Stuck at the Airport

Stuck at the airport – for a year!

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 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.”

Tidbit for travelers: MREs and more at Reno Airport

If you’re at an airport when disaster strikes, would you go hungry?

Not, apparently, at Reno-Tahoe International Airport.

According to the airport’s newsletter, there are always MREs (meals ready to eat) in storage in case there’s an emergency and people are stuck at the airport.

Happily, no recent emergencies warranted opening those packages, so as the expiration date on 1400 of the ration packages neared, the airport decided to donate the meals to the local food pantry.

MREs form Reno Airport

MREs from Reno Airport on their way to the food pantry


Don’t worry: the airport has ordered a fresh batch of MREs to put back in storage in case there’s an emergency in the future.

If you’re stuck at Reno-Tahoe International Airport when it’s not an all-out emergency, there’s still plenty to do. In addition to slot machines, art exhibits, pubs, free local calls and free WiFi, passengers who show a same-day boarding pass can squeeze in some free skiing or snowboarding at nearby Squaw Valley USA.

Souvenir Sunday: showers and sundries at SFO

Every Sunday here at is Souvenir Sunday: a day to unpack our carry-on and take a look at some of the fun, inexpensive goodies you can find for sale at airports.

This week’s souvenirs come from San Francisco International Airport, which is getting to ready to open the new and very much improved Terminal 2 to the flying public.  They will be a grand opening celebration for T2 on April 9th (anyone can go, but you’ll need to sign up for a free ticket). Virgin America and American Airlines begin using the terminal for regular flights on April 14th.

I’ve already posted a sneak preview of the terminal. See SFO T2 sneak peek -Part 1 and SFO T2 sneak peek part 2 – and check back later for more.

When I visited the new T2, the shops were not yet open, so I wandered over to the SFO International Terminal to see what I could find.  Sadly, the Sephora store is gone, but Freshen Up! is still there.

SFO showers

Located right next door to the Airport Travel Agency (on the Departures/Ticketing Level of the International Terminal, near the entrance to Gates G91-G102) and open daily from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., this no-frills spot offers shower rooms, massage chairs, a place to iron your clothes and a wide variety of travel-sized items at surprisingly reasonable prices. 

SFO Freshen Up sundries

In addition to things like toothpaste, diapers, shaving cream and other sundries they also stock underwear, socks, shirts, pantyhose and other items travelers might find useful when they’re stuck at the airport on a long layover or while waiting for that delayed flight.

SFO FRESHEN UP -underwear for sale

A 20 minute shower at Freshen Up! will cost you $11. A 30-minute “deluxe” shower is $15 and includes shampoo, lotion, shower shoes a towel and nice soap. Store your bags at the travel agency next door and they’ll give you a coupon good for an upgrade from the standard to the deluxe shower.

Now that you’re clean – go shopping!

And if you see a great airport souvenir that’s inexpensive, ‘of’ the city or region and, ideally, a bit offbeat, please snap a photo and send it along. If your souvenir is featured on Souvenir Sunday, I’ll send you a special travel souvenir.

Resources for travelers affected by Japan earthquake

Here are some links and resources that might be useful as you try to figure out travel plans affected by the earthquake in Japan.

US State Department: travel advisory, links for resources, assistance and updates.

Tokyo Narita Airport

Haneda Airport (Tokyo International Airport)

Google’s Japan Person Finder

Google’s Crisis Response page – good round-up of resources.

Most airlines are canceling flights and offering flight waivers to/from Japan, so check your airline website for updates.


American Airlines

British Airways



Hawaiian Airlines

Japan Airlines


Thai Airways

Singapore Airlines

United Airlines

Blizzard 2010: tools and tips for those stuck at the airport


With an east coast blizzard underway on Sunday evening, trains, buses, cars and airplanes were at a standstill and several airports in the New York region closed down entirely.

The cancellation of thousands of flights to and from the east coast means major disruption elsewhere as well, so traveling anywhere on Monday and Tuesday – and no doubt later in the week – will be no picnic.

For those of you stuck at an airport or trying to figure out how to avoid ending up that way, here are some tools and tips that may be useful.

*Take the waiver. If you’re scheduled to fly in the next few days and your flight hasn’t already been canceled, chances are your airline is offering to let you change flight plans without a change fee. Do it. When planes do start flying, you’ll have a reserved seat while travelers from all these canceled flights will be working their way up standby lists.

*Make sure you’re signed up to receive all the Twitter, Facebook, email and text alerts being sent out by airlines and airports on your itinerary. In many cases that information is more up-to-date than the information available inside the airport.

*Bookmark airport websites, download airport and airline apps (i.e. GateGuru, and the airport guides I created for USA TODAY. In this case, information will definitely be power – or at least useful in helping you keep up-to- date and knowledgeable about your surroundings.

(Finding a power outlet and keeping your cell phone or laptop charged while you’re hanging out at the airport might be a challenge – so ask someone to do this for you at home as well.)

*Make sure you have supplies: if you’re going to the airport, be sure to bring snacks, books and other items to keep you entertained, a charged cell-phone, a change of clothing, something you can sit on (and perhaps sleep on) and a bucket of good humor and patience. A lot of this is going to be out of everyone’s control.