On the Semiotics of Airports

30 July 2016 | By Sign Salad
Taipei, Taiwan - September 5, 2013: Hello Kitty Waiting Room at the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport Terminal 2. All the seats in the waiting area are painted with Hello Kitty. This airport currently has two terminals. It is Taiwan's largest airport.

Deconstructing the appeal of spaces that put us on the same plane

The airport is a foreign country; they do things differently there. With summer upon us, and the steadily rising affordability of flight travel, many of us are more likely than ever to find ourselves in an airport in the coming weeks. Eternally ephemeral, forever temporary gateways to lands beyond, airports are peculiar spaces – or ‘Non-places’, as anthropologist Marc Augé deems them in his 1992 book of that title. Capitalising on the cultural and psychological status the airport holds, Heathrow released their emotionally charged ‘First Flight’ (and first ever) TV ad last week. Sweeping shots of the smooth flow of escalators, elevators and conveyor belts are visual tributes to the technological evolution of the airport since the first was opened to the public in 1920. “Airports are the same in every country” is an oft-heard claim, made in oblivion to the fact that even the same signs hold differing implications depending on the countries in which they are situated. What is the cultural import of the airport as a (non-)place? And how does the airport depend on – in fact, crystallize our dependence on – sign systems?

Every airport is itself a voyage into new sign systems and hierarchies of need, as manifest in differing spatial arrangements, architectural styles, and facilities. In their varying arrangements of the same elements (shops, bathrooms, prayer rooms, restaurants, etc.), airports are at once both strange and familiar. They provide apt examples of ‘heteropic’ spaces, defined by Michel Foucault as ‘counter-sites’ that both reveal and deviate from the reality in which they are situated. Like Disneyland’s substitute streets, airport terminals offer perfectly sanitised, choreographed shopping avenues, in which consumer culture is represented at its most efficient and strategic. These shopping terminals interweave the excitement of travel with the elevating thrills of expenditure. Across major airports, travel metaphors are unleashed the moment you pass from security into ‘A world of brands’, elsewhere termed the ‘shopping globe.’ By implication, your journey has already begun here, with Chanel, Chivas, and abundant supplies of candy. At the same time as investing shopping with new levels of purpose and excitement, in a space where everyone is presumed to be unfamiliar (to their surroundings and to one another) the routines of airport retail act as comforting signifiers of familiarity and repetition.

Before Emoji, airports were among the pioneers of visual language. The world’s airports form a network of universally comprehensible signs, designed for instant legibility regardless of the reader’s native tongue. But apart from the placards we conventionally deem ‘signs,’ the entire landscape of any airport is a sign system – its cuisine options, shopping layouts, attractions and so on. Major airports aspire to being signifiers of the proudest aspects of life in their respective countries. Thus the simulacrum of a leafy park- replete with stationary bikes- awaits in Amsterdam Schiphol, along with an annex of the Riijksmuseum. Taiwan’s cult enthusiasm for Hello Kitty (despite the company being founded in Japan) is embodied in Taoyuan International Airport’s Hello Kitty-themed departure gate, as meticulous and bewildering as it is pink (pictured). Besides acting as signifiers of the culture in which you’ve landed, airports inherently offer up a preparatory ritual of semiotic navigation. They typically have a higher concentration of signs than any other public space, with PA systems, abundant arrows, and ‘you are here’ / ‘welcome’ signage at each available interval. In this, airports are anticipatory training for our imminent venture into another world of less yielding signs and signifiers (assuming we’re on an international flight), providing practice for rapidly configuring a new environment, or at least a less familiar one. Airports require us to perform semiotic analyses at every moment, and thus establish our faith in signs – crucial before any visit to a new country.


In pop culture, airports tend to be loaded with hyper-emotion. They are places of whimsy possibility (see I’m So Excited), places of last chance romance and emotional zenith (Love Actually, Casablanca). In reality, they are far less romantic when awaiting a 6am flight, being told to take off your socks before security, and beginning to wonder if that travel-sized deodorant is still wedged in the bottom of your rucksack. The dramatization of airports in film and TV might be a counter to their characteristic, notorious banality. This banality, however, is a playful invitation to voyeurism. It’s easy to be early for flights, and airports readily facilitate the weaving stories around others. In waiting lounges, we become curious semioticians and anthropologists, mentally constructing potential life stories by deconstructing the cues we pick up from one another’s demeanour, luggage, reading material and other such entirely superficial attributes. We can play this game harmlessly, safe in the knowledge that we’ll never meet these people again – an understanding verified by its sensational reversal in pop culture, e.g. the surprising connections forged between former airport passers-by in Lost. Conversely, Up in the Air casts George Clooney as an ironic devotee of the emotional detachment permitted by airports, as sites of depersonalisation. So while Augé on one hand critiques airports as homogenised places that rob their inhabitants of their identities, we often love airports precisely because of this ‘surrender [to] role-play.’ In the same way that these grand, open-plan spaces are ‘non-places,’ the on-going assail of nameless individuals therein temporarily re-makes each of us as anonymous (they could be anyone, and so could we), briefly offering the fanciful freedom that comes with a suspended sense of self.

Airports are rife with contradictions; chief among them is their remaking of transportation as destination.  If we perceive “all airports are the same,” it is only because we want them to be. In physically providing a removed escape from the everyday, they reflect the mundane ‘everyday’ back to us, renewed and invested with purpose and fantasy play. The airport is the flight.

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