Sitting at the gate and waiting to board a flight is an experience unlike any other. It is like a purgatory, in fact, because everything within these minutes is completely about being suspended in time and in life. No matter the state of mind, it is all about waiting. Once security is passed through and the departure information is checked, a person’s life is on hold. There are things that may be done to pass the time, but that is all they can do because the passing of time is the most crucial element in the experience. The person may be unconcerned about the trip or extremely anxious to board and fly, but the effect remains the same. They are there to wait, and they are subject to the environment until the doors open.
This sense of time being stopped is greatly reinforced by the arena itself. Nothing could be more sterile and lifeless. There are rows of seats facing to nowhere, since the entire environment is dedicated to being a halfway point. A “window” view is as dispiriting as facing a wall because all that is revealed is a bare landscape of asphalt, building and gate projections as cold as warehouses, and planes sitting and looking as though they will never move again. The traveler sits on fabric or plastic that has accommodated millions of other bodies, and is overtaken by the artificiality of this strange world. There are no colors to see, aside from the clothing choices of other passengers, because everything is in muted shades of blues, grays, and browns. The air is stale, and smells so recycled that it does not seem like real air. The dominating sound is the garbled, broken-up announcements of changes, or unsettling calls for stand-by volunteers. The traveler looks around and sees others using their laptops, on their cell phones, or reading books and magazines, but there is no sense whatsoever of casualness. Everyone is a victim in this purgatory, no matter how they try to disguise the status.
The seat becomes, in very little time, uncomfortable, and too much like a trap. The person stands but goes nowhere because there is nowhere to go. They turn to see the attendant at the gate desk, who reveals no concern about expediting the boarding. Random checks are made, even by those travelers seemingly perfectly content to sit and wait, of the departure time. Meanwhile, an endless parade passes by in the center aisle. Children scream, parents wheel strollers and look exhausted, and luggage is wheeled along like pets on leashes. All are either eager to leave this arena of nothingness or lazily making their way to the gate, where they will join the ranks of others reduced to waiting and obeying. Somehow, the gate area creates an impression of being taught a lesson; you believe you have control of your life, but that is an illusion. After a while, the traveler notices that those most caught up with their book or cell are looking up more frequently and fidgeting, and a tension grows in the stale, unmoving air.
Then, everything changes when the attendant, a possible angel of mercy, announces boarding, and only in that there is suddenly the widespread feeling of potential escape or reprieve. The sense is that, if everybody behaves themselves, life may be allowed to continue, and this adds to the tension. It is relief mixed with suspicion. It is frustration combined with the need to conform and obey. Rescue is just beyond the door, but it is not promised just yet, and the traveler feels like the prisoner being ushered through layers of bars and doors by bland, uncaring guards.