Airports, and spending time in them. Or, raising a world traveler

Sleeping in SFO, with the Beatles

Emma and I have been spending a lot of time in airports this past year or so. Actually, Emma’s whole life, but we’ve been in a few new airports over the last 12 months. Some of them have been a lot more comfortable than others; some have definitely been easier to navigate than others. I decided it would be an interesting challenge (for me, anyway) to list all the airports we’ve been in since December 2017, and to write about some of our notable airport experiences. I’m not going to rehash our first time in Beijing Capital Airport, since I already wrote about it in detail. But there’s something I really love about airports, and I’m still thinking it through.

So, the airports we’ve been in over the past year, besides our “home” airport of San Diego, include: Reno, Nevada; Oakland, California; Houston, Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Lexington, Kentucky; Chicago, Illinois; Washington, DC (Dulles); Toronto, Canada; Denver, Colorado; Seattle, Washington; Reykjavik, Iceland; Zurich, Switzerland; San Francisco, California; Beijing, China; and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. That’s 15 different airports. Obviously, several of them were only waystations, and some of them are just a blur, but thinking back over these airport experiences has led me to a few conclusions.

First, that’s a hell of a lot of air travel. So, a hell of a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. I am a compulsive traveler. I really like going to new places, and I feel most at home when I’m on the move. I cope with returning from a trip by planning the next one. This is completely in conflict with my awareness of climate change and the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on our environment. Air travel is one of the worst contributors to climate change. Airplanes burn a lot of fuel at high altitudes, where their effect on atmospheric chemistry is greater. Also, air traffic has been increasing rapidly over the last few decades, with only a minor slowdown following the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001. Cheap airfares encourage air travel and don’t take into account the true cost of that travel—the toll on our environment. Fortunately, aside from foregoing air travel whenever possible, there is something we can do about this, at least for now.

For several years, I have been paying for carbon offsets for our air travel, sometimes even doubling the mileage I offset for shorter trips. Carbon offsetting is compensating for your greenhouse gas emissions by funding a project that will counterbalance those emissions, sometimes through planting trees, but more often by investing in renewable energy, fuel efficiency programs, sustainable agriculture, and other carbon-reducing initiatives. It’s a relatively new area, and environmentalists are divided over the real benefits of carbon offsetting, but some reputable companies and organizations have emerged that provide individuals and companies with different options for offsetting their emissions (some examples are the Vermont-based Native Energy, and two UK-based organizations: climatefootprint.com and climatecare.org. Some airlines, like United, offer carbon offsetting during their reservation process, too. I try hard to reduce my own emissions in a variety of ways, but air travel is the one thing I have a lot of difficulty eliminating or reducing. Did I mention I’m a compulsive traveler?

But this post was supposed to be about spending time in airports. Of the many airports I listed above, Ulaanbaatar, Beijing, Reno, Lexington, and Zurich stand out as my favorites. Some of the others just left vague (or no) impressions, and some of them I’ve gone through many times but still consider a nightmare (Chicago O’Hare, Houston, and Washington Dulles, I’m looking at you). For international arrivals, San Francisco stands out as a terrible experience; we arrive an hour early on our way back from Mongolia in December, but ate up way more than that hour waiting in line to get through immigration, and as a result, our suitcase didn’t make it on the connecting flight to San Diego because we couldn’t re-check it on time. We wouldn’t have made that flight at all if our plane from Beijing hadn’t been an hour early. The last few times we arrived back from international travel, the airports had kiosks to process our entry, but SFO did not have them available for arriving US citizens, of which there were many. We have a longer layover on our way back in July, so hopefully it will go OK.

Some of the airports I mentioned didn’t leave much of an impression because either we didn’t spend much time in them, or they were kind of generic. What I’ve been paying more attention to lately is how airports act as a cultural expression of their location. All airports do this; they are a gateway to a particular place and are designed to welcome and bid farewell to travelers. Airports are the first thing people see when they arrive someplace, and the last when they depart. Air terminals say, “Hey, this is what you can expect here!” or “Aren’t you going to miss this?” People who design them want to make a lasting, enticing impression. Some succeed at this more than others.

So, my next conclusion from thinking over my airport experiences is that I tend to prefer smaller regional airports to giant hubs. Of the US airports, Reno and Lexington definitely fall into this category. I like Reno’s airport because you definitely feel you’ve arrived somewhere different. The slot machines, and the wild animal taxidermy (bighorn sheep, mountain lion, and a black bear going after a bee’s nest) , stand out in my memory. Lexington’s Bluegrass Airport focuses on the local racehorse culture, with pictures of horses in the Kentucky bluegrass and horse sculptures. Both are also very easy to navigate and fun to spend time in, if you’re like me and prefer to get to an airport early enough to move at a leisurely pace, settle in, and have a meal.

