Would you willingly spend your days stuck at the airport?
Dr. Damian O’Doherty did. For a year. I tracked him down for my “At the Airport” column on USATODAY.com. Here’s the story.
Dr. Damian O’Doherty has promised his wife that by June 30th, he’ll stop hanging around Manchester Airport.
The facility, which bills itself as “The big friendly airport in the North of England,” has undergone $135 million in improvements since 2007 and offers free Wi-Fi, a children’s play area, a tour-able Concorde in an aviation park overlooking the runways, and a day lounge with a giant track for playing the popular Scalextric car racing game.
Those amenities are appealing, but it’s the more mundane aspects of the airport that attract O’Doherty.
The 43-year old professor teaches organization analysis at the University of Manchester and, armed with a research grant, he’s spent this past year embedded at Manchester airport. His goal: to study the everyday habits of airport workers and passengers and the impact of the airport environment on staff and travelers.
“I wanted to take the idea of an ethnographic study from the traditions of anthropology and deploy this as an experiment to study airport ‘natives’ and their culture,” says O’Doherty, who lives 30 minutes from the airport rides his bike there and back.
For inspiration O’Doherty says he looked to the Chicago School of sociological ethnography, pioneered in the 1920s and 1930s, “in which scholars would inhabit street corners, taxi-dance halls, gangs and ghettos in ways that would challenge our assumptions about the society we take for granted.”
O’Doherty says his wife, an anthropologist, was both supportive of his project “and relieved that I was not going off to Siberia or the New York underground system – both popular sites for contemporary ethnographic study.”
Still, O’Doherty’s year-long study did pose some dangers. Although he insists he hasn’t “gone native” – a common concern with those embarking on anthropological studies – his daughter’s first word was “airport” and he has extended his project year by a few months. And while he has returned to his post and his students at the university, O’Doherty is still spending two or three days a week at the airport.
Borders and boundaries
Via email and a long Skype conversation that took him away from reading a bedtime story to his young daughter, O’Doherty shared some of the details of his year at the airport.
“It is the questions of borders and border-crossing that really interests me,” said O’Doherty. “Airports occupy and define a whole series of borders. Not simply the borders of a nation state but also borders between the terrestrial and extra-terrestrial. They are where land turns into sky, and man’s dream of flight finds realization.”
At ground level, O’Doherty said he wanted to see how an airport was constructed and managed, “who was pulling the strings behind the scenes, installing the security cameras,” and making the decisions. “I wanted the back stories,” said O’Doherty, “So I ended up working in an office with a team of construction project managers for whom the airport is a building site.”
Arriving with an academic background, O’Doherty knew little about construction or project management before starting his study of the airport. But because he was strictly observing the protocols of ethnographic research, he decided he had to acquire professional qualification as a project manager. So in addition to spending many evenings in the terminal building, “sometimes becoming confused whether it was day or night,” O’Doherty also spent time studying for the exams in project management, which he did pass.
O’Doherty found that the airport experience not only warped time but, at times, space. “As you get to travel behind the scenes, stepping out of the public concourse and into a ‘staff only’ area can be a little like that experience that Alice had when she stepped into her rabbit hole!” said O’Doherty. And while he agrees with that saying about an airport being the front door to a city, his observations have led him to consider an airport a city’s back door as well.
Life at the airport
During his year at the airport, O’Doherty made note of daily timetables, seasonal rhythms and patterns, and the wide variety of operational and maintenance procedures. He also observed the push and pull of passenger movements through the terminals, an experience he discovered is a closely studied and often highly managed sequence of routines.
O’Doherty spent time with the airport chaplains, who described themselves as “the conscience of the airport,” as they tried to aid distressed and emotional passengers. And he got to know Olly, a stray cat adopted, and now extremely pampered, by the airport administration. “It always struck me as slightly odd that when I would walk to the office of the senior management sitting outside would be a rather rotund, elderly, ginger cat,” said O’Doherty.
Now, as June 30th approaches, O’Doherty is getting ready to leave the airport routine and begin the task of turning thousands of pages of notes into a book. So far, he says can’t really generalize about air travelers and their behavior, but that “passengers do share a strange paradoxical condition of imprisonment and liberation.”
For its part, the staff at the Manchester Airport is anxiously awaiting O’Doherty’s findings.
“He managed to be here through all sorts of experiences, such as the inaugural Emirates A380 flight last year and our battles with ash clouds and snow,” notes John Greenway of the Manchester Airports Group. “So he’s really seen all sides of the airport and the nature of working in the aviation industry.”
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