Delving into the Intangibles

   The International Airport  

Once simply called an airfield or airstrip, in modern times it has come to be known as an “airport,” namely a “port of the sky,” connecting the cities of the world. From international airports, more than 7,000 aircraft depart each day to circle the globe. Thanks to the traffic controllers in their control towers, pilots are able to take off and land their passenger-heavy planes safely. It is a spectacular sight: a huge, computer-guided Jumbo Jet climbing into the sky or swooping down onto a runway.

At the same time, we should keep firmly in mind that anything man-made can easily be destroyed or become dysfunctional, if hit by a natural disaster. When the tsunami generated by the 2011 Great Tohoku earthquake struck Japan, we learned the hard way, in the face of this “act of God,” that we were totally vulnerable and helpless. At the time, Sendai Airport was flooded and paralyzed. Again, this year, first Osaka’s Kansai International Airport, one of the busiest in the world, constructed on a man-made island, and then Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport were isolated by high tides, flooding, and accidents caused by super typhoons.

Take Tokyo’s Haneda airport, for instance. Not only do more than 60 million people annually use this transport hub for business, tourism, international conferences, official visits, and personal reasons, but also a huge volume of cargo, in the millions of tons, is handled through there. I don’t know the precise volume––which is reflective of our vulnerability, one might say. It would prove a severe shock to the whole world if this airport suddenly shut down. Compared with ordinary buildings, airports should have to meet extremely strict building standards. Airports that move people and materials pursue safety, comfort, and speed, and their operations and services should meet world’s best practice.

These are the visible and tangible roles and functions of airports. Big and beautiful is not enough.

But every time an aircraft takes off or makes a landing, don’t you feel there is also something invisible and intangible being carried along with it? It might be the various emotions we feel such as excitement, a sense of relief, passion, expectation, curiosity, joy or happiness, or, depending on circumstances, sadness, suffering, anger, or jealousy.  Your baggage weight allowance might be only 20 or 30 kilograms, but your heart can be carrying “tons” more of something invisible and intangible. Don’t you think it’s fun to observe air travel from this angle?             

You can usually find a viewing balcony at any international airport, anywhere in the world. Aerophiles (they’re mainly male) go there with hand-held, air-band receivers to listen to the communications, in English, of command and response between the control tower and the cockpit. It’s a fun world you need to experience to fully understand, so I was told. Nevertheless, I think I can imagine their feelings to some degree, as international airports are gateways to the sky-world where the dreams and adventures of passengers are flying hither and thither; with an air-band receiver you can have a vicarious experience without leaving the ground. They say such devices for aero-nerds can be found at the electronics town, Akihabara, in Tokyo. The woman I am, should I, too, head off with such a super gadget in my hand? By the way, I learned that the airport with the greatest number of takeoffs and landings is at Atlanta, in the United States, with 880,000 per year; Haneda’s is half that, at 440,000.

International Airports are gateways through which both tangible and intangible things move in and out.

May you, yourself, your suitcase, your dreams, and your happiness, all take off and arrive safely!