Article by Greg Lindsay
Advertising Age  |  September 2005

A Marketing Reporter’s Journey Into Airworld III

A three-week daily series.

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And Preparing to Meet the Real ‘Terminal Man’
September 27, 2005

PARIS—I wanted to prove on this trip that Airworld is a closed system—that it’s possible to circulate through it endlessly, just like the germ-laden air that circulates through the airplanes and airports that is Airworld. We like to think that airports are connected to the cities they serve, but in reality, Airworld faces inward, increasingly connecting airports only to each other, and to the ecosystem of brands flourishing there.

Airports are “non-places,” a nice bit of academic jargon that describes their ultimate interchangeability. This is what makes them so hospitable to brands. As far as passengers are concerned, airports have neither a real past nor a future, just a continual present that reliably offers a consistent set of choices—flight schedules, duty free, fast food—day after day after day. Airworld is, in a sense, a single, giant franchised operation.

Of course, airports’ human operators don’t like to see things this way. As the employees of local or regional governments (whether that be the city of Denver, or the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey, or BAA, Heathrow’s parent), their duty is to keep the airport firmly tethered to home. It’s when an airport is about to achieve critical mass and escape –- to become what Rem Koolhaas has dubbed the “Generic City” –- that local establishments imported from the neighboring city begin to appear. They might be locally famous cantinas, museums, German beer halls and dives, not to mention the boutiques selling Native American jewelry and offerings by local artisans. Koolhaas likened these attempts at anchoring the airport to “a drastic perfume demonstration—photomurals, vegetation, local costumes give a first concentrated blast of the local identity (sometimes it is also the last).”

As in any good branding exercise, the city’s attributes are boiled down to an essence that’s memorable, portable and can be consumed before the final boarding call. Detroit’s mall-like expanses include outlets of the Henry Ford Museum, the GM Experience, a store selling Motown Records nostalgia and enough University of Michigan and Michigan State clothing to outfit alumni for a lifetime. Here in Paris Charles de Gaulle, there is a branch of the famous Parisian restaurant Maxim’s, and if I were to have dinner there tonight, would I be able to say “I have dined at Maxim’s”?

An integral part of the structure at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, the Sheraton is a building shaped like a cruise ship. That, in a nutshell, is the paradox of visiting Charles de Gaulle but not Paris. Is anything I’m consuming here –- the brie-on-baguette sandwiches, the Bordeaux at the bistros –- authentically “French”?

Even the most unique outpost is transformed, sooner or later, into a reliably franchised brand. While in Denver, I met the manager of a store named Colorado West. It sold the aforementioned Navajo jewelry alongside fringed jackets and vaguely Southwestern art objects. “We’re passengers’ last shot to buy a piece of Colorado after they’ve come down from the mountains and before they leave,” he said. But Colorado West is just one link in the chain of airport retail assembled by Minneapolis-based CBR, which owns similar outpost concessions there, in Chicago, Cincinnati and New Jersey (the latter are simply called Jersey). While visiting Dallas-Ft. Worth’s new international Terminal D this summer, I spoke to the owner of La Duni, a local institution that had chosen to open its second branch here in the airport. “It’s the perfect opportunity to experiment with a more fast-casual concept,” he told me. “It’s a chance to expose our brand of food to an entirely new audience.”

But sometimes the real world does bleed into Airworld in organic, unintended ways. The hotels on the outskirts of Airworld all begin to blend together (some would say this is their charm), but there is a distinctly different character to the few hotels connected to the airports themselves. They are extensions of the terminal itself –- an air pocket perfect for sales meetings or board meetings or taking depositions, a neutral site adjacent to everyone and absent of distractions. At the Westin Detroit Metropolitan Airport, which has its own dedicated security gate to and from the terminal (and where I was a guest at a drastically reduced rate), I wasn’t surprised to see that Home Depot would be occupying the conference facilities in force the next Monday, but I was amused to find a Muslim wedding banquet in progress when I arrived. Women in ceremonial dress in streamed through the lobby, past the plasma departure information screens and the boarding pass printers, down into the ballroom.

