Alain de Botton, A Week at the Airport


This is a nice little book, barely over 100 pages, in which the author reflects on the experience of spending a week at Heathrow Airport. The book is structured in four parts (approach, departures, airside, arrivals), which correspond to the broad line of a typical return-trip client experience, except that the author does not take a trip. The book is filled with colour pictures of various locations within the airport as well as of people, either travellers or workers that can be met in this setting. Some are of typical airport sights (an airplane at a gate) but others capture intimate moments or humorous reactions. One of my favorites is a picture of a taxi driver waiting for an arriving passenger who half hides his face behind his A4 sign when the photo is taken.

The author was invited to be writer in residence for a week at the airport. When he received the phone call, he thought:

It seemed astonishing and touching that in our distracted age. Literature could have retained sufficient prestige to inspire a multinational enterprise, otherwise focused on the management of landing fees and effluents, to underwrite a venture invested with such elevated artistic ambitions. Nevertheless, as the man from the airport company put it to me over the telephone, with a lyricism as vague as it was beguiling, there were still many aspects of the world that perhaps only writers could be counted on to find the right words to express.

Of course, writers can offer an interesting outlook on reality, but this book failed in two ways to provide that fully. First, it describes the setting and some of the people encountered in it and the author does provide us with some of the things he imagined while observing what was happening around him. However, this is told with an attitude that, to me, sounds detached rather than immersed in the moment. This little connection to the world of impressions that must have surrounded him: sounds, smells, textures, etc. He seems to have encountered a disembodied version of Heathrow and its cast of characters.

Second, if it is to present reality, it should present more of the data available. Maybe I am expecting too much… I would have been more satisfied with something resembling “thick description”, done with the rigour of the well-trained cultural anthropologist.

I guess that, in a nutshell, I found the book too superficial. That may be due to the fact that I am currently working at an airport… Fully immersed in that world five days a week.

I also have another book from this author, The Art of Travel. Maybe this one will give me a better idea of what he can do.



De Botton, Alain. A Week at the Airport. Emblem/McClelland & Steward, Toronto, 2010.

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