Airport Semiotics

  1. Airport Semiotics
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    Airport Semiotics

    Hello, pilgrim. You say you spent two days after Christmas stuck at an airport gate that smelled like ski socks? At least you weren’t lonely. Some 1.2 million travelers were affected over the holidays when East Coast blizzards forced the cancellation of 8,200 flights. (Europe didn’t fare much better.)

    As a result, a lot of travelers bided their time in airport waiting areas, which the industry refers to as “hold rooms.” These are designed to be neutral nonspaces. “You’ve gone through the stress of security and put yourself back together. Now you’re simply waiting in this unusual little lull,” says Bill Hooper, a principal at Gensler, the architectural firm that designed JetBlue’s new Terminal 5 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

    When the little lull stretches into multiple hours, however, the pilgrims get restless. That’s what Bloomberg Businessweek discovered while observing 250 people waiting in Paris’ Charles De Gaulle, Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and New York City’s LaGuardia airports earlier this winter. What follows is a typology of airport behavior as analyzed by an expert panel: Patti Wood, author of Success Signals: A Guide to Reading Body Language; Jason Barger, author of Step Back from the Baggage Claim: Change the World, Start at the Airport; and David Givens, author of Your Body at Work: A Guide to Sight-Reading the Body Language of Business, Bosses and Boardrooms.

    Next time, don’t shovel down that Cinnabon so quickly—unless you want everyone to know that flying stresses you out.
  2. Luggage Riflers
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    Luggage Riflers

    Percentage of people observed: 4%

    Some travelers constantly repack their bags for fear that they lost something—or that something bad is going to happen. “They’re controlling the one thing they can control,” Barger says. Wood: “It’s almost obsessive behavior.”
  3. CNN Segment Chortlers
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    CNN Segment Chortlers

    Percentage of people observed: 10%

    Travelers who laugh along with light­hearted segments on TV monitors want to connect with fellow travelers. “People don’t usually laugh when they’re alone,” says Givens. “When you’re waiting together, you share a bond.”
    Andrew Bannecker
  4. Food Stuffers
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    Food Stuffers

    Percentage of people observed: 17%

    “When we don’t have our bearings, we do things that make us feel good,” says Barger, explaining why some travelers eat in a squirrel-like manner. Givens: “This could be your last flight. You owe yourself McDonald’s.”
  5. Manifest Destiny Snoozers
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    Manifest Destiny Snoozers

    Percentage of people observed: 3%

    When people sleep by stretching out across several seats, Wood says, their body language indicates “they have a right to take up more space.” Barger notes: “They’re making others adjust to what they think is appropriate.”
  6. The Existentialists
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    The Existentialists

    Percentage of people observed: 11%

    “The human face at rest tends to look unfriendly,” Givens says, and travelers staring into the distance often look disgruntled. “It’s like a hospital waiting room,” Wood says. “We feel like we’re in purgatory.”
  7. Twitchers and Touchers
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    Twitchers and Touchers

    Percentage of people observed: 4%

    Chronic foot and knee bobbers and face touchers often “have a hard time being right in the moment,” notes Barger. Meanwhile, Wood explains, “It can also mean, ‘I want to move on, get someplace.’ ”
    Andrew Bannecker
  8. Fortress Builders
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    Fortress Builders

    Percentage of people observed: 2%

    Bag pilers give off different signals depending on the configuration of the luggage. “Bags in front mean protection from attack,” Wood says. “Bags to either side say, ‘I want pri­vacy.’ It’s prevalent among business travelers.”
  9. The Wired Neurotic
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    The Wired Neurotic

    Percentage of people observed: 20%

    “We feel like we have to be working every moment or we’re not valuable,” says Wood about those who won’t detach from their devices. Adds Givens: “You’ll see this burst of letting people know where you are.”
  10. Tabloid Readers
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    Tabloid Readers

    Percentage of people observed: 18%

    People who hold gossip magazines up to their faces are looking for an escape. “It changes our brain patterning and creates a subtle high,” says Wood. “You rarely see people reading something educational.”
  11. Chair Hoarders
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    Chair Hoarders

    Percentage of people observed: 8%

    An old-fashioned demarcation of turf. “If you put your bag on the next seat, you’re assured that a 350-pound person isn’t going to plop down and invade your space,” Givens says. “It’s holding on to territory.”
  12. Other Notable Yet Less Common Airport Gate Behaviors
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    Other Notable Yet Less Common Airport Gate Behaviors

    Sock Changer / Barger: “He must be on a serious journey.”

    Gate Pacers Barger: “They’re telling others, ‘Don’t come talk to me.’ ”

    Skyper Givens: “They know they’re being perceived as important.”

    Cell Phone Yakker Givens: “Staying connected when you’re among strangers is comforting.”

    Sippy-Cup-Sipping Grown-Up Barger: “I don’t know what to say. There’s probably a lot going on.”

    Andrew Bannecker