On other occasions, I was told, couples have chosen to say their vows in the hotel’s atrium before adjourning to the basement, performing the ceremony before a copse of bamboo trees after the bride had made her entrance by riding the clear glass elevators down to the lobby in full view of the guests. It wasn’t that they were keen to be married at the airport (the Westin is the first luxury hotel to open in Detroit in years), but I wonder if the roar of takeoffs rattling through the ducts has ever disturbed anyone’s “I dos.” Just married in Airworld –- why not?

I spent this past Sunday at my desk in the Sheraton Charles de Gaulle (where I was the hotel’s guest), writing and watching the ebb and flow of Air France 747s to and from the gates. Like the Westin, the hotel is an extension of Airworld, not an escape from it. It’s an essential piece of the infrastructure -– resting atop the train station that leads to Paris, and its oval-shaped mirrors the elliptical terminals on either side of it. It was designed by Charles de Gaulle’s master planner, the architect Paul Andreu. One of the definitions of a “non-place” is transience -– no one really belongs to the airport –- but as I watched the sun move across the sky on Sunday and listened to the dull rumble of takeoffs through the double-paned glass, at least for one afternoon Airworld felt like home.

Two weeks into my stay here (in Airworld, not the hotel), I have lost seven pounds (five of them water, I’m convinced), gained a persistent cough and switched from a diet of turkey sandwiches to a diet of brie. And I have a confession to make about why I’m here in Paris. It isn’t to visit outdoor media giant JCDecaux on its home turf. It’s to find him –- Mehran Karimi Nasseri, a.k.a Sir Alfred, a.k.a The Terminal Man, who’s been living here for 17 years.

Before I left, whenever I described my airport project—that I would eat, read and even sleep in the terminals –- the person’s response was always along the lines of “Oh, you’ll be just like that guy in The Terminal,” as if three weeks of sleeping on concrete (and, more often than not, in hotels) could compare to the good chunk of his lifetime spent on a red bench in the basement of Charles de Gaulle. If we are all subconsciously aware that airports are “non-places” not meant for human habitation, then he was the exception that commanded our attention. I had to meet him. And I knew where to find him.

My first night at the airport, I caught a shuttle bus to the concrete doughnut of Terminal 1, which sits more than a mile away from the more modern Terminal(s) 2. His red bench, salvaged from one of the terminal’s defunct restaurants, was easy enough to spot, as it was covered with more than a decade’s worth of FedEx boxes, McDonald’s paper cups, and salvaged luggage. He was reclining on that bench when I approached, as if perched on some luxurious divan.

“Sir Alfred?” I asked, careful to keep a respectful distance.

He nodded. “Yes,” he said, with a toothless smile.

I hadn’t known what I would say to him, and by default, I fell back on cliche.

“I’m an American journalist. I’ve come a long way to meet you ...”


My Paris Airport Encounters With Sir Alfred Mehran
September 28, 2005

PARIS—On my first night at Charles de Gaulle, I went in search of The Terminal Man—the real person whose predicament inspired Steven Spielberg’s 2004 movie The Terminal. He wasn’t hard to find, as he spends every day, all day, for the majority of 17 years, sitting on a red bench in the lowest level of Terminal 1, one of the most out-of-the-way pockets in all of Airworld. Through sheer persistence, and with the help of his refugee status, which immunizes him from removal, he has become part of the airport itself.

Back in Chicago, an American Airlines representative had assured me that The Terminal “could never happen now,” but au contraire, here he was, unbothered by police or Aeroport de Paris staff. Even Terminal 1’s ongoing renovations, which have closed a third of the enormous concrete ring, couldn’t manage to expel him. He simply moved his belongings—his bench, his FedEx and Lufthansa cargo boxes, his mismatched set of discarded carry-on luggage—a few notches around the ring and settled in again. He will manage to outlive this building, or at least its interiors.

