We all have our reservations with the process of flying. The arduously long check-in lines, inexplicable delays, screaming children and coffee as cold as it is overpriced, are all common sources of frustration. The baggage claim lottery, a testing battle of wits and patience, is perhaps the most necessary evil of them all. Yet, for every weary-eyed traveller who curses the seemingly impossible-to-adhere-to baggage restrictions, there’s a frequent flier who regards the artificial lighting and recycled air as welcome reminders he’s home (see George Clooney in 2009 film Up In The Air for more on that).

Having averaged more than a flight a month over the last two years, I gave a little thought to the bigger picture surrounding flying, and why the process of air travel doesn’t have to be as dreaded as it often is.

Without doubt, modern-day flights are a nuisance on multiple levels; tiresome tasks include filtering liquids into pointlessly small containers, holding endless staring contests with the departure gate board, and removing 99% of your clothing before shuffling through security without your pants falling down. Sadly though, these things are a reality of the times that we live in, and are designed to make us safer.

When you think about it, airline travel is compartmentalised in so many ways. We pack our belongings and toiletries into suitcases with strict weight limits and we neatly construct our hand luggage. We’re sent to check-in at a certain section of a certain terminal with a certain airline, and head to a number-specific gate to sit in a number specific-seat to a specified destination…you get the idea.

As a consequence, all of this physical compartmentalisation presents itself in a mental capacity too. Overly concerned with where we have to be and when, we don’t even think about where other people might be going or what they might be doing.

Credit: Jonathan Cohen

Credit: Jonathan Cohen

Flying becomes all about the individual, and airports are full of them. Thousands upon thousands of people, scuttling about in varying directions and hopping to and from cities around the world for a million-and-one reasons. Some are taking a break, some are doing business, and others are never coming back. While many wave a reluctant goodbye to their loved ones, others cant wait to head through security to begin their journey around the planet. Every flight has a story.

The arrivals gate at London Heathrow Airport is a wonderful melting pot of emotions. Frequent fliers, gold car rental card in-hand, breeze through with one piece of hand luggage. Backpackers labour under the weight of four over-stuffed bags, and sun-drenched holiday-goers disappointed to be back in the country are overtaken by adventurous globetrotters reunited with their families after 12 long months.

Airports turn over hundreds of thousands of passengers a day, infinitely transporting the masses to their destination. In 2013, 72 million passengers passed through London Heathrow, and just over 50 million passed through New York JFK.  While the journeys of each of those 130 million people were as important as the next, we all whisk around the terminals blissfully unaware of the thousands of untold stories that surround us at every angle.

Without a care in the world, we carry our luggage onto our next destination in search of something greater. As we leave the terminal to continue our own stories, a new one passes us on its way to check in. Airports are temporary homes to millions and millions of thoughts, feelings, stories, hopes and dreams. For me, that is the hidden beauty of air travel.


Title image credit: Lali Masriera