IN EARLY MAY 2020, I was summoned to have a recall service performed on my Subaru, so I reluctantly drove out to the dealership in Traverse City, Michigan, a half-hour away. I say “reluctantly” because I should have been sheltering in place, staying at home, staying safe—the novel coronavirus was spreading wildly at that point.
When I arrived, the service coordinator told me through her mask that the repair would take a couple hours. I didn’t bring my computer to work on, and anyway they were discouraging people from lingering in the waiting lounge. But all the car dealerships are out by the airport, and I had different plan in mind.
While my car was getting fixed, I strolled about a mile over to the Cherry Capital Airport (TVC) to see what was happening there. A couple months before, before the lockdowns went into place, we had fled our home of New Orleans for the north woods, where I’m originally from, to ride out the pandemic spring there. Cherry Capital Airport is small but prosperous, its mere six gates belying just how busy a terminal it is. Flights into this little destination airport are usually expensive, and the planes are almost always full. On March 10, 2020, a press release announced that the airport registered a 67.6 percent increase in passengers passing through the terminal in February, compared to February 2019. At the top of the page, emphasized in italics, this statement appeared: “Growth Expected to Continue throughout 2020.”1
As I approached the terminal, I noticed a lone American Airlines regional jet on the tarmac—and it looked like it had been sitting there for a while. I had heard about all the empty airports by this time but hadn’t experienced one directly. Being such a small airport, I didn’t expect to be blown away, exactly. What made the empty terminals in the news so impressive was the juxtaposition of the big spaces and no people. At a small airport, an empty terminal can just look like any typical day between flights.
But I was struck by the eerie emptiness of the place, when I walked through the sliding doors at curbside. No one was at the rental car counters; the check-in areas were dark; the security checkpoint was shuttered, and there wasn’t a TSA agent in sight. The departures and arrivals board showed only two flights—and both were listed as CANCELLED.
I was the only one there; the scene was uncanny. Everything was ready to go, but no one was going anywhere. Standing there, I struggled to imagine this situation magnified to the scales of JFK or LAX or DFW—for all the interconnected logistics and networks making the fate of one airport a widely shared state of existence.
Suddenly someone came barreling through the sliding doors: it was a delivery guy, and he was grasping a tattered cardboard box. He looked frantically around and wondered aloud where everyone was—then asked if I could sign for a package. I sort of bumbled and said I hadn’t seen anyone, that there didn’t seem to be anyone around, but, I don’t know, maybe I could sign for it? Luckily an airport worker emerged from the elevator at that moment and signed for the package—but he didn’t seem happy to be doing it.
I kept on my excursion, wandering past dimly illumined check-in kiosks. Overhead announcements kept up their looped incantations: Do not leave luggage unattended . . . Smoking is prohibited in the terminal building, except in designated areas. The Business Center was desolate and cast in shadows. A pair of powerful pleasure boats sat on display, one near check-in and another in the baggage claim. They looked even more preposterous than usual, with no one milling about, no kids trying to climb aboard. A Hobie catamaran was also arranged near the front entrance of the terminal, with an advertising sign that almost taunted, “GET OUT THERE.” I decided to leave—I’d seen enough. I walked the perimeter of the airfield, which took me eventually back to the Subaru service center. During those hours, I hadn’t seen a single commercial plane take off or land.
This destination airport, usually a bustling little hub, had been rendered a ghost town—suddenly obsolete, abandoned like the aftermath of a sudden zombie apocalypse. And this was no anomaly. All over the country, and around the world, airports sat like relics, shells of themselves. People had stopped flying so abruptly that the silence in the sky could be deafening. What happened?
But first: How did I, a mere English professor, end up researching and writing about commercial aviation? I grew up as flight blossomed in the 1980s and ’90s; I saw it die off and distort after 9/11, then regrow and metastasize over the next nineteen years. This was all after the so-called Golden Age of flight, in the wake of deregulation, and as air travel became a staple of professional and leisure life across the globe—at least for a portion of the human population who held class status or were upwardly mobile. It’s important to remember than many people on the planet will still never board an airplane in their lives. Flying is not as ubiquitous as airline marketing paeans would have us believe.
My interest in air travel can be traced back to the years between April 2001 and August 2003, when I worked for SkyWest Airlines at the small airport outside Bozeman, Montana, then known as Gallatin Field. We operated three flights a day to Denver and back, on small, fifty-seat Canadair Regional Jets. That was the trend: smaller planes to connect more hubs and thereby connect regional airports around the country.
I was in graduate school at the time, studying American literature and environmental theory. I found myself paying attention to how the Bozeman airport occupied a strange middle zone in this place: It wasn’t yet the great outdoors of the American West . . . but it was almost there, and made overtures to these rugged ideals through art, signage, and iconography.
