MY LIFE AT THE AIRPORT – An Unprepared Ethnographer



If you opened any cookbook on how to do ethnography, the first advice you would probably find there would be that a researcher should carefully prepare for their fieldwork, in part also by familiarizing themselves with the culture and the history of the place they intend to study, by visiting it a few times beforehand, and ideally by undergoing some trials before the actual fieldwork really happens. In this sense, my preparation for the life at the airport was very minimal. In fact, I had almost no preparation at all, in terms of engaging in any conscious activity or attempts to get ready for all the possible situations that I could encounter while being there. I’ve never been at the LHR before, I’ve never actually slept at any airport before, I haven’t checked out the place before nor haven’t I even tried to look up any information about it online or in other words…I haven’t really given it much thought. When the time came, I simply packed all of my possessions into one huge suitcase, two bags and a purse and moved directly to Terminal 1 Arrivals.

For the sake of a peaceful first night though, I have made an unconfirmed reservation for a morning flight to Munich…just in case anyone would try to check my travel documents during the night. No one did. Ever! Although there were great attempts to prevent the homelessness at the LHR at that time, and other fellow homeless overnight dwellers were controlled and kicked out quite regularly, no one was ever troubled with me sleeping there. Being a white, well-dressed, young woman with a laptop, a smartphone, a Lufthansa suitcase and a EU passport, there was nothing about me that could possibly raise any unwanted attention. Later on, I was thinking about how different it could have been if I were a male, if my skin was of another colour, if I for instance had a few dreadlocks, or a different fashion style slightly distinct from what is commonly perceived as ‘normal’ in a modern society. As John Urry (2007) once pointed out, the airports are the sites where the social hierarchy of today becomes visible in the greatest extend. And with the intensification of security checks at the airports following the terrorist attacks of 09/11, any sign of abnormality becomes automatically suspicious. Thus, although completely unprepared, thanks to my ‘normal’ appearance and the fact, that I could ‘speak their language’ not only in terms of English itself, but more importantly because I’ve learnt the airline jargon as well as I had a detailed knowledge of all the processes and logic of airports and passenger air traffic from the years I spent working for an airline, my starting position couldn’t, in fact, have been any better.

On the other hand, what I did in advance immediately after I’ve decided to conduct this experiment as an (auto)ethnographic sort of research was the formulation of my initial research questions. In a qualitative research it is recommended to formulate the research question(s) as both specific, to prevent the researcher from being overwhelmed by everything that is going on in the field and allow them to stay focused on a particular issue instead, and broad enough, to enable them to cope with the unexpected turns the ethnographic research can often take (Cloke et al. 2004). Following the advice, I came up with two research questions that would cover both issues I was mainly interested in. The first one stemmed from my curiosity about how the life at the airport is going to look like. Thus, it was aimed more at capturing the autoethnographic experience of me building a home at a site that is seen as sterile, impersonal, unfriendly, extremely dynamic and extremely under surveillance. I intentionally didn’t propose this question in terms of if it is possible to have a home at the airport, because although this was never addressed in a scientific research in any detail, there is still a good evidence of people calling airports their homes (see for instance an article ‘Heathrow is my home’ on Therefore I rather asked: How, if at all, can the London Heathrow Airport become a home for me ?

With my second research question I wanted to connect this unplanned fieldwork-to-be with the topic of my PhD research on frequent flyers and places in their mobile networks. Therefore, the issue of placeness of airports in general and the LHR in particular came forth. As Fuller and Harley say: “What the airport is, depends on where you are in it, and how and why you are travelling through it” (2004:17). This diversity of meanings, which they mention while using the perspective of a passenger, can of course be even wider considering the meanings the (LHR) airport can be given by, for instance, airline crew members, airport employees, taxi drivers, family members and friends of the ones that depart or arrive, numerous homeless people staying there, or members of the neighbour communities having to deal with the noise and pollution from the airport operations in their everyday lives. Therefore, in order to narrow down the issue of placeness of the LHR to something that is more manageable, I’ve decided to solely focus on the arriving passengers. Why? First of all, the arrivals are still a topic that is quite understudied in the geographic research, and that not only when it comes to air transportation. More importantly though, I strongly agree with Fuller and Harley’s statement cited above, that an airport is experienced very differently when one departs, transits or arrives there. During departures or transits the attention of the passenger is focused rather on what comes next, they are getting mentally ready for the destination they are heading to. Whereas in the case of arrivals the situation is quite unique, I believe, because the passenger is instantly confronted with the locality of the airport site as they have to deal with what is here and now. Being it local climate, local time, local currency, language or accent of the airport staff, local habits, smells and noises, local souvenirs, or billboards promoting the city and country one has just arrived in, the passenger has a very little chance to escape it. Thus in the case or arrivals, they would probably deal with the question of where they are much more intensively. My research question therefore tried to capture the nuances of what does it mean to land at the LHR. Where do passengers believe they are when they arrive at the LHR? Is this London, or just a node before reaching London? Or perhaps something else? Are there any signs of the LHR representing some kind of a meaningful place for its arriving passengers?