It was if he was waiting for me—he was reclined on his bench, his eyes alert, and dressed in the same manner I was, a windbreaker over a polo, as a guard against the chill. I had brought an offering, McDonald’s French fries, which he eats every day along with his usual Filet-o-Fish. “Thank you,” he said, and motioned for me to place them on a small table he had appropriated from one of the cafes. I sat on one of two chairs. His voice was soft, tremulous. I wondered how often he spoke these days, and whether he was slowly forgetting to say the words. It didn’t help that English was at least his second language. He shook his head at a microphone-equipped iPod—no tape recorders—and so his quotes in the story represent the best I could decipher them.

I tell him I’m a journalist, that I’m spending three weeks living in airports, that I’ve read his book—at this point I produce it from my bag—and his blank expression finally fills with some interest. “Is that the new edition?” he says, and begins paging through, looking for errors, maybe, or refreshing himself on his own history.

The story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri is a sad one, and has been told many times already in newspapers, and best by Michael Paterniti two years ago in GQ. It was tragic before he ever landed at Charles de Gaulle. Born in Iran during the reign of the Shah, he was 27 years old when his father died and his mother confronted him: “You are not my son,” she told him. His birth mother was a British nurse who had worked with his father, a surgeon at the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co., and they had had an affair. Now he was dead, and his mother—no, not his mother—would send him to study in England, where he could look for his mother, his real one. As he wrote in his diary, “I am standing in the main room of someone else’s home in Tehran and I do not know who I am any more.”

Before he hands his memoir back to me, he opens it to a page, points to a passage and says, “Yes, I wrote that.” The passage described his fast-forward accounting to his lawyer of how he came to be stuck here, and so I’ll share it: “So while Monsieur Bourget smokes his pipe, I relate my story: how I left my home, and went to the University of Bradford in England; how the money stopped coming; how I returned to Iran; how I was arrested; how I was released; how I went to England and claimed asylum; how they refused; and how I was refused asylum in the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and France. And finally, how I came to Charles de Gaulle without my passport and got on a plane to England, and how they sent me back.” Along the way he threw away his Iranian exit visa, while claiming he’d been mugged. Later, he obtained refugee papers from Belgium, which he mailed back to Brussels before one of his attempts to enter England. He caught the attention of France’s top human rights lawyer, Christian Bourget, who spent nine years retrieving Nasseri’s papers from bureaucratic limbo, only to watch him refuse to sign because the signature needed was that of “Mehran Karimi Nasseri,” and he had become someone else after all those years at CDG: “Sir Alfred.” That man is still sitting on the bench here.

Why are you still here, Sir Alfred? Do you not have a visa yet? “Yes, I must get a passport and visa,” even though there has been one waiting for him under his former name since 1999.

“We have to arrange it with our film company, and DreamWorks.” Dreamworks?
I didn’t understand what DreamWorks had to do with any of this; had I mangled the question? I asked whether he had the money he would need to travel one day thanks to DreamWorks and The Terminal—he was rumored to have been paid anywhere between $275,000 and $1 million for his life story as protection from a future lawsuit, and then there were royalties from his memoirs. “Yes, I have credit from the film—recently, and in the past.”

So where will you go when you’re finally free?

“Yes, we have reserved for Hollywood, Europe and Scandinavia…”

Later, I laughed picturing him, passport in hand, showing up at DreamWorks’ offices demanding to know why there hadn’t been a sequel, or where his share of the DVD gross was. And when Spielberg refused to see him, he would simply resign himself to waiting in the lobby. And waiting. And waiting…

In real life, there have been sequels. A Kenyan man camped out in Nairobi’s airport for more than a year before finally being granted his wish this past July for British citizenship. A Palestinian refugee spent seven months sleeping on the floor of Prague’s airport until the Czech government granted him asylum. When I was at LAX, the airport’s director of public relations told me the stories of three Vietnamese men who had recently spent months there searching for a way to re-enter their home country. Two found flights to Cambodia, crossed the border, and were immediately arrested. The third set up shop in LAX for another month, accepting handouts and continually praying, before he too, caught a flight to Asia and was never heard from again. There is also a woman at LAX, I was told, who in the wake of 9/11 arrived from San Francisco and spends her nights in Terminal 1, sleeping standing up and with her eyes open. When airport police asked why, she said she was afraid—she wanted to be in a place filled with people and security. I looked, but I never found her.

