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The Simple Joys of Waiting for a Flight

Photo: Fernando Trabanco Fotografía/Getty Images

Thanksgiving is hours away, which means that across the country, millions of people are preparing to take part in a tradition of artery-clogging decadence and sumptuous indolence: waiting to board a flight.

There will probably be a lot of waiting around airports this year. According to CNN, a record 31.6 million passengers will fly on U.S. airlines this Thanksgiving season, and December 1, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, is expected to be the busiest travel day ever for the U.S. airline industry.

Even on less crowded travel days, flying is often not the best experience. There’s the waiting in lines, taking off your shoes in public, seeing others take off their shoes in public, all so that you can eventually sit with your knees scrunched up by your chin for a few hours, breathing in other people’s fumes while you hurtle through the sky in a metal can. It costs a lot of money, and coats our delicate planet in a heavy layer of fossil fuels. That humans have managed to take something as awe-inspiring as the power of flight and turn it into a laborious undertaking is a testament to our ability to sap the joy out of absolutely anything – the biggest drips in the universe.

If you get to the airport early enough though (two hours for domestic flights, three for international — at least!), tucked in between all of that standing around and scrunching yourself up and fume-breathing, there is a small, blissful window between when you get through security, and before you board your flight, where, for a moment, you are suspended in a non-world. And in this non-world, there is freedom.

Outside an airport departure terminal, time is linear, perfume purchases are subject to local taxes, and a small bottle of water costs $1 to $2. Inside, time is a flat circle, perfume is duty-free, and a small bottle of water could cost anywhere from $5 to $40. Outside, 8 a.m. is widely considered “too early for a 12 oz. New York strip steak.” Inside, you can enjoy one at the airport bar while watching the sunrise over a fleet of Boeing 747s.

Outside, I more or less understand my own behavior. I try to eat nutritious food, spend my money responsibly, and look presentable. Inside an airport, the same pillars of existence I’ve carefully crafted for myself over the years collapse under the knowledge that soon I will no longer be earthbound. Why bother with such quotidian concerns when soon, I will be a denizen of the sky? I gobble down enormous bags of Swedish fish with the violence and urgency of a brown bear bulking up on salmon before winter. I buy a $5–$40 bottle of water and then think that maybe I do need a bedazzled hoodie with a picture of the Golden Gate bridge on it. I wear comfortable, stretchy gym clothes, and generally look like a woman who attended a yoga class 15 years ago, and then went to live in the woods, never once changing her outfit.

Inevitably, later, when I catch sight of myself in a mirror, or check my bank account, or experience a sugar crash, I come to regret the decisions I’ve made. But in the departure terminal, I surrender myself completely to my own base urges, to my own powerlessness in the face of an overwhelming authority (the airport). I luxuriate, I indulge, I revel.

Admittedly, waiting for a flight becomes less enjoyable when your flight is delayed or canceled, then delayed again, then you’re rerouted through Atlanta, and oh, surprise, that flight is also delayed. After a while, being suspended indefinitely between two realms begins to feel like purgatory. But can you get king-size Twix bars in purgatory? I don’t think so. As the departure screens light up with notices of delays, why not sit back, revel in the inertia, and enjoy a chicken Caesar wrap and a paperback from Hudson News?

The Simple Joys of Waiting for a Flight