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  • Writer's pictureJamie Bass

Are Airports Designed to Stress Us Out?

Let’s face it: traveling is stressful. As much as we all love exploring new places and going on adventures, the process of catching a flight is no picnic. I flew home to Cleveland recently and, even though I have been flying my entire life, the minute I stepped foot in the airport, I felt anxious. And I couldn’t exactly figure out why at first. But as I was hauling my bag through the terminal with people rushing and jostling past me, I realized that the feng shui in airports leaves a lot to be desired. But what exactly is it about the (lack of) feng shui of this whole experience that puts us all on edge?

Airports Rush Us

I don’t know about you, but the minute I leave for the airport, I feel rushed. And I don’t think this is a coincidence. In almost every city now, the only way to get to the airport is to take a freeway, a corridor of rushing. All of these fast-moving highways, both on the ground and in the air, are converging at this structure, and no matter how we got there (driving or flying), we’re moving very quickly towards our destination. This naturally raises our adrenaline, so by the time we step foot in the airport, we feel amped up and ready to keep moving.

But this feeling of rushing permeates almost every interaction we have at an airport. When we’re being dropped off, police officers and security are rushing us out of the car to make way for the next group. TSA agents are rushing us through security, pushing us against each other, so that the lines don’t get any more out of control (and heaven forbid you take an extra 30 seconds to remove your shoes, you’ll hear the groans and sighs of the people behind you!). Even when I go to buy bottled water at a store, there is very little counter space on which for me to rest my belongings (clearly a design meant to keep me moving), and the cashier has barely handed me my change before calling for the next customer!

It’s important to acknowledge that the energy that we bring into an airport (or any place for that matter) is felt by those around us and can seriously influence them. So if a majority of the people around you is rushing (because they've been on the highway or been rushed through the security line), you’ll start to feel like you need to be rushing too.

We Feel the Pressure

Unfortunately, air travel has become all about rules, fear, and control. You have to give yourself enough time to get to the airport and through security, and if you’re late, you can’t board your flight. You can only carry on so many bags not exceeding a certain weight or else you have to pay (rather steep) fees to check them. And, obviously, TSA has created a culture of panic and extreme oversight in the security area: you have to throw away all liquids unless they’re 3 ounces or less; you need to remove your shoes and jackets (and in some cases, sweaters and jewelry); and you have to pass through the metal detector/x-ray machine. Here in Colorado, every person also has to walk past a drug-sniffing dog since marijuana is legal.

Although all of these security procedures have been standard practice for a number of years, they’re intense regulations predicated on the fact that we’re doing or are about to do something wrong. Or, in extreme cases, that someone else is going to do something wrong that could be violent or deadly. How could we not be on edge and stressed? I know that I feel much more at ease once I’ve gotten through security, not because I’m worried about what I’m bringing through or my conduct, but because that particular area in the airport signifies extreme control, threats, and regulation. I’m always a little worried that I’ll set off the metal detector and need to be frisked (happened) or they’ll need to open my bag, rummage through my stuff, and forbid me from bringing certain things on board (also happened). In this area, our bodily autonomy is in question: we are at the mercy of the agents and don’t really have control over our person or stuff. This can be very disorienting and scary. And, again, if a few people are feeling that way, that energy can quickly spread to the rest of us.

But pressure can arise from things that we’re not aware of as well. Remember how I mentioned above that there’s a lot of fast-moving energy converging at an airport from both the cars on the ground and the flights coming in? This means there’s a lot of energy landing there without anywhere else for it to flow or escape to. This can create a heavy, dense atmosphere. It’s no wonder, then, that airports can feel intense and pressured, making us feel harried and overwhelmed.

Their Shape Keeps Us Moving

Most airports are long and narrow, and this is on purpose. They want to keep you moving forward on the main corridor in a single direction, only veering off when you’ve found your gate, need to get a snack, or use the bathroom. And there usually isn’t much within these long corridors to break up the forward-moving energy: besides the fact that there often isn’t room to have a kiosk or a water feature (because the spaces are fairly narrow for the amount of foot traffic they receive), the point of the design is to keep you moving forward, quickly and directly, to your gate. These designs are especially important in recent years because of the increased amount of traffic that airports are seeing. Everyone is on a very tight schedule, so making sure that you, the flyer, get to your gate quickly and fairly easily is the primary concern. Have you ever traveled with someone (and maybe this is you) who feels most comfortable when they’re at the gate, even if they have a lot of time until their flight boards? The design of the airport (and that rushing feeling described above) is probably contributing to why they feel that way.

It’s also interesting to be aware of the fact that the shape of most airports (long, narrow, and crowded) resembles that of a plane, which may act as a trigger for those people who are afraid of flying, and they may start to instinctively feel nervous and uncomfortable.

So the next time you’re traveling and you start to feel a bit overwhelmed at the airport, take a look around you and notice if there’s something going on that might be influencing you to feel that way. Don’t forget that our environments can strongly affect us, especially those spaces, like airports, that have a lot of energy and movement. Often, just being aware of what’s going on around us can do a lot to ease our minds!


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