We are fascinated by them, by Nasseri, and by The Terminal, because in each case they stand in opposition to Airworld’s basic condition—that everyone within it is in transit to somewhere else. Their refusal to cooperate illuminates the otherwise invisible processes that govern how airports operate, how we are absorbed through the membrane of security, how we consume in an effort to make ourselves comfortable, how we are continually on the clock for an on-time departure. Unlike The Terminal, where Tom Hanks’ character finds a job, makes a home and has a brush with love (all in nine months, before his victorious arrival on U.S. soil), Nasseri has survived here by becoming a silent part of the terminal, ignored, and thus unmolested.

I ask if he still receives visits from journalists like me. His memoir implies that one of us is always plopping themselves down, but “no,” he says. “Not anymore. I’m afraid because I should leave.”

When, Alfred? When will you leave?

“Very soon ... or later.”

I’m out of questions. My heart is beating fast; I’m sweating for the first time in a week of climate-controlled environments. I thank him and ask to take his picture. He refuses. “No pictures. No video cameras.” He asks my name, and where I’m from. “You write in America? In London?” I write down my name and Advertising Age’s on a page of notebook paper, along with my e-mail address if, by some absurd chance, Terminal 1’s renovations include a WiFi network and one of his future possessions happens to be a laptop. From the look on his face, it’s the first time he’s seen one—he’s been here since 1988, after all.

As a consolation prize, I ask if he’ll sign my copy of his book. Yes, I want it as a souvenir of this pilgrimage, but part of me wonders if he can really still write his own name. To my shame, I underestimate him—he signs it “For Greg, Sir Alfred Mehran,” and dates it correctly without a moment’s hesitation. My hero worships also pays off—he agrees to a portrait, and wriggles a bit in his seat to show his good side. I’m pressing my luck at this point—I have everything I could have asked for from this trip, and it’s only my first night in Charles de Gaulle. I thank him, and back away slowly. I’ll be back, I think. After all, I’ve only just got here.

Two nights later, I’m in Terminal 1 again, this time with my luggage. My flight to Singapore isn’t until the next afternoon, but I had checked out of the Sheraton that morning. If I’d stayed another night, I would have gone to ground in my room, just as I had Sunday, while Sir Alfred had another dreamless night’s sleep on his red bench. I could either hide in Airworld’s lap, or sack out on my air mattress halfway around the ring from him. In between us, a homeless man (a non-permanent resident) slept on one row of benches, while a pair of Asian boys who might have been on my flight amused themselves with a Sony P2P. I speak no French and knew no one. I already knew how we’d pass the night—the cleaning staff would buff the floors, the submachine gun-toting troops in full camo and berets would patrol, smoke, then patrol some more—and we would sleep. For one night, Nasseri and I would share a sliver of his existence.

I have questions prepared this time. I’d run his name again through Nexis during the interval between my visits, and it seemed he’d given his last interview only a few weeks before. At the end of the interview, when the Paris correspondent for The Jakarta Post had asked if he had anything to say to the people of Indonesia, he answered: “I’m not mad.” Word had finally gotten back to him that he was a case study now, a living, breathing icon of post-modern confusion. So was he? Didn’t he have to be? It didn’t seem to be a subject up for debate. The Hamlet question—is he crazy or pretending?—wouldn’t seem to apply when the argument for sanity is that he’d be better off living out his days here, in CDG’s cellar.

When morning comes, the guards roust us all for our flights, but Nasseri just sits on his bench, his hair wet, washing his face carefully with McDonald’s napkins. From somewhere within the piles of bags and boxes he has produced a tiny radio he is listening to when I approach to ask if he’d like anything for breakfast. I sit down at his table again a few minutes later with a croissant and espresso for each of us. He’s still chewing when I start in with questions again—I’m some demented fanboy who can’t restrain them. The first one is technical: has he mastered the art of sleeping in terminals? “Naaaah,” he says. “This is good,” patting the bench, “but there is always too much noise.” The announcements here are prefaced with a few notes that sound like a chorus of angels, then give way to a musical tone. I laid awake for an hour last night being lectured on the smoking ban.