For that reason, I’m far more likely to remember an airport that I depart from than one I arrive at. I don’t really remember the New Orleans airport because of this; we arrived there on our spring break trip, but then we drove up to Kentucky and flew out of Lexington, so New Orleans was just about getting to our rental car. Nothing really stood out. Of course, arrivals areas tend to be much more utilitarian than departure halls; they are mainly about getting passengers off the plane, to connecting flights, or to their luggage and on their way. I don’t remember much about arriving in Ulaanbaatar, except that nearly the first thing we saw on arrival in August was an ad for Emma’s school, the International School of Ulaanbaatar. Other than that, my only impression was that it was a small airport and very quick to get through, with barely any line at immigration and customs officials who just waved us through. It was only when we were departing in December that I paid much attention to it.

ISU sign at the airport

Ulaanbaatar’s Chinggis Khan International Airport is a dream because it only has four gates, and only a handful of flights arrive and depart each day. Aside from domestic carriers, only Mongolian Airlines, Air China, Korean Air, Aeroflot, and Turkish Airlines fly to Ulaanbaatar. When we were at the airport, it felt like we were the only ones there, at least at first. The waiting area upstairs had ample food opportunities, and there was also a fun display of traditional Mongolian costumes, a giant morin khuur (a traditional musical instrument), historical artifacts, cultural items, and the ubiquitous statue of Chinggis Khan. Downstairs, where the gates are, were more food opportunities, a bookstore (where we bought a last-minute Christmas present), and other souvenir shops. There was not a huge amount of walking involved in getting around (which came in handy when we had to go back through immigration and security because they made a mistake when we checked in for our Air China flight).

One of the reasons so few airlines fly in to Chinggis Khan Airport is that the runway isn’t long enough to handle larger planes. It can only be approached from one direction because of the mountains around it, which further limits air traffic. The Japanese government is helping Mongolia to build a new international airport, about 50 km south of Ulaanbaatar (the current airport is pretty close to the city and there is no room for expansion). We won’t get to see the new airport, since it’s not scheduled to open until later summer 2019 (delayed from a 2016 opening). It will significantly increase the air traffic to and from Mongolia, or so is the plan. But for now, the existing airport limits international travel and makes for a pleasant, low-key experience.

Chinggis Khan International Airport from the outside
Beijing Capital International Airport, from our room at the airport Hilton

Beijing’s Capital International Airport is the exact opposite, but I found myself really enjoying it on our trip back from California. Part of the reason was that we had just stayed overnight at the airport Hilton, where I’d scored a free night from Hotels.com.  Staying there was a pleasant experience, and we’d woken up super early because of jet lag, so getting to the airport in time for our 11:55 flight was a breeze. At this point, we both enjoy hanging out in airports, so we decided to head over early to give ourselves plenty of time to get the luggage from the left luggage desk, check in, go through immigration and security, and find our gate.

Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital Airport is monstrous, though they are also building another airport for Beijing because this one isn’t big enough. Hopefully the new airport will be easier to navigate. Once I retrieved our luggage from the left luggage desk on the second floor (while Emma watched these giant Dr. Seuss bubble shapes change color), we headed up to the third floor to figure out where to check in. Tip: If you can take the escalators in this airport, do so. The elevators only serve certain floors, and if you’re at the wrong one, it’s quite long walk to the other one. And the lines for them are long.

Airport art near Left Luggage

Checking in went well, and we finally got an explanation for one of the hitches I noticed on our earlier trip. Each time we checked in to Air China, there seemed to be some sort of problem with our reservation, but I wasn’t sure what it was. When we were leaving Ulaanbaatar for California in December, the Air China agent checking us in had retrieved us from the departure lounge afterwards to tell me that we didn’t have tickets for our flight. Once I gave her supervisor the same printout I had given her, which had our e-ticket numbers on it, everything seemed to be OK. But when we went to check in at the Air China desk in Beijing, the agent got on the phone for quite a long while. It turns out that United Airlines had canceled the Air China portion of our trip when we checked in in San Diego, so he had to restore our ticket and get us back on the flight. Some code share relationships are not so smooth, apparently. After we checked in and gave up our suitcase, we headed for the train that takes you to the departure gates in Terminal 3. Then it was up the escalators to immigration and security.

