Dare We Say it? Being in Transit can Be Fun

Airport terminals now offer therapy dogs, beds, even free books.  
Koh Samui airport
The island vibe is strong in Koh Samui's Samui International Airport, which is filled with tropical greenery. Photo: Otto Stadler/imageBROKER/Dinodia Photo Library

We live in a time of airport horror stories. Of complaints about invasive security checks, racial profiling, and snaking queues to get through metal detectors without jackets, shoes, belts, earrings. Airports have in the recent past been much maligned. Amidst the heightened security and longer waiting times at airports around the world, I’ve realised there are also significant positive features. While travelling to the U.S. this August, it struck me that although we acknowledge that airports have changed over the last 20 years, we often miss the little pluses.

I’ve begun to notice that increasingly, airports are catering to travellers’ needs that go well beyond the availability of basic amenities like food and seating. Across the world airports are trying to get friendlier and warmer. This is not just about building award-winning structures with amazing design and modern aesthetic. It is about the little things: soothing stress, adding on small touches that make travellers feel a bit happier.

Thankfully for us passengers, airports are more than just functional spaces. Besides the spectacular design of Mumbai’s T2 international terminal, what I really like is that it goes that extra step to appeal to and bring joy to travellers. The vision that considers it important enough to create Jaya He, the museum project at Mumbai airport, signals to me a significant change in the way decision makers today view airports.

I’ve travelled through Frankfurt airport over two decades and I have noticed the seating for transit passengers change. It was at first a mix of regular airport seating and reclining lounge-style seats. Over the years I noticed the loungers getting fewer and fewer. Increasing instead were hard, un-cushioned seats with dividers intentionally placed between each seat, so that tired passengers on long layovers could not put their feet up and use it as a bed. On this U.S. trip however, I was taken by surprise while transiting through Frankfurt when I saw rows and rows of black, campstyle cots lined up in Terminal C. It wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, but it was practical and I could see many a traveller extremely grateful for it. My layover time was not long, but I was intrigued enough to stop, lie down and try it out. It was comfortable and because there was an ocean of them, I assumed this was not a permanent fixture, but something that’s done during delays, bad weather, or when a large number of people are expected to be stuck at Frankfurt. I’d first heard about camp beds being brought in to accommodate stranded passengers in 2010, when the volcanic ash cloud disrupted flights across Europe. But now, this facility seems to exist even in less dramatic circumstances. These cots serve a useful role for those who cannot afford the luxury of airport lounges. Ten years ago I think nobody would have cared, but today the comfort of the long-distance traveller is something that is being taken into consideration.

We recently ran a story about therapy dogs now available at Mumbai airport to assist in calming passengers with frazzled nerves. This is seen more and more, the U.S. leading the way with about 30 airports offering this cheerful and comforting extra. To me it reflects a change in the travel industry; an understanding of how to make the travel process smoother, less stressful, easier.

My favourite airport on this trip turned out to be the tiny airport of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It was a few small touches I observed that made all the difference to my two-hour early morning wait. Catching a flight to Chicago, one of the first things I spotted as I entered the airport at 7 a.m. was people relaxing on beanbags lying in front of the check-in counters. This made it seem more like a family living room than transit hub. It was welcoming, a nice way to keep passengers comfortable in a place that is generally wearisome.

Past security, near the entrance to the airport restaurant I spotted a bookshelf with a sign inviting me to take a book for my travels. Free! Three shelves housed an assortment of books that could satisfy every kind of reader. The bottom shelf was stacked with books for children. I looked around expecting a sign to say take one and leave one, but there was none. It was a gift from the community for anyone missing travel reading material, and gave this tiny airport a small but heart-warming touch.

Next, I stepped inside the restaurant to get breakfast. I was immediately struck by the restaurant’s location: an entire wall of glass overlooking the runway and beyond it, the Teton Mountain Range. I found myself a table at the window and settled into a seat. This was one occasion on which I didn’t mind a mediocre overpriced breakfast sandwich, because it came with the stunning vista of the snow-flecked Tetons I could feast on.

Appeared in the October 2016 issue as “Terminal A-One”.

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    Niloufer Venkatraman ’s idea of unwinding is to put on boots and meander through wilderness or the bylanes of a city, and to instill in her daughter a love for the outdoors. As Editor-In-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India her gig involves more of pummelling stories into shape than actually travelling.

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