A Week at the Airport

November 21, 2010

Who we are at the airport is who we truly are.

Looking perhaps for one of his own in the airport bookstore, De Botton gives a pretty spot-on characterization of the books he writes as:

the sort of books in which a genial voice expresses emotions that the reader has long felt but never before really understood; those that convey the secret, everyday things that society at large prefers to leave unsaid; those that make one feel somehow less alone and strange (59).

Good design is humanistic design:

However, few users seemed capable of producing the precise line-up of cards and codes demanded by the computers, which responded to the slightest infraction with sudden and intemperate error messages–making one long for a return to the surliest of humans, from whom there always remains at least a theoretical possibility of understanding and forgiveness (28).

Something that makes me love De Botton is his ability to make the most everyday considerations seem deeply important. Read what he does with that most banal of corporate clichés, “human resources”:

However skillfully designed its incentive structure, the airline could in the end do very little to guarantee that its staff could actually add to their dealings with customers that almost imperceptible measure of goodwill which elevates service from mere efficiency to tangible warmth…the airline’s survival depended upon qualities that the company itself could not produce or control, and was not even, strictly speaking, paying for. The real origins of these qualities lay not in training courses or employee benefits but, for example, in the loving atmosphere that had reigned a quarter of a century earlier in a house in Cheshire, where two parents had brought up a future staff member with benevolence and humor–all so that today, without any thanks being given to those parents (a category deserving to be generally known as the true Human Resources department of global capitalism), he would have both the will and the wherewithal to reassure an anxious student on her way to the ate to catch BA048 to Philadelphia (32-33).

He even leans on Seneca to find some humanity, even sweetness, in our frustration:

The root cause of anger is hope. We are angry because we are overly optimistic, insufficiently prepared for the frustrations endemic to existence. A man who screams every time he loses his keys or is turned away at an airport is evincing a touching but recklessly naive belief in a world in which keys never go astray and our travel plans are invariably assured (33).

De Botton’s sense of humor relies in a consistent (but not stale) way on understatement:

British Airways did, it was true, maintain a desk manned by some unusually personable employees and adorned with the message: “We are here to help.” But the staff shied away from existential issues, seeming to restrict their insights to matters relating to the transit time to adjacent satellites and the location of the nearest toilets (40).

He ends the book on forgetting:

We forget everything: the books we read, the temples of Japan, the tombs of Luxor, the airline queues, our own foolishness. And so we gradually return to identifying happiness with elsewhere: twin rooms overlooking a harbour, a hilltop church boasting the remains of the Sicilian martyr St. Agatha, a palm-fringed bungalow with complimentary evening buffet service. We recover an appetite for packing, hoping and screaming. We will need to go back and learn the important lessons of the airport all over again soon (107).

It isn’t hard to see travel as an expression of our capricious discontent with our present situation. But if I understand De Botton correctly, the primary lesson of the airport is that no matter how far we may voyage, we can never escape ourselves.