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Book Review: A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary by Alain de Botton

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If you’ve ever imagined where the airport departures timetable might take you, Alain de Botton shares your travel lust. The author was fortunate to receive an assignment to set up a desk at the new Terminal 5 at London’s Heathrow Airport for a week, and write about his observations. It is our good fortune to observe his week, and enjoy the unprecedented access he shares with us in A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary.

His assignment as Writer in Residence gave him full privileges to wander the airport, night and day, and he doesn’t miss a thing from security, loneliness, behind-the-scenes workers, and mechanical marvels. de Botton writes with a conversational tone as though he is thinking aloud, as in his other books, and he invites us in to look into the lives of travelers.

How any author could write so clearly, in full view of passengers traveling between Heathrow’s Terminals 4 and new Terminal 5 is intriguing, While reading, we are swayed by this man who enjoys airports so much that, were he traveling, he wouldn’t mind hearing a flight was delayed while they fix a hydraulic leak.

A Week at the Airport is a delightful exploration of the airport as a “non-place” where time means nothing, unless you’re a minute late. We witness painful goodbyes to young lovers and the routine of short-haul business trips in and out of London.

The depth of de Botton’s writing is best exemplified by his analysis of human nature, and the difference between the expectations and realities of travel, in which we are still with ourselves. Despite the massive technology systems, construction of terminals and runways that carry wide-bodied aircraft, there are subjective psychological knots that undermine their use.

How quickly all the advantages of technological civilization are wiped out by a domestic squabble. At the beginning of human history, as we struggled to light fires and to chisel fallen trees into rudimentary canoes, who could have predicted that long after we had managed to send men to the moon and aeorplanes to Australasia, we would still have such trouble knowing how to tolerate ourselves, forgive our loved ones and apologise for our tantrums?

With his full access, de Botton seemed to most enjoy interviewing airport employees and visiting back corners, where he found a multi-faith room holding an assortment of furniture and a shelf of sacred texts. Despite the remote possibility of a catastrophic event, since we are long past the days when aircraft routinely fell out of the sky, “it is not unreasonable to take a few moments before a journey to fall to our knees and pray to the mysterious forces of fate to which all aircraft remain subject.”

In chatting with a person paid to shine shoes, de Botton understood the man’s real mission was psychological. He understood why people rarely have their shoes polished, yet do so “when they want to draw a line under the past, when they hope that an outer transformation may be a spur to an inner one.”

With simple yet powerful writing, A Week at the Airport teaches us to appreciate the enormous efforts involved in our on-board meals. A mile from the terminal, in a windowless refrigerated factory, eighty thousand meals, to be ingested somewhere in the troposphere were being made; “foods that mingled freely together, like passengers in the terminal, so that a tray with a thousand plates of Dubai-bound hummus might be lined up next to four trolleys of SAS gravadlax, ready to fly toward Stockholm.”

After absorbing this insightful look at A Week in the Airport, like most travelers, we would soon start to forget our journey with de Botton, until the next time we have the privilege to pack a bag and return to the airport. And, with great anticipation, we await Alain de Botton’s next book, wherever the world takes him.

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About Helen Gallagher