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In Defense of Airport Bars

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Even in a room filled with polar opposites (paleo diehards and vegans, cilantro lovers and cilantro-tastes-like-soap people) nothing quells potentially disastrous party centrifuge quite like dropping one magical, unifying proclamation: Air travel is, more often than not, the pits.



Seriously. The next time it seems like people might come to blows over something like whether or not turkey burgers are actually burgers, drop this nugget into this conversation and watch any defensive posturing melt away. A man will share the time an oxygen mask repeatedly fell on him during a flight. A woman will recount how she has not once, but three times, spent the night on the floor of the Orlando airport. And before you know it, the conversation’s ended in hugs and back slaps.



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Photo by Mark Weinberg

As a fairly seasoned flier of the quasi-friendly skies, I too have had my fair share of cringe-worthy travel moments. I’m currently on a flight to Frankfurt and, as I type, my balding, middle-aged seat mate is watching The Sandlot and reading the subtitles out loud in German. Verdammt. 



Through all this, though, one of the most deeply maligned part of skyways transit has somehow morphed into one of my most enjoyable pleasures: drinking cocktails at airport bars.

 For better or worse, drinking while either waiting to fly or flying is a subcategory of imbibing that’s rarely celebrated, and more often than not, excoriated. Especially for people who spend their time in culinary-adjacent worlds, from a technical (and pride) standpoint, there’s precious little to recommend about the Tequila Sunrise at a TGI Friday’s in Dallas or the little treacly bottles of red wine served on a flight from Scranton. It is, more often than not, seen as the lowest of low: a means to an end for drinkers and a way to grease the wheels of getting from Point A to Point B.



Photo by James Ransom

I’d like to believe that this attitude—while understandable—doesn’t quite see the bigger picture when it comes to air travel tippling. What airport bars lack in panache they make up for in being a veritable petri dish of fascinating human idiosyncrasy, providing some of the best, highly-concentrated people watching around. 

For the uninitiated, it’s easy to assume that saddling up to an airport bar is a quick ticket to the doldrums, and a reminder (as you sip an overpriced mojito next to a slump-shouldered accountant from Tucson) that you’re alone in an ever-changing crowd. Au contraire. The waltzing of oddball patrons in and out of your run-of-the-mill airport bar is enough to make everyone into an amateur anthropologist: 



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Look, over there! Ladies in matching Dollywood shirts are splitting a frozen white Russian and arguing about Miranda Lambert.

And what do we have here? Ah, yes, the classic case of the balding business traveler fidgeting with his wedding ring while making eyes at a stewardess across the bar.



Do enough airport bar fieldwork and, like a boozy Rorschach test, pretty soon you’ll be able to tell a lot about a person’s personality from their order alone, whether they’re sipping a gin and tonic in the mid-afternoon or downing a parrot-colored tequila drink. If nothing else, it’s fairly cheap entertainment in a place that (let’s face it) you’re pretty much stuck already.

Photo by James Ransom



Airport bars are also the ultimate place to sip on “naughty” drinks—the kind of cocktails that aren’t quite fit to order when out on the town with friends. Harbor a secret love for a Sex on the Beach but haven’t had one since ’95? Let ‘er fly inside the Houston airport! Amaretto sours are your thing? Relish the drink like nobody’s watching—because they’re not. This is the ideal time to grab the most sugar-laced, boozed-up concoction you can find and enjoy the hell out of it. 



Of course, there are diehards who skew to the other side of the spectrum. I know bartenders who board planes with a tool belt of dollhouse-sized garnishes and tiny booze bottles; people who would never be caught dead in an airport bar. At the drop of a tray table, they’re stirring up Cuba Libres mid-flight, often sharing photos of their 30,000 feet creations with one another on Facebook. Showmanship, it seems, knows no altitude. 



Photo by Gabriella Mangino

That level of fuss has never appealed to me. Nostalgia likes to intimate there was a time when air travel was downright sexy like that, and airplanes were a place where people arrived well-coifed and ready to see and be seen.



I’ve never really known that world, and likely never will.



For those of us who loped into adulthood in the wake of 9/11, it’s hard to remember when there wasn’t a low-grade rumble of anxiety in every airport. Today, if you make it through security intact, it seems only fair to be able to drink whatever you want—the squirrelier, the better. If I had my way, TSA would hand out juleps with high-fives as soon as people made it through the body scanner.



Most important is that even at their most hectic, airport bars still seem to conjure up a peculiar level of calm. There’s something almost zen-like about their ebb and flow, the most transient third-place imaginable. No one is coming to stay, and no one is staying too long—a constant churning of people from all different walks of life. Not to get too heady about it, but these spots feel almost like an alternate-universe embodiment of the Japanese concept Ichi-go ichi-e. 



Loosely translated as “for this time only” and primarily used when discussing tea ceremonies, Ichi-go ichi-e serves as a reminder to treasure moments as they happen, because there’s no guarantee that people will ever connect again. 



Photo by Emily Vikre

Sure, this happens in regular watering holes, too, but by their very design, it seems like a more accurate philosophy for airport bars. No permutation of airport bar patrons will ever be the same, so the happenstance conversations and observations that occur each time you enter are truly once-in-a-lifetime. For me, this strange revolving door, this impertinence over luggage and Mai Tais, bring comfort to the space. We, the airport bar sitters, are simply pit-stopping on our way to somewhere else and trying to make the most of it.



Most of these conversations, of course, will drift in and out on the wings of the jets. At some point, if you do it long enough, you’ll have a few that knock you quietly breathless. 

For me, there’s the Cincinnati girl who was thinking about leaving her boyfriend, a man encouraging her to quit a beloved grad school program and who didn’t approve of the fact she liked beer. (I told her to ditch the dude and order the world’s biggest lager.) There’s the ex-Marine I met in Charles De Gaulle while drinking a Dark ‘n Stormy, who said he had a metal spine, who told me how he made wine in Fallujah by burying grain alcohol in the sand. When he showed me his e-mail signature it read, “Every time you train, train with the motivation and purpose that you will be the hardest person someone ever tries to kill.” His sadness was palpable.



Photo by James Ransom

And there are others. Sometimes I wake up think about them, the kind of 3 A.M. worrying that feels both wistful and pointless. I hope, in their own ways, they’re all okay. 

At airport bars, we’re really nowhere in particular, nobody in particular. Maybe, that leaves us open to being just a little bit more ourselves for a moment, alone and together, amongst the arrivals and departures.

Ever found yourself caught up in a conversation at an airport bar? Tell us in the comments below!

Tags: airplanes, travel, airports, cocktails, alcohol, essays