Most places I fly to, leaving as I do from Albany, take two flights with a layover, to get to my destination, which is fine with me. By the time this column appears I’ll have flown to Chattanooga and back. My flights to and fro each have a layover. On the way south I’ll spend two-and-a-quarter hours at the Newark airport, and returning north I’ll have eighty minutes in Detroit. I wish the Detroit layover was longer so I could stroll the mile-long length of the spectacular fifteen-year-old McNamara Terminal. Two-and-a-half hours is ideal, allowing me time to walk the concourse and choose a restaurant where I can be seated and waited on. It costs a little more and takes a bit longer than the food court, but I find the experience to be uplifting and regenerative. I’m not alone in this preference for a sit-down restaurant experience. The reason they’re there is because people want them. Travel, food, and lifestyle blogs write lists of the best airport restaurants across the United States. Among them is a favorite of mine, One Flew South at the Atlanta airport. Once seated, the waiter asks how much time I have until boarding, pointing out that they do not have as fast a menu as other establishments in the concourse, but they can point out which menu items would get to the table the soonest.
The time between flights is sufficient that while eating I needn’t look at my watch; I relax, luxuriating in the free time. Then, after settling up, I stop elsewhere and get a good coffee (and perhaps a cookie) to sip as I make my way to the departure gate, and wait for the boarding call.
While there are a few airports that could do with an upgrade, I find many of them to be grand indoor spaces. The only comparable spaces I’ve been in are arenas and big-box stores, neither of which I enjoy or frequent. Airport terminals and concourses though, are portals, neither the start nor the end of a story. They have a grandeur that acknowledges a celebration of movement, of time compressed and expanded in an enormous indoor public room. Within them we can be alternately dazzled or calmed by all manner of elements, from arched ceilings and walls of glass to fountains, and from early airplanes suspended from high ceilings to long rows of rocking chairs.
I must mention that I always check my luggage. This frees me to carry only a shoulder bag with a book or magazine, and my laptop that I may not even open. The range and number of people who prefer to drag their suitcases through the airport puzzles me. I’ve heard a couple reasons why this is their preference. One is fear of their luggage being delayed or lost. In my experience, by the time you’ve made it to baggage claim the luggage is usually coming out on the carousel. I’d say 95 percent of the time my suitcase was there for me, and when it hasn’t been, it was delivered to me shortly thereafter. I’ve also had people tell me that airport machinery and workers are rougher on the bags than in the past, tossing them with more abandon and recklessness than was the norm in earlier decades of commercial flying. American Tourister’s 1970s television ad campaign showed a gorilla throwing a suitcase around with much gusto, doing it no damage in the process. What has changed is that people no longer invest in hardshell suitcases, favoring cheaper cloth covered bags that are not designed to last as long.
An important element in the pleasure of the long layover experience is that it works best when I’m traveling alone. Barbara is no fan of surplus time in airports, and I respect that. (She also no longer lets me guide us to our departure gate since the one time when I mistakenly guided us to the gate that matched my seat assignment.)
On a flight last month I was in the jetway, with the line slowly making its way onto the plane. A pilot passed us all, walking along the left side using proper passing protocol. He was in his uniform, pulling a wheeled suitcase behind him. It had stickers on it, one of which was: “I [heart] my hot awesome wife.” It seemed unusual in light of the normally conservative appearance of a pilot. As I considered this for a moment longer, I thought it was a good thing to have a pilot who wants to get safely home to his wife. Me, too.