“Alfred, you told your last interviewer, ‘I’m not mad.’ Has anyone ever accused you of being mad?”

His eyes go wide, and he leans back on the bench. “Maybe medical services. ... He become dead; he become mad –- medical services ...”

When was the last time you stepped outside?

He shakes his head. “Years and years ago.”

Do strangers ever visit with you? He shakes his head.

Do you ever call out to anyone? He shakes his head.

Do you want company? He shakes his head.

“They identified American parents, the gendarmes did,” he offers. This is new, if true. “The gendarmes identified me.” Wait, did they find your parents, or did your parents find you? “I don’t you,” and the veil of incomprehension comes down.

Are you a practicing Muslim? Do you believe in God?

“God?” He laughs.

Do you know why you’re here? Do you know why I’m here to see you? Do you know why you’re famous? Why you matter? I’m trying to talk metaphysics, but either he doesn’t think that way or I can’t get the nuance across.

“To be identified,” he says. “Identification. A year ago, in June, I hear from filmmakers. They call by telephone, and we talk for 5-10 minutes. Then if I have papers, I leave.”

This is DreamWorks?

“Yes, Dreamworks.”

And then our conversations seem to rewind and repeat. “They made a movie, The Terminal… I had trouble by air. In France, they de-Anglicize me. By boat, by air ... that’s why I came here ...”

I pick up my tray, thank him, and go to leave.

“Good luck, Sir Alfred. I hope you can leave soon.” He nods, and after that, I don’t look back.


Marketing the Ultimate Luxury in Sky Travel
September 29, 2005

SINGAPORE—Ascending through translucent tubes in Terminal 1 of Paris’ airport, I head into what passes for heaven in Airworld: a dozen hours of nonstop pampering in Raffles Class aboard Singapore Airlines.

I had one stop left, Singapore itself, before the airline would carry me home on the longest flight in the world—18-something hours over the North Pole to Newark, and if nothing else, I’d be well-rested at the end of three weeks on the road. When it’s all over, I will have spent more time aloft on those two flights than during the rest of my three-week trip combined.

This visit wasn’t some boondoggle I’d stapled onto the end, but was actually a chance to brush up against the science-fiction version of Airworld that has sprung into existence in Asia. While airlines in the U.S. were laboring to build new terminals for under a billion, the governments out here spend three or four times as much just on landfill—the artificial islands reclaimed from the sea on which Osaka’s and Hong Kong’s airports were built. And if JetBlue, Frontier and Song represented the future of the low-fare-carrier model at home, then Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Virgin Atlantic and Qantas sit at the other end of the curve, battling for the full-fare business and first-class passengers on long-haul routes. Singapore Airlines is the most profitable airline in the world, in fact, posting a record net profit in its last fiscal year of $820 million. Although I’m certainly no expert on airline accounting, I can only imagine what tax and other advantages stem from the airline’s being 57% owned by Singapore’s government.

And Singapore Airlines, in turn, owns 49% of Virgin Atlantic, which I happened to fly to London in Upper Class—its typically cheeky name for a business/first-class hybrid offering. Virgin has perhaps the most clearly articulated brand positioning of any airline flying in the U.S. today, thanks in large part to the efforts of its advertising agency, Crispin Porter & Bogusky. (As for how I was able to afford all of this, Virgin upgraded me after I paid a nominal fare, while Singapore booked me for free without a second thought.)

But if I’d simply wanted to engorge myself on raw amenities, I might have ended up in Frankfurt instead, ensconced at the new $18 million terminal Lufthansa has built for its first-class passengers, who are ferried to their planes across the tarmac in a Porsche. Or I could have accepted Emirates’ offer of an upgrade to a “privacy suite” aboard one of its fleet of A340-500s, essentially enclosed seats that the airline paid $125,000 apiece to install.

“The key word is differentiation—between our competitors and between our customers,” Lufthansa’s vice president in charge of innovation recently told Newsweek. “We have to give those who are prepared to pay extra an extra-special product.”

