The Tribes: A Spotter’s Guide To The People Of The Airport
Illustrations by Mr Pete Gamlen
Travel broadens the mind, as the old adage goes. But you don’t have to venture to the ends of the Earth in search of cultural enlightenment. If meeting new people is your goal, then we’re happy to report that you’ll find plenty of those at the place where most journeys begin: the airport.
The airport is a liminal space, a point of transit rather than a destination in itself. Nobody goes there because they want to – plane spotters excepted – and the inevitable queues and delays mean that we spend a great deal more time there than we would generally prefer.
For people watching, though, airports simply can’t be beaten, with their hugely disparate cast of characters from all around the world making them a more diverse place than any modern metropolis. So, while you’re waiting to be called to your gate this summer, why not look up from your phone and see if you can’t spot one or two of these regulars?
Is it the crude novelty T-shirt that you notice first? Or the pink tutu? Maybe it’s the duck-shaped rubber ring around his waist. Whatever it is that catches your eye, you’re likely to hear this airport visitor well before you see him as the chants of “Lads! Lads! Lads!” echo through the departure hall like the beat of a war drum, forewarning of his presence. Flanking him are his wingmen: there’s Dave, AKA The Archbishop of Banterbury; 10 Pints Phil, who’s doing his best to live up to his legend, even though it’s only 7.15am; and the groom-to-be’s older brother, who doesn’t have a nickname, but he did book the flights and hostel. Gentlemen of Bratislava, lock up your daughters: this one’s going to get messy. Assuming, that is, that they manage to make their flight.
The first-class recluse
A rare sight in the main departure hall, this well-heeled visitor to the airport prefers the privacy – not to mention the bottomless champagne and the platters of tiny sandwiches – of the first-class lounge. From time to time, though, they still occasionally have to mingle with the general public, whether to pop to the boutique for a new bag or watch, or just to make their flight. You’ll have to be quick to spot them when they do, because they’re typically in a hurry, dashing along the concourse with their monogrammed carry-on luggage behind them, swathed in cashmere loungewear, their noise-cancelling headphones and oversized designer sunglasses keeping the outside world at bay, holding their nose and trying desperately to avoid touching any surfaces.
The security ninja
He glides through security like a shadow, barely breaking stride to slip off his mules. Preparation is everything: his hat and sunglasses are already removed, he wears a drawstring waistband so there’s no need for a belt, and his electronics are readily stashed in removable sleeves which he lifts from his sleek travel tote in a single motion. His carbon-fibre carry-on suitcase is an engineering marvel, fitted with omnidirectional wheels and a telescopic handle that he manipulates expertly with a single finger. By the time you’ve managed to fish your toothpaste out of your wash bag and into a clear plastic bag, he’s already at the gate.
A dog-eared folder containing a self-printed boarding card, visa and travel insurance documents quivers in his hands as he timidly approaches the self check-in kiosk. What is this device? It wasn’t here when I last flew, he thinks, forgetting that he hasn’t visited an airport since, ooh, about 1998? He planned well ahead, or he thought he did, changing his money for travellers’ cheques at the post office weeks ago, but he didn’t anticipate any of this newfangled nonsense. What do you mean there’s an app? Why are you asking me to remove my shoes and belt? A word to the wise: if you happen to find yourself standing behind this character in a queue, move to another queue.
The stressed parent
Who’d be a parent at the airport? The poor things: overladen with luggage, strapped into a Batman-style utility belt of dummies, milk bottles, nappies, wipes and white noise machines, dragging their children behind them on leashes or ride-on suitcases, resisting calls to venture into the departure lounge toy shops while they desperately search for somewhere, anywhere, with a highchair and a licence to serve alcohol. Have sympathy with them if you see them, because navigating the airport is just the beginning: they’ve got an eight-hour flight to look forward to after this.