipei, Chek Lap Kok, Seoul. Ya gotta love those airports. Any of ’em make Detroit look like a vacation spa. God, I hate Detroit.

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