While U.S. legacy carriers seem stuck in a race to the bottom in terms of amenities at home, they are increasingly betting that they will be able to keep up—using their vast route networks, multicarrier alliances and frequent-flyer programs—in the luxury arms race that is already well underway. Lie-flat beds, once the last word in first-class luxury, are practically a business-class commodity, and the next lines in the sand will be drawn when Singapore, Emirates and the other launch customers of Airbus’ behemoth A380s finally take possession of their custom-configured planes. The mechanized “SpaceBed” I napped in on the way here will likely be rendered obsolete when the first one lands here at the end of 2006. Both Airbus and Boeing expect 2005 to be a record year in terms of the number of planes ordered, thanks to overwhelming demand for fuel-efficient long-haul models.

While all of the airlines above are battling for “the business traveler,” only Virgin and Crispin have concocted an entire back story and rationale for their target customer’s existence. The “jetrosexual,” introduced two years ago as an obvious play on metrosexual, was the cornerstone of an ambitious attempt to not only cast the airline as the true inheritor of Jet Set panache, but also to invite the road warrior contingent of the so-called creative class to self-identify themselves as jetrosexuals, and thus side with Virgin. I’m not sure how well that’s working out for them—none of the fellow Upper Class passengers I chatted up in the JFK Clubhouse before our flight identified themselves as such, or even knew what it meant—but Crispin’s faux boarding passes inserted in magazines and similar work comprise the most distinctive airline campaign currently in circulation. More important, the actual experience lived up to the hype.
I really did find myself at the onboard bar at midnight for a nightcap while wearing my “Sleep Suit” pajamas and carrying on simultaneous conversations with a buyer for Marks & Spencer and an intellectual property manager for Diageo.

“Nobody’s really rooting for the guy wrecking his life on road. We wanted to find a way to get behind him,” said Jeff Steinhour, managing partner, director of account management at Crispin. “If they’re tied to their frequent-flyer miles somewhere else, then how can we break the back of that resistance, and have them approach this as an event, rather than as enduring six hours sealed in a tube?”

And while one would expect to find an airline’s biggest supporters drinking its wine in its clubhouse before a flight, the passengers on the flight that night (Flight 010, “The Suite Dream” you see in Virgin ads everywhere) raved about the airline in similar terms. “They’re innovative, they’re modern, they get it,” said Nicola Burden, the IP manager for Diageo. “It isn’t like [British Airways] where the staff is 70 years old.”

Comments like that must thrill Virgin’s chief executive/mascot Sir Richard Branson, whose feud with BA goes back decades, but even the outsider hired to rebrand BA’s first-class service in the face of challenges from Virgin and other carriers is willing to give the airline its props. “One thing that they have done, and BA has done, and other carriers have done is completely focus on the experience,” said David Melancon, president of FutureBrand North America, a unit of IPG. On FutureBrand’s watch, BA introduced lie-flat beds in business class and opened travel spas at Heathrow with Molton Brown-branded skin-care products.

“I have a mental picture of who the Virgin customer is, vs. who the BA customer is, because they’re both offering very consistent, high-quality experiences,” said Melancon. “BA is more traditional, and Virgin is a little less so, but they both do an amazing job. We diminish that by saying ‘That’s the European way,’ or ‘That’s the Asian way,’ in the case of Singapore or Cathay Pacific, but that’s bull, because what you’re doing is creating an experience. If you want to talk about what American carriers are doing, my grandmother used to have a saying about burning the furniture –- it may keep you warm for the moment, but you’ve burned something you need.”

Not that BA itself should be one to talk after its dispute with the catering service Gate Gourmet snowballed into a wildcat strike by crucial staff that led to nearly 10,000 passengers being stranded at Heathrow—a memorable experience, to be sure. More than a month later, there’s nothing but tea and coffee available on BA’s short-haul flights, a fact the captain apologized endlessly for during my shuttle run to Paris.

But still, I have better understanding of what he meant after a week overseas spent making new friends at Virgin’s onboard bar and being fawned over by the unreconstructed eye candy known as the “Singapore Girls” on my flight from Paris Charles de Gaulle. I’ll need that again tomorrow, when I’ll be sealed in a tube for another 18 hours before finally –- finally –- coming home.