During those years I worked the late and early shifts at the airport to supplement my small income as a college instructor. I found the juxtaposition of the mountains and tarmac activities endlessly captivating. There was something about seeing these lumbering planes loaded and unloaded against such sublime backdrops. Storms barreled through, and sunrises and sunsets cast everything in vivid hues—baggage carts and lodgepole pines could be rendered equally pink.
I was likewise enamored with the interior spaces, social codes, and design aesthetics that composed the terminal. Where are you when you’re in an airport? Not really at your origin or destination, and not yet traveling. It’s a lull, and sometimes an uncomfortable one during a longer journey. Airports are not meant to be stayed in, or not for too long. They can get annoying or claustrophobic really fast.
Actually, if I think back further into my childhood, perhaps my interest in airports began somewhere else, sparked by a gift on my seventh birthday, in 1985: a Lego airport set, #6392. This toy airport still delights me. My son Julien and I recently rebuilt it from our old pieces, using instructions we found on the internet.
In this compact yet three-story building, all of the airport activities and technologies are distilled: There is a check-in area, a waiting lounge, a restaurant, a clock for on-time departures, a control tower, and a checked baggage scanner. It’s all there, in miniature and stripped-down form. And best of all, it’s bright yellow! The audacity of that color choice is truly remarkable, for who would have thought to imagine the mundane airport as a bright yellow structure? (Well it was the ’80s, I guess.) The exterior details of this set were also mesmerizing: from the runway lights to a windsock, from the baggage cart to a pair of marshaling wands. All these simulated details would later become real parts of my working life at the Bozeman airport, creating a small if meaningful experiential circle.
When I moved from Montana to California, in fall 2003, I began a PhD program at UC Davis, where I eventually wrote a dissertation on airports in American literature and culture. I went on to revise this project into a book called The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight. The main point of this book was that the various stages of air travel involve layers upon layers of interpretation: getting checked in, navigating security (which got especially complicated after 9/11), finding your gate, knowing where to sit (and where not to), listening to overhead announcements, watching ambient TV (or tuning it out), and so on. While we think of airports as strictly functional places with clear directions for use, it turns out that all this reading and communication makes airports rife with ambiguity. (Full disclosure: a reviewer at The New Yorker called the author of that book “a touch insane.”2)
I went on to write two more books about airports. In 2014 I wrote a book called The End of Airports, which recounts my time working at the Bozeman airport, describing what it was like to get to know the ins and outs of commercial flight—and then seeing it all change after 9/11. The second half of that book contemplates some more recent intersections between slick digital technologies (like smartphones) and the necessary analog clunkiness of air travel. By the “end” of airports I meant what airports had become, how they’d calcified into a familiar (if often contradictory) assemblage.
And a few years later I wrote a book called Airportness, which narrates a single day of flight and all the stages involved from wake-up to connecting to arriving home. In this book I experimented with a new form, really trying to plot out the time of flight as I took the reader through the day’s journey. These books were all motivated by my teaching at Loyola University New Orleans, where I offered a seminar called “Interpreting Airports.” This class became popular especially among international and exchange students, who had ample travel experience but were craving ways to think critically and imaginatively about these spaces and times. My students come from all sorts of disciplines, and I encourage them to use their own skillsets and perspectives to discuss how airports influence and affect the world around us.
Through all this writing and teaching, I became a sort of collector and anthologist of airport experiences, finding curiosities in everything from the subterranean baggage claim in my own home airport in New Orleans, to the glowing predawn gate areas of Stockholm’s Arlanda airport, to the dazzling sound and light tunnel that runs beneath the Detroit’s McNamara World Gateway.
I pay attention whenever airports are in the news—when they get disrupted, when they create space for interesting art, and when they result in unexpected events. I unconsciously track the flights each day as they pass over my Mid-City New Orleans, home, feeling the pulse of MSY eleven miles upriver. Without setting out to do this, I’ve ended up making airports a cornerstone of my career. And I’ve felt extremely lucky to be living in a town where a new airport was actively under construction; what a perfect research opportunity! My last book, Searching for the Anthropocene, ended with a series of reflections on this new terminal, as its final form came together and as the old airport faded into obsolescence. By the time I was finishing that book, I wasn’t sure how or when the transition to the new airport would actually, in reality, take place.
By fall 2019 and even into early 2020, airlines and airports were reporting record numbers of travelers, with predictions that the swell would only increase in the years to come.3 It was arguably new golden age of flight. Or, if not a golden age, exactly, perhaps a plastic age of flight: people were experiencing air travel as endlessly consumable and mass reproducible. But maybe also all too disposable.
Now it’s late 2020, and commercial flight has changed dramatically, once again. The global pandemic caused airports to empty and most planes to stop flying—and those that flew took to the air with scant passengers aboard. People are slowly returning to the sky, but air travel is still down by roughly 80 percent as I finish this book. Many planes remain grounded in swaths along desert runways and will stay there—at least for the time being.