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Why Do We Make Our Airports Look Like Refugee Camps?

Why is this acceptable?

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia- I sometimes meet refugees in airports. Real ones, like Hasan, who spent nearly a year trapped in the interzone of Moscow Sheremetyevo. I have to admit, these refugees are sometimes a little hard to spot in airports in the early morning hours, as they often look like everybody else.

I find it amusingly onerous when the designers of social spaces, technologies, urban areas … create things along the lines of how they want people to use them or behave rather than how they really do.

Airports are often some of the worst offenders. They are often designed with idealistic visions of how the relevant authorities and designers envision passengers using the space — walking rapidly through the check in, security, and right up to their gate and getting on their flight with a smile on their face — rather than what actually happens, when the stark confluence between idealism and reality crash head on.

Social engineering tends to have an amusing way of backfiring.

It’s a fact: passengers often find themselves stuck in airports overnight.

It’s a fact: people get tired at night.

It’s a fact: people are going to sleep in airports.

But rather than acknowledging these facts and setting up facilities to meet real life user demands and giving people comfortable and respectable places to sleep, airports often do the opposite: purposely create mechanisms which make it as difficult and uncomfortable as possible to sleep.

Clearly, it doesn’t work:

So rather than providing smooth, soft benches, they install seating that’s made of hard plastic that has deep inverted butt divots and metal arm rests. Rather than having a few open areas with soft flooring everything is hard tiled and open areas are blocked off, packed with some moron’s sculptures, plants, or advertisements. Rather than have massive overnight layover lounges, they just ignore the fact that people are sprawled out all over the floor.

Passengers — many of whom paid a relatively large amount of money for the privilege of flying — are thus reduced to eyesores as they contort themselves around furniture purposefully designed to be uncomfortable and stretch out over footpaths, getting in everybody else’s way. These are generally not the type of people who are prone to laying around on the floor of public spaces, but, in the sphere of air travel, all self-respect is usurped by biological necessity.

Why has this become normal?

The airport in Kuala Lumpur could be really nice. But at 2AM the hallways are full of passed out air travelers. Grown men and women are huddled up in corners and under staircases, rendering a state of the art transport hub into a temporary Skid Row. They are cumbersome to step around. They look miserable.

I took my kids to the play area in the airport, but they couldn’t use  any of the stuff set up for them there, as there were people sleeping all over it. I couldn’t blame them though — the plastic children’s play apparatuses seemed to be the most comfortable looking things to lay on.

Well, at least they haven’t started charging people to sleep on the floor in accordance with their weight … yet.


Filed under: Air Travel, Airports, Malaysia

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3691 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Trenton, Maine

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