In Transit

K. V. K. Murthy

Most people know that I’m an airline/aviation buff. As I have mentioned somewhere it probably has to do with my father having been in civil aviation, and thereby a childhood spent in the environs of airports, although all of these latter were rather small modest affairs for the most part. Some were just airfields with no flights, and disused runways, with ancient barracks for a home. In my time (how easily that phrase trips off now!) I’ve seen the legends of the piston era, and only somewhere at the tail end of my father’s career did I see the first jets: the Caravelles, the Boeing 707s. And my first 747, an Air India Jumbo parked at the end of the Meenambakkam runway in December ‘71, a spectacular target for Pakistani bombers if they had ever minded to come that way.

For a brief all but forgotten interregnum in my own life I saw (and climbed into, fiddled with, and even took apart) machines dating to just after the Big Bang: the de Havilland Tiger Moths, the Austers, the Pushpaks. If you’re wondering what I was doing with these, well, I was training to be an Aircraft Maintenance Engineer at the Madras Flying Club. Sadly, in this endeavour as in every other in my dismal life, I proved a failure.

But all this is by the way. The love of planes and their habitats however stayed with me for life.

Which is why, on the few occasions that I’ve been pitchforked abroad the principal attraction for me has always been the airports of departure, arrival and transit.

In this, the American airports are nonpareil. Whether it’s Washington’s Dulles, or Newark’s Liberty, or Chicago’s sweepingly breathtaking O’Hare, or the laughingly expansive San Francisco International with its subtly seductive intimations of eastern (western of course for itself, geographically) romance just across the Pacific pond – they are all, in one word, fun. Even Philadelphia (where the late W C Fields famously declared on the whole he’d rather be), in which I had a 4-hour lay-over between flights two months ago, was far from being the tedium I anticipated: from my vantage seat in the lounge I saw not only enough planes to thrill the most wide-eyed schoolboy, I even saw a couple of ships gliding into harbour in the distance. A bonus, that.

There is something about American airports which seems to scream aloud that wonderful phrase in the Declaration of Independence: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Airports in America are not just travel termini, points of anonymous arrival and departure: they are entertainment centres, places of infinite diversion where the most jaded soul might well feel a tremor of vital optimism.

In San Francisco my flight home was delayed and finally postponed by exactly 24 hours – a most unusual occurrence in itself, since the event and the reasons were unprecedented. But one didn’t really mind the minor inconvenience, for it gave one another opportunity to drink in the airport atmosphere when one returned from the hotel on the morrow. The passengers grumbled and muttered good-naturedly, but everyone agreed it was fun too. There were those moments of wistful longing when Japan Airlines announced departure to Tokyo, or Air China to Shanghai, or United to Guam and Honolulu – all seemingly an arm’s length away across the Golden Gate. And when we finally took off, with the Pacific surf below us and the spidery silhouette of Sutro Tower in the distance one felt the inevitable tug, accompanied by the obligatory tear or two.

Nine hours away to the east lay Frankfurt, and a very different airport altogether.

Due to the mysterious ways of airline ticketing one necessarily had to transit through Frankfurt both ways. My first impressions on the onward leg were hardly uplifting. The weather was European winter grey, and the aircraft being halted in the middle of nowhere some five miles distant from the main terminal due to unavailability of gates did nothing to induce or inject cheer. The coaches which ferried us to the terminal were elegant and comfortable, but there was an indefinable austerity about them. The buildings we passed on the way, and the alleys (there is no other way to describe them) we went through seemed to belong to some bleak East German landscape out of le Carré – except that this wasn’t East Germany. Checkpoint Charlie might have been just round the corner; the watchtowers, searchlights and Vopos just swinging into view. One wondered what Lübeck would have been like. The inside of the terminal, and the nearly two-mile walk to the Z Concourse for my United Airlines flight to Washington DC merely reinforced the gloom.

Two hours later it was a relief to see the south coast of England slip by beneath, and some twenty minutes later Ireland to which I raised a mock toast in honour of my illustrious namesake.

But here I was, in Frankfurt again, with little to distinguish it from a month before. The tea I purchased at the café (Darjeeling, but it could have been Chinese Jasmine or Tibetan brick for all its taste, or lack thereof) failed signally to live up to its proverbial cheer.

Being a smoker I discovered the only smoking ‘lounge’ (hole would describe it better) to be most conveniently located two kilometers away and two levels down. Overall there prevailed an air of – well, Germanic no-nonsense. The few concessions to ‘fun’ or entertainment or relaxation were carefully calibrated and measured – the Duty Free Shop reprised le Carré again in the person of its saleswomen, who would have done credit to a female commissar of an East German Praesidium in a Cold War trial.

But I know I’m being harsh. I believe German airports are an expression (and extension) of the German character, as American airports are of the American. The Teutonic severity, the austere unrelieved geometries of architecture, the economy of light (not for nothing did Goethe cry “Mehr licht! Mehr licht!” on his deathbed) are no more deliberate than the weather itself. Their airports, like their philosophy (and everything else) are informed by an almost genetic Hegelian rigour which admits neither compromise nor amelioration.

I do not think I would chose to fly through Frankfurt again.

There were two other airports some two decades ago. Singapore’s Changi in ’92, whose impressions were a smörgåsbord of sarong kebayas (or more accurately, the contents thereof) and a World War II historian’s inevitable memory of Changi POW prison camp.

And Paro airport in Bhutan in ’94 – probably the only airport in the world where the pilot’s decision to land or not is determined by the visibility of the runway and the presence or otherwise of crosswinds.

That was Shangri-la itself.


(c. 2013)