THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Book Review

In a brand-new terminal, old thoughts on travel

By Rob Verger
September 22, 2010

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The title of Alain de Botton’s latest book concisely describes the subject of this brief work of nonfiction. The airport in question is Heathrow in London — specifically, Terminal 5 — and the week that the author spent there was at the invitation of the airport’s owner, BAA, which wanted to showcase the new terminal.

Thus, for “A Week at the Airport’’ London-based de Botton became an employee of BAA, which he refers to at one point as his “patron.’’ He could write about anything in the terminal; he was even given “explicit permission to be rude about the airport’s activities.’’ The result is a book, first published last year in England, which feels more like a long essay. As such, it sometimes feels forgettable or strange, and at other moments is sensitively and memorably observed, and ponders important philosophical questions about travel. It’s accompanied by color photographs taken by Richard Baker, many of which are somewhat ordinary, and some of which are quite nice.

“A Week at the Airport’’ begins with a brief introduction, called Approach, which describes de Botton’s decision to accept BAA’s offer to be the “writer-in-residence,’’ and the remainder of the book is divided into three larger sections: Departures, Airside, and Arrivals. In Approach, de Botton describes his interest in the airport this way: “[A]sked to take a Martian to visit a single place that neatly captures the gamut of themes running through our civilization — from our faith in technology to our destruction of nature, from our interconnectedness to our romanticising of travel — then it would have to be to the departures and arrivals halls that one would head.’’

Much of the book is a pensive cataloging of what the writer encounters as he explores Terminal 5. Seeing 747s parked side by side, he nicely describes their fuselages as “dolphin-like.’’ We witness the wrenching farewell a couple undergo as they say goodbye; we meet a few of the people that de Botton talks to as he sits at his desk in the terminal; we meet a man who works shining shoes. (De Botton’s observations are occasionally somewhat strange, too, as when he compares the language on the room service menu in his hotel with haiku poetry.)

Some observations are more memorable than others, for the glimpse they give into what’s behind the scenes at an airport. At one point, de Botton visits a British Airways control room in which “a giant map of the world showed the real-time position of every plane in the British Airways fleet, as tracked by a string of satellites.’’ In another moment, he describes a trip out to the end of runway 27L at night, after the last plane has landed, and the runway, now closed, is “becalmed.’’ These vignettes are all sensitively observed, and taken together, present a nice mosaic of the terminal. But what does it all add up to?

There are bigger philosophical themes that de Botton weaves through the book, among them thoughts on class and religion, the emotional worlds of passengers and crew, and the ways in which flying is connected with “the momentous themes of existence.’’ One of the most prominent themes is the gap between expectation and reality when traveling; of interest to the writer is the fact that people bring themselves with them when they travel.

De Botton quickly profiles a man named David who is taking his family to Greece on vacation, and he ponders the challenges of David actually being happy. De Botton observes that David will be bringing himself with him on this vacation, and that David will “apprehend’’ his surroundings in Greece “through the distorting filter of his own being, with its debilitating levels of fear, anxiety, and wayward desire.’’ This is an important truth of travel, even if it isn’t a completely new idea, and those who have read de Botton’s earlier book “The Art of Travel’’ will recognize something of an overlap when it comes to ruminations on this theme.

In the end, airports and air travel are fascinating and ordinary, poetic and banal, and “A Week at the Airport’’ captures that truth with keen sensitivity, even if it isn’t always a gripping read.

Rob Verger can be reached at rob@robverger.com.

A WEEK AT THE AIRPORT By Alain de Botton

Vintage, 107 pp., illustrated, $15