Airports are portals to escape, but in New Zealand there is no way out

Steve Braunias
·4-min read

Everything seemed just the same when I flew into Wellington this week, which is to say the last 10 minutes were a living hell. Hello turbulence, my old friend. The plane sank like a rock, the wind picked it up again and flung it left, then right; down below, the waters of Cook Street boiled and fumed. But it’s a familiar nightmare. It’s just the way it almost always is when you fly into Wellington.

The truly disorienting part of arriving was walking through Wellington domestic airport.

Passengers are led on a kind of maze that goes through the ruins of the shut-down international airport. It’s poignant to walk past the abandoned emporiums of duty-free whiskey, chocolates, and perfume. The lights are on, but the party’s over. Covid, always Covid, doing its best to remind you of its awesome gloom.

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One of the most compelling photos of the year was an aerial shot of a fleet of Air New Zealand 777s parked up in the Mojave Desert. “They’re in a state of deep sleep,” said an airline spokesman. New Zealand’s international airports, too, have been rendered obsolete. Empty spaces, vacant lots, no longer required in the age of closed borders.

The reason I came to Wellington was to take part in kind of tribute to airports. The City Gallery is staging an exhibition called Terminal, featuring the work of international artists in response to airports as a physical, psychological and political site. Megan Dunn, an ingenious novelist who works as the head of the gallery’s public programmes, staged a one-off event to accompany the exhibition. I was invited along with five writers to give a public talk titled Requiem for an Airport.

Inevitably, the event had been postponed: it was first scheduled for August, but a second wave of the pandemic in the community forced the closure of domestic travel. Once again, domestic airports became graveyards, like a chain of video stores.

Requiem went ahead on Thursday night. The gallery staged other events that night, too, including electronic music, and there was a stall selling dumplings. About 600 people came along. The speakers at Requiem included slam-poet champion Jordan Hamel, who gave an affectionate speech extolling the virtues of the airport in Timaru, a modest seaside city in the South Island: “It’s amazing. It’s just a paddock, with a little shack, two planes a day and no cellphone reception. Also there’s a Gregg’s coffee machine with non-recyclable Styrofoam cups that’s been there for as long as I’ve been alive.”

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Wellington novelist Raj Chakraborti was a bit more global in his speech. He talked about airports as a closed zone, in India: “Because of security concerns, if you’re not actually boarding a flight, you’re not allowed into the terminal building. Not to see people off or to receive them: all that happens outside.”

Airports are forbidden cities in other ways, too, he reminded us. They act as hostile zones. “I’ve experienced both ends of the promise of an airport – as a portal to free movement and limitless discovery, but only for some,” he said.

“As an Indian citizen, I’ve had to supply salary statements, a letter from my employer, hotel reservations, everything short of a chest X-ray, in order to establish that I wouldn’t overstay a long weekend in France while visiting from the UK, or, still more absurdly, slip out of an Australian transit lounge on the way to somewhere else.

“While, just a few years later, travelling in Europe on a New Zealand passport, I was waved through with a three-month leave to remain with barely a glance at my photo, despite being the same brown face with the same back-story.

“Airports are sites that emphasise, often in humiliating public view, that when it comes to opportunity, dignity and trust, we are far from equal.”

Airports are also sites of farce. I told a story about mistakenly being given a boarding pass under the name of Tony Brunt. I really liked being Tony Brunt. It was good to inhabit a name with those two brisk syllables, laid out like a fresh shirt. That’s one of the things about travel, and which airports make happen: you can lose yourself. Airports are dreamy places. They operate as portals to escape. But in New Zealand, in the time of Covid, there’s no way out. You can’t even buy duty-free.