#22 – Airports are for planes. People hardly matter.

Most adults in the Greater Toronto Area, at one time or another, have been to Lester B. Pearson International Airport. The old joke about that place is that it might just work if they ever finish building it. Since it never will be finished in that sense, it is also never going to work for people.

There was a time in my life when I was a heavy user of airlines. I experienced the strengths and weaknesses of airports in many parts of the world. It was an education. My favourite remains Paris’ Charles de Gaulle for its French architectural pomposity and my least favourite London’s Heathrow for its cold deteriorating English stoicism. For airports that take you as long to drive to as most flights take, it is hard to beat the 40 kilometre (25 mile) drive to Stockholm-Arlanda Airport or the impositions on the unwary traveler on the 60 kilometre (35 mile) trek to Tokyo’s Narita. Definitely not worth the trip is any major airport in or out of the New York area which includes John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia or Newark Liberty. Americans obviously do not like to encourage people to fly. They build nicer public washrooms than those facilities.

But this is about Lester B. Pearson International Airport. If one is going to be critical, one should always start at home. A frustrated London bobby explained it to me very simply one time at London’s Heathrow. I had arrived there early one morning on an overnight, very full, Air Canada 747 along with another full 747 from Montreal along with two more Air India 747s from Bombay (now called Mumbai). It made for a depressingly long queue of very tired people at the sole open gate for citizens of the Commonwealth. I explained to the bobby, who seemed to be there to teach us how to form a proper British queue, that I would willingly forgo my allegiance to the Queen—on a temporary basis, of course—so as to go through the gate for American citizens that seemed to be unused at the moment.

Besides being outraged at my frivolous disloyalty to Her Majesty, the bobby detected my implied criticism of how Brits run their airport and in a damn colonial accent yet.. He had obviously been born within the sound of the bells, as in a cockney accent he raged, “Oi’ an’ yers do things so bloody smart in yers country, do yer?”

That bobby might not have been armed but he was carrying a very large and very hard baton and he looked like he knew how to use it. I promised myself then and there that I would be sure that Lester B. Pearson International Airport was perfect before again voicing a public critique of anyone else’s airport.

The problem with airports is obviously an international problem. Each country and city wants to outdo all other cities and other countries with the architectural grandeur of their latest airport. Often, the authorities have competitions to see which of the various avant-guarde architects available to them is going to design something that will capture the essence of their glorious country, or city. When given their instructions, these architects are told that planes are protected by their wing span and height requirements, but people are considered much more flexible.

And that is why at Pearson, people are herded from pen to pen as cattle on the way to becoming hamburgers. It is why passengers are expected to climb mountains of stairs as the escalators never work as the architect expected. You walk vast distances weighted down with luggage where the architect made no provision for signs or logical direction. It starts even when you park your car. You know the odds are 90 to 1 that you have parked at the end of the terminal furthest from the gate from where you are departing or meeting someone who is arriving.

Once they had built the new terminal three at Pearson, they staffed it with the absolutely minimum number of the most bored, uninterested people they could find. If confronted by a traveller speaking a language they do not understand, they go down the list of cleaners who speak that language–none of whom are on duty. And, have you ever noticed that at any time, day or night, half the restaurants and bars and public washrooms will be closed (hopefully not by the Mississauga Board of Health).

There is more wrong but if you are one of the abused who use it, you will have your own view of the inadequacies. All I do now is act very respectful of other people’s airports. Nobody is perfect.

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