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The Space Between: Airports as Liminal Spaces

A liminal space is a strange thing. Rooted in the Latin word limen, meaning threshold, finding yourself in a liminal space is to stand upon a figurative precipice, ensnared within a transitional juncture. It almost always embodies a state of change. A liminal space can be physical or psychological. A lonesome staircase, a vacant hallway, a forlorn bridge. All of these are physical spaces. But what about the psychological ones? These commonly entail more suffocating and profound transitionary periods. Consider the emotional minefield of divorce or the disorientating upheaval of saying goodbye to one’s childhood home. This severance from the previously familiar and comforting moorings of the self renders people rather helpless in the shifting sands of change. 

Airports, those hallowed halls of transit and transition, hold a rather unique, perhaps even conflicted, place in our hearts. Airports embody the paradox of a liminal space perfectly: they are neither here nor there, destinations mingling. They are a true melting pot of cultures and gateways to distant lands. On the one hand, there is something wonderful about them. The anticipation (or, perhaps, stress?) that lingers in the air, the seemingly endless shops (why are there four WHSmith’s in every airport?) and, perhaps most exciting of all, answering the age-old question: where to have lunch, breakfast, or dinner?

The labyrinthine corridors and confusing background noise of announcements is enough to make anyone tense. But on top of this, the incessant movement and rhythmic hum of the bustling crowds, in combination with the disorientingly uniform interior design, turns an airport into a realm where temporal and spatial orientation become somewhat difficult. A true liminal space. Airports are a space where strangers, for one shining hour (or four, or five… ), are on equal footing, comrades in their shared desire to depart. It is remarkable how quickly strangers become kindred spirits when their flight is delayed. An airport is a true microcosm of globality, with cultures from all over the world converging into one crucible of human mobility. The lines of culture and identity blur. At the airport, everyone morphs into the same anticipatory entity, suspended in the act of waiting.

Airports also offer us snippets of refuge and reflection. Suspended in between two places, passengers are forced into introspection. What lies behind me? What is yet to come? For some, what to expect beyond the doors of the luggage collection point can be joyous: a partner, a family member, or a friend, waiting to pick you up with a smile on their face. For others, it is the trepidation of something new, something they are perhaps not willing to face. Departure can involve reunion, but it can also entail a daunting challenge. It can mean facing the anguish of leaving something precious behind.

Liminal spaces therefore force us to confront the inherent impermanence of human existence. They serve as a poignant reminder of life’s fleeting passage. As passengers watch the skyline vanish beneath a cover of clouds through a small aeroplane window, they are reminded the journey from one place to another reflects life in a broader sense. An endless ephemeral loop of arrivals and departures. The familiar will turn into the unfamiliar and vice versa in a series of inevitable changes. Nonetheless, airports also impel us to reflect on the fact that we should cherish those who are waiting for our return. Each weeping farewell and jubilant reunion drive us to recollect that it is often not the location, but the people, that make a place special. Even when confronted with the daunting prospect of ephemerality, there exists a silver lining. Liminal spaces prove to us that we are resilient and we are capable of embracing change, even if it is a painful and reluctant process. 

Image from Wikimedia Commons

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