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Airport Walkabouts   August 3, 2005

We've all had the experience of a long layover in an airport--not long enough for a quick jaunt into the city, but too long for comfort. One fruitful way to pass the time is an airport walkabout-- that is, a walking tour of the airport. The benefits are many: some exercise before a long sitting spell in a pressurized metal tube (a.k.a. an airliner), a bit of fascinating people-watching, and the chance to observe the busy scurry of a transport hub.

Although hardly a world-traveler, I've found that some airports lend themselves to an interesting walk more than others. Here is a short list of airports I've wandered about:
  • Don Muang Airport/Bangkok, Thailand. Not much to see on the International side, but a long if somewhat drab walkway between the domestic and international terminals allows enough distance to log a good half-hour walk.
  • Charles De Gaulle Airport/Paris, France. While it's always fun to ride the escalators through the angled maze of plexiglas tubes, there's no good pathway for a leisurely walk. You can circle the main building, but that requires pushing through hordes of harried travelers. A dank tunnel connects the international gates with the terminal, but it has a fluorescent-bathed, dreary air. Better to admit defeat and slump into a hard plastic chair with Paris Match or the International Herald-Tribune. I've spent a lot of time here, sadly.
  • Honolulu International Airport/ Honolulu, Hawaii. This is one of the best walking airports for several reasons. First, the balmy weather enables you to walk outside on the gate wings; second, there are three tropical garden oases embedded in the complex, and third, there is plenty of walking distance between the inter-island terminal and the international gates, so it's easy to burn off an entire hour walking. I typically get a several-hour layover here a few times a year, and I never tire of the gardens or the people-watching. There are also plenty of shops to distract you along the way.
  • San Francisco Airport/San Francisco, California. Naturally I spend a lot of time in my regional airport. The recently completed International Terminal is a real gem, providing a spacious, naturally lit expanse for easy walking. Anchored at each end by a food court, the terminal provides some distractions as well. If you're stuck in the domestic terminal, walk up to the International terminal to spend your layover. The gates aren't bad, either, as each wing has some artwork scattered about and various eateries.
  • Narita International Airport/Tokyo, Japan I've been here a lot, too, as many flights to other parts of Asia connect here. It's a mixed bag; out by the gates, there's enough room to meander and enough shops to provide some browsing potential--or an opportunity to spend your last yen. But the waiting area downstairs, supposedly the meeting place for friends, is a poorly lit, institutional affair filled with exhausted students slumping in chairs. Kind of an interesting second-world feeling as opposed to the glitzy first-world look of the gate areas.
  • O'Hare International Airport/Chicago, Illinois. A couple of stopovers, numerous walking opportunities, along with multiple chances to get lost. Plenty of shops and big windows to view the action on the tarmac. I reckone everyone must have had a layover here at some point...
  • Heathrow International Airport/London, England I was too jet-lagged to recall how we got there, but there is a pleasant, high-windowed expanse of tony restaurants and shops, long enough to stretch your legs and appealing enough to lighten your wallet.
  • Los Angeles International Airport/Los Angeles, California The security is a real hassle getting to the airport from a parked car, but once inside the people-watching is excellent (this is la-la land, after all) and there's plenty of room to roam.
  • Dulles International Airport/Washington D.C. Once you get past the inevitable stench of JP-4 jet fuel during your tram ride out to the gates, things improve. The gate wing is long enough to be useful as a walkway, and there are plenty of bookstores, shops and eateries to provide amusement.
  • In the "can't recall enough to be useful" category: Seoul International Airport, McCarran /Las Vegas Airport, Vancouver BC Airport.

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    copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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