Zen Ponds, Garden Walks, Rooftop Pool, Movie Theater, Free Video Game Arcade
September 30, 2005

SINGAPORE—Don’t believe the date line. I’m not in Singapore. I’m Nowhere, and I have the absence of passport stamps to prove it.

I’ve spent the last 48 hours in the Transit Area of Singapore Changi airport. I’m in diplomatic limbo, neither here nor there, and fortunately for me, Changi was designed with limbo in mind. Airside here is a virtual theme park, with duty free malls, Zen ponds, rooftop gardens, free arcades and smoking lounges all crammed into an architectural blender switched on to purée. Changi is relentlessly over the top by American standards, but the airborne commuters used to long hauls over oceans and 10-hour layovers don’t even blink. (After complaining at the bar one night that American airports are hopelessly drab by comparison, the guy next to me sympathized with: “Yes, it could be worse. You could be stuck at LAX.”)

On my flight from Paris, unable to sleep because of the jetlag piling up on jetlag, I ordered up a description of Changi from the aircraft’s in-flight entertainment system: “While Changi’s legendary efficiency means travelers need spend the minimum amount of time in the airport, the facilities’ offerings include showers, gym and sauna, fitness centers, putting green, rooftop pool (a must) and Jacuzzi, hairdressing salons, laundry service, karaoke lounge, mini supermarket, movie theater, TV lounges, children’s play area, nursery, smoking room, medical centre and prayer room.”

And I intended to try them all.

It can’t be a coincidence that four of the world’s most renowned airports in terms of size and facilities—Changi, Hong Kong, Dubai and Amsterdam’s Schiphol—host four of the world’s top airlines (Singapore, Cathay Pacific, Emirates and KLM, respectively) and all have literally centuries of heritage as free ports, as independent nation states, or, in the case of the Netherlands, was once one of the world’s great maritime powers. To thrive in Airworld, all they had to do was reapply their historical skill sets. (And for a great examination of how Emirates did just that in Dubai, where its planes operate and passengers shop around the clock, check out Matthew Maier’s story on the airline in the October issue of Business 2.0.) In the 2005 installment of the annual Skytrax Survey Awards—which poll passengers in 80 countries—Changi was runner-up to Hong Kong for the title of the best airport in the world, while Dubai and Schiphol finished further down the list.

My own two days here have been a succession of Lost in Translation outtakes, beginning the moment I stepped off the plane, where a pair of Singapore Airlines hostesses met me at the gate holding a placard reading “Mr. Gregory Thomas Lindsay” (in Airworld, your name is whatever is printed on your passport) and who hustled me into the airline’s flagship Silver Kris Lounge for a shower. I liked the lounge so much that I stayed for 12 hours, eating, napping, writing and repeating, and watching the waves of in-transit business travelers roll in during Southeast Asia’s aerial rush hours.

When I finally staggered out of the lounge, I wandered through the duty-free boutiques until I heard a piano playing, of all things, “The Girl From Ipanema.” The pianist wore tails and segued into a Cole Porter medley while Australians barked into their cellphones only a few feet away at Sports Bar (not a sports bar, but “Sports Bar”), where all the chairs appeared to be made of half-deflated basketballs and soccer balls and the most popular beer wasn’t the hometown Tiger brand or even something regional, like Asahi, but Carlsberg, a brand whose home turf is Copenhagen. (It turns out that Carlsberg has a brewery next door in Malaysia.)

Everything in the terminal was like that—a copy of a copy or else carved out of its natural contexts. I watched a young Malaysian man toss pizzas at a Italian restaurant that advertised its branches in Naples and Rome. The piped-in music—and there is a constant sound track in Changi—isn’t just American pop, but only covers of American pop: anonymous rockabilly renditions of “Nothing Compares 2 U” or muzak versions of Enya (which is this close to being redundant).

Or maybe it was just me. My friend at the bar, Raja, was in transit between New Zealand and Johannesburg, and killing time before his 2:15 a.m. flight. “New Zealand, Hong Kong, Kuala Lampur, here—all more or less the same,” he said. “Only the currency is different, or one might be bigger, but if you blindfolded me, by the sounds I’d think I was still in New Zealand.”