The thing I haven’t really mentioned yet about going through Beijing is the level of biometric data they gather about everyone who passes through the airport. When we first arrived in August, I had to have my fingerprints taken by a machine (Emma was exempt because she is under 14). I almost didn’t manage it because I couldn’t squish my fingers close enough together to match the outline on the machine (and I have small hands!). And then I was cracking up so much I couldn’t hold my hand still enough. But after several tries, the machine either accepted my prints or couldn’t take it anymore and gave up, and I got a magic slip of paper to show everyone else we came across in the airport. The good news is, you only have to do this once, and the Beijing airport police have your fingerprints forever! Then, you get your picture taken when you apply for a no-visa visa (you can stay in China for up to six days without a visa, as long as you have proof of an ongoing flight). And you get your picture taken again at immigration and they verify that you haven’t swapped fingerprints with someone else in the 10 minutes it took you to walk from the no-visa visa desk to the immigration line. And they take your picture again when you come back through security. They really want to be able to track you and make sure you leave.

But once we were through immigration and security (and had gone through the by-now familiar ritual of practically emptying our carry-on bags into plastic bins and having a couple of bags re-checked even so), we had nearly two hours before our flight to get coffee and tea, find our gate, and (in Emma’s case) read or (in my case) explore and take pictures. There was a Costa Coffee stand near our gate, and for the first time I noticed a temple-like pavilion in the middle of the terminal. When we had first traveled over in August, our gate was down at the very end of one of the terminal wings, so we hadn’t really seen much of the main part of the terminal at all. This time, our gate was close to the center of the terminal, so I took the opportunity to walk around and check it out, while Emma sat and read.

Reading by the gate

There were a lot of retail opportunities to be found, but they were all fairly generic international airport fare: Mont Blanc, Estee Lauder, Burberry, Bvlgari, Lacoste, Omega, Nautica, Swarovski, Kiehls, etc. One of the things I was looking for was a store that sold Chinese tchotchkes, because Emma and I usually buy a refrigerator magnet whenever we travel somewhere new, and we didn’t have one from China. As I was walking around, I found another temple-like pavilion, as well as a large fountain with carved dragons. Though there were thousands of travelers passing through this terminal, the huge space and these features created a feeling of tranquility. As did the classical music I noticed for the first time. I hadn’t really paid attention to this before, but there was a continuous soundtrack of classical music playing throughout the departure area of the terminal, adding to its relaxed atmosphere. I also had to stop and laugh at a panda playground that Emma would have loved four or five years ago, surrounded by benches full of sleeping travelers; I couldn’t really tell whether they were parents, but they seemed quite comfortable.

That was another thing I noticed about this particular airport. It is better set up for people to spend the night, to stretch out on several adjacent seats and go to sleep. Many airports are not designed for this, with uncomfortable armrests between each seat or two, limiting the stretching out possibilities, or with hardly any seating at all. Since I’ve had Emma, I haven’t entertained the thought of sleeping in an airport. She is much easier to travel with now than she used to be, but I prefer to stay awake. Still, I appreciate airports that try to be comfortable for people in transit.

After a lot of walking around, I finally did find that shop selling Chinese tchotchkes, in the other direction from where I had been looking. It was easy to miss, a barely labeled doorway next to some restrooms, behind a blank wall. I went back and told Emma (who was still reading), and I gave her some money to buy a magnet. She came back all excited that she’d been able to do the entire transaction in Mandarin, which she’s been learning in school.

I’ve got to add here that I genuinely love traveling with Emma. We went through a couple of rough patches when she was a toddler and again when she was five or six years old. The toddler stage was difficult, as every traveling parent knows, because she was constantly running away and almost impossible to contain. The pinnacle of this was on a trip back from Europe when the airline lost our gate-checked stroller, and I had to shepherd her through Chicago O’Hare with all our carry-ons. That was fun. And when she was five, she went through a period of self-assertion that meant massive temper tantrums and arguments about almost everything, and she also constantly ran away from me, including once going out of the secured area in JFK so we had to go back through security again, causing us to nearly miss our flight. Another time, an airport security guard had to catch her and bring her back to me, but he was laughing because he had kids and knew what was going on.

I’m kind of glad those days are behind us. Every year, I have marveled at how Emma is able to take on more of an independent and helpful role in our travels. Everything is much easier, from navigating security, to going to the restroom, to finding our way through strange airports. She has traveled a lot, with me, with friends, and on her own (her first solo flight was up to Oakland on Southwest Airlines when she was nine). One of my goals for her since before she was born was to be able to see as much of the world as she can, while she can, before climate change disrupts our economy so much that it might not be possible. I’m just very lucky that she has been able to take my wanderlust in stride, for the most part, and she always looks forward to a trip.

My final thought about airports is that I love them because they are full of possibilities. I have always loved reading the departures boards, not just looking for my own flight information, but seeing all the names of the possible destinations I could reach from where I was. I have had the good fortune to be able to travel a lot, from early childhood on. I’ve been to many different airports in my life, on five different continents (I’m missing South America and Antarctica). Some of them I barely remember, others have made lasting impressions. But they all have one thing in common: They are gateways to places I would love to be able to visit someday.  

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