Future Tense

Ode to Empty Airports

A man in a high-visibility vest looks at an empty terminal.
A deserted terminal in Manchester Airport in England on Tuesday. Oli Scarff/Getty Images

A few months ago I visited an empty airport. Well, it was empty of travelers, anyway: It was an open house for the new New Orleans airport, a “world class” terminal intended to boost economic growth by drawing more visitors and business to the region.

Locals were invited to tour the new terminal a few weeks before the grand opening, bypassing the security checkpoint (which wasn’t even close to finished) and wandering throughout the concourses and gate areas. I remember glancing over at the new consolidated security checkpoint as we walked through a parallel hallway—X-ray machines half-assembled, shrink-wrapped body scanners lying on the floor. I recall thinking that the security checkpoint was going to get choked during holiday travel periods. What I didn’t anticipate was that it might become empty again all too soon, for very different reasons.

A funny thing about that airport open house was how pleasant it was. I was there with my son, and we ran into some friends from his school. People were chatting unhurriedly, marveling at the restaurants not yet open and trying out the new seats in their familiar rows. People gazed out the plate-glass windows at the tarmac—no airplanes in the immediate vicinity. This wasn’t an airport empty of people but empty of flight. And it was better for it.

Just last week we were seeing photographs of empty airports everywhere. Then the images changed dramatically: They were now of jam-packed terminals, snaking lines representing the terrifying “super spreader” potential of the novel coronavirus. Air travel is being massively disrupted as people rush to get home before travel is even further restricted. Though they are teeming with frantic passengers and chaos this week, next week will likely find airports quite empty once again, a different kind of disorder.

The sight of an empty airport can offer the promise of a smooth trip: quick trip through security, an entire row to yourself, maybe even an early departure. On the other hand, empty airports lately have portended something very different: the wholesale shuddering of this vast, elaborate enterprise called flight.

This state of affairs has been made vivid by photographs of empty airports accompanying recent headlines, perhaps most chillingly at the Atlantic with an article titled “Cancel Everything.” The novel coronavirus has already taken a toll on the commercial aviation sector, spurring airlines to ground planes, curb their economic outlooks, accommodate swells of itinerary cancellations, and plead for passengers to remain loyal through these turbulent times. Meanwhile, the federal government entertains a massive bailout to the airlines for the whole fiasco.

In an email to SkyMiles members, Delta’s CEO Ed Bastian stated that “travel is fundamental to our business and our lives, which is why it can’t—and shouldn’t—simply stop.” It was a subtle but shrewd move, this lumping together of can’t and shouldn’t, therein leaving open the troubling possibility of either/or. Because of course air travel already has stopped in many regions around the globe, from many flights in the U.K. and Europe to a slew of flights going in and out of Australia, even as passengers hurry to get back home, wherever that may be.

Any other day we might welcome the quietude descending on these often chaotic, raucous social nodes. Air travel is often the worst for passengers when it’s busiest: cramped aircraft cabins, long lines at check-in or security, the exhausted scrum of baggage claim during peak travel times. When it’s empty, or nearly so, an airport can inspire sensations of individual freedom and mobility unparalleled. The vaulted ceilings feel even higher, and the airplanes all seem there just for you.

The empty airport, then, has a strange doubleness to it. Such a space can represent the wish image of air travel: a personalized adventure, the individuated feeling of being spirited up and across a continent or ocean with no apparent obstacles. But a deserted security checkpoint can also signify something quite different. It underscores the baseline fragility and collectivity of our interconnected and networked world, where something as small and site-specific as a novel virus can travel fast and thereby ensnarl—and threaten to terminate—the whole system.

One of the more horrifying stories to circulate over the past couple weeks had to do with so called “ghost flights,” or how airlines are flying empty planes on their routes in order to keep their takeoff and landing spots at coveted airports. While some airports sat uncomfortably desolate on the ground, corollary jetliners whizzed far above. This particular practice was quickly called into question and halted, but still countless planes fly mostly empty through the skies as travelers race home. Meanwhile, as I was writing this piece, my university issued a statement prohibiting all faculty and staff from international travel as well as all “official non-crucial domestic air travel” until further notice. We’re effectively grounded.

Amid all this, the Delta website posted a new page dedicated to “Six ways Delta is supporting healthy flying.” A list of “proactive and voluntary steps” covers the basics of personal hygiene and collective well-being necessary for this moment. An architectural rendering of a modern terminal appears at the top of the page, generic travelers looking unconcerned and on their way. There are no signs of the COVID-19 pandemic in this fictive, healthy airport.

But the spectral empty airports, slapdash travel bans, and consuming ghost planes all raise a serious question: What if flying is not healthy, period? What if we are discovering, through this drawn-out period of uncertainty, that air travel on the magnitude that we have achieved is riddled with unhealthy side effects?

Empty airports expose a rift, between modest continuance and sheer economic growth. Air travel could potentially be calibrated to a more modest level that would be less ecologically destructive and make it easier to stem future outbreaks. But airlines and airports are driven by a model of constant expansion such that any decrease in flights is immediately felt as a loss (and staggering, in this case). The empty airport becomes a sort of zero level of this dilemma, signifying the deep contradiction within modern flight. Given certain circumstances, such as the spread of the novel coronavirus, this form of transportation becomes unsustainable: Its voracious capacity is its very downfall.

President Donald Trump’s call for Americans to keep gatherings to 10 people or fewer effectively shuts down commercial flight: It’s impossible to conceive of airport lines or cost-effective airliners operating under that dictum. No matter the size of governmental aid packages, air travel will not easily bounce back; a reckoning is in order.

What will we do with empty airports? How will we reinhabit these spaces, once the novel coronavirus has run its course? These questions are very much open, for now.

Over the past year, climate activist Greta Thunberg brought our attention to the folly of air travel and its significant role in our planetary predicament. Politicians, pundits, and frequent travelers could brush off a lone teen easily enough. But now, we are being forced to pause and seriously reconsider this modality of transit, commercial flight and all its spoils.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.