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Sociology of airports

In the 22 years I’ve been flying, and over 200 airports, I’ve noticed that people working at airports seem to enjoy (or perhaps “tolerate”, in some cases) a particular environment e.g.

  • way more people “doing stuff” than would be the case in any organised company
  • revenue collection distributed across multiple offices e.g. 1 place to pay handling, 1 place to pay airport admin, 1 place to pay for fuel
  • totally unquestioned crazy “security” mandating that you are driven in a car between each of these offices even if they are 50m apart
  • dirty offices with half the fluorescent lights not working
  • shelves full of 20-30 year old ring binders with stuff in them which was obsolete immediately it was filed
  • dot-matrix printers, not used for 10+ years but still plugged in
  • modems still connected to a phone socket, and to a long-dead PC
  • fax machines not used for 10 years
  • dirt and dust everywhere

It gets more and more like this as you go south towards Africa, so by the time you get to Italy or better still Greece the above description is pretty well spot on.

Shoreham EGKA, United Kingdom

Fortunately this isn’t the case anywhere near here, but you’re description is spot on for many airports I’ve been to.

always learning
LO__, Austria

Not in the US. I certainly have never been to an airport that fits that description round here.

Peter wrote:

In the 22 years I’ve been flying, and over 200 airports, I’ve noticed that people working at airports seem to enjoy (or perhaps “tolerate”, in some cases) a particular environment e.g.

Reminds me of the one time I landed at Cuatro Vientos (LEVS) for refueling enroute to Lisbon. When I asked for weather info, I was sent to a room with a telex machine furiously printing weather telegrams on an empty roller – having run out of paper. On the floor behind it was an enormous heap of paper with old telegrams. When pointing this out, I was referred to calling briefing at Barajas from a payphone booth on the street outside the terminal. That was far from the only issue, which was the second worst experience I’ve ever had with an airport.

When planning the flight back home, I determined that if I could go VFR with a 5 kt tailwind I could fly straight from Lisbon to San Sebastian and skip the fuel stop at Cuatro Vientos. I did have exactly 5 kt tailwind and the weather was ok for VFR… That was also one of the longest flights I’ve ever made at 4h05 block.

This was in 1989. I haven’t flown in Spain since, but I hope things have improved.

ESKC (Uppsala/Sundbro), Sweden

Some parts of Spain love, absolutely love paper and paