Review: A Week at the Airport (Alain de Botton)

20140114 Week at Airport

Perhaps poignantly after just returning from a long and splendid transatlantic Christmastime holiday, and getting back into routine in the return to work, I finished Alain de Botton’s book, A Week at the Airport.

A Week at the Airport is a short and compact book (“Slender enough to pack in your carry-on”, Daily Mail). It can be considered an addendum of sorts of his previous book, The Art of Travel (from which one learns that de Botton is a home bird, really; see my separate review).

I’ve always liked Alain de Botton’s use of illustrations and imagery interspersed with his narratives. In this case, Richard Baker adds wonderful value with his insightful photographs.

A Week at the Airport is just that — the chief executive of BAA granted the author unrestricted access throughout the world’s busiest airport, Heathrow.

“In such lack of constraints, I felt myself to be benefitting from a tradition wherein the wealthy merchant enters into a relationship with an artist fully prepared for him to behave like an outlaw; he does not expect good manners, he knows and is half delighted by the idea that the favoured baboon will smash his crockery.”

Thankfully de Botton does behave himself and doesn’t offend the airport staff, or perhaps more importantly, the security folk at the Border Agency.

The book is divided into four sections, reflecting the main dimensions of our airport experience — Approach, Departures, Airside and Arrivals.

I like de Botton’s philosophical insights into the otherwise mundane, or at least those aspects of daily life that we usually don’t think twice about.

For example, airport hotels. Even with their poetic menus, which de Botton does his best to elevate, an airport hotel is functionary; unlike their countryside siblings, you don’t select an airport hotel for its environmental surroundings.

Though there’s no harm in trying to appeal to aesthetic beauty. Terminal 5 “wanted to have a go” at replicating the experience of arriving at Jerusalem’s elaborate Jaffa Gate, to welcome those who have travelled great distances to the promise and prospect of a new country.

But baggage retrieval and finding your car in the parking lot (or silent taxi transfer) quickly erases such euphoria.

de Botton’s strength is inserting the human condition in every aspect of life. Lest you think he doesn’t really recommend airport travel, de Botton is an unfailing romantic (and thankfully so). When he describes our human encounters — in this case with hotel staff, fellow passengers, border control agents, and those we’re departing and reuniting with — de Botton evokes the universality of our existence. At least those of us who have ever experienced airports.

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