He might be right, but the stores here accept four different currencies, at least—Singapore, U.S. and Australian dollars, plus the Yen—and you could conceivably pay in whatever the exchange rates favored that day. (Every store has those helpfully posted as well.)

I saved Changi for the end of this trip because if I was right—if Airworld really is a nation with its own internal coherence, then I could reasonably expect to find the same magazines on the racks here as I would at JFK, the same New York Times bestsellers being touted at the Hudson Books in O’Hare, the same Calvin Klein fragrances at duty free, and the same “Some Big Company runs SAP” ads mounted on the walls. And?

At the newsstand, US Weekly sat next to Star, next to their U.K. forerunners Closer and Heat. I had my choice of a dozen different international versions of Vogue (I bought Australian spin-off Vogue Living for Sophie), Fortune, Business Week, Business 2.0, Fast Company and the rest, the same as it ever was in Denver.

Midway through the trip, I decided that if our airports reflected the most important and vital thinkers of the age back to us, then the omnipresence of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and Blink rate him as a modern-day Descartes. Following the same standards, Jim Collins (Built to Last, Good To Great) is Ricardo and Freakonomics is the 21st century’s Wealth of Nations. They were all here in force, too.

I finally broke down and bought a copy of Candace Bushnell’s Lipstick Jungle after seeing copies of it stacked at literally every Hudson branch I saw. That book was everywhere, if by “everywhere” you meant the airport.

Duty free was a sea of familiar faces—Burberry, Gucci, Prada, Hermes, Bulgari, Tag Heuer and Toblerone. ... I knew they’d be here, for if the luxury goods business has an Achilles heel, it’s the continued dependence on Asia, and Asia travelers in particular, to drive sales at home (wherever the brand might call home) and overseas. Hermes derives 48% of its sales from Japan and the rest of Asia. Burberry? 26%. Bulgari? 43%. LVMH? 30%. And it was from one of LVMH’s global chain of DFS-branded duty-free stores that I picked out a Paul Smith scarf. Revenues in LVMH’s “selected retailing” division (which also includes Sephora) grew 15% in the first half of this year, thanks to “sustained growth in Asia, benefiting from an increase in tourism,” according to the company’s report.

The “24-hour mini-mart” was actually the best stocked 7-11 I’d ever seen, selling everything from boxers to boxes of ramen to cheap, boxy luggage. Based purely on the size and prominence of its stands in the vice wing of duty free, one would think Jack Daniels is the native spirit of Singapore.

And while I didn’t spot any SAP ads, I only wish that JCDecaux’s Don Sperring could have been here to see to the massive TV lounge filled with Panasonic flat screens, or the free, Samsung-underwritten Internet terminals scattered throughout the airport. Or the Xbox arcade upstairs. “The future is already here,” William Gibson once wrote, “it’s just not evenly distributed.” Changi and its fellow Asian airports may have more than their fair share.

As for me, I never did find the karaoke bar or the putting green, but I did get a haircut and a massage and strolled through the sunflower and cactus gardens in the steamy mid-morning heat. And I’ll never forget how it felt to sip Singapore Slings (what else?) by the pool on top of Terminal 1, where the only sounds were of swimmers in the water and the white noise of parked jet engines down below.

By the time you read this, assuming you’re reading this on Friday morning, I should be passing within 1 degree of the North Pole, halfway through my flight halfway around the world. The 18-hour flight seems more like time travel to me than anything else—we’ll shed 12 time zones along the way and live an entire waking day inside a tube 40,000 feet above the most remote reaches on Earth. We’ll vanish in one place and reappear, just like that, at home only six hours after we left, according to the clock. It will have felt like three weeks.

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About Greg Lindsay

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Greg Lindsay is a generalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a 2022-2023 urban tech fellow at Cornell Tech’s Jacobs Institute, where he leads The Metaverse Metropolis — a new initiative exploring the implications of augmented reality at urban scale. He is also a senior fellow of MIT’s Future Urban Collectives Lab, a senior advisor to Climate Alpha, and a non-resident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Strategy Initiative.

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