Welcome to London – the presence of the city being built in the arriving corridors

Welcome to London – the presence of the city being built in the arriving corridors

Having my research questions written down and a basic idea of how I would like to get closer to the answers in my mind, I jumped into this adventurous fieldwork legs first. Quite naively, I assumed that after a few days of my adaptation process, I would be able to start with the ‘proper’ observations of passengers in the arrival halls, and later on with interviewing them. It is only now that I know how useful it might have been at that point to read through some of the ‘warts and all’ reports on how ethnography can actually look like in practice. This ‘baptism by fire’ is strongly discouraged in the ethnographic research of these days (Cloke et al. 2004), mostly because there are now quite a lot of great cookbooks and reports from experienced ethnographers available for studying. However, their ability to truly prepare a novice researcher for the reality of what the actual fieldwork can bring up is only limited. And if nothing else, I like saying that at least it was a great practice for me – a sort of transformative learning of how to do ethnography – because I believe there are still a few things one can only learn by practising them.

One of the first things I have learnt very quickly was that the adaptation to a new environment can be really VERY exhausting. I remember the frustration of the first 9 days at the LHR, when all of my energy was drained by only trying to perform the ‘simplest’, or rather the most essential parts of living – sleeping, washing, eating and moving around. How could anyone, I thought, even think of performing some kind of intellectual activity while being in the same condition as I was in? My eyes were red and stinging from the lack of quality sleep, my back hurt from the benches I slept on as well as from all the bags I had to carry with me ALL THE TIME, and my stomach protested against the pre-packed food. Andre Novoa (2015) made a good point in his methodological paper on mobile ethnographies, saying that a researcher should have a few exit points in order to step away from his field and recalibrate his work as well as to recharge their own batteries. I haven’t planned this ahead either, and accordingly, it stroke me shortly after I started – only 9 days after my arrival at the LHR I ended up in a hospital (well, actually in a few of them) due to severe digestion problems and exhaustion. Interestingly, and in compliance with what Andre Novoa was describing, this forced exit gave me a whole new analytical perspective as it has made me reconsider my strategies and again, come up with some new innovative solutions. When I returned to the LHR after almost a month spent in hospitals, it was a return with a fully flexible business class ticket in my hand – later on I ended up having 5 of them, each from a different terminal. That not only provided me with the repeated and free-of-charge access to the marvellous business class lounges, where one can truly rest for a while, but also opened me a door to the complete trajectories of arriving passengers along the airport corridors. There is the beauty of ethnography! Precisely in these unexpected turns that are so difficult to predict… and for which even the methodological opportunism is a good way to go (Cloke et al. 2004).

An unplanned exit point

An unplanned exit point



Cloke, P., I. Cook, P. Crang, M.Goodwin, J. Painter and C. Philo (2004). Practising Human Gepgraphy. London: SAGE Publications. 416 p. ISBN 0-7619-7325-7.

Fuller, G. and R. Harley (2004). Aviopolis: A Book about Airports. London: Routledge. 249 p. ISBN 0-203-93056-8.

Novoa, A. (2015). Mobile ethnography: emergence, techniques and its importance to geography. Human Geographies – Journal of Studies and Research in Human Geography 9 (1): 97-107. ISSN-online: 2067-2284.

Urry, J. (2007). Mobilities. Cambridge: Polity Press. 335 p. ISBN-13: 978-07456-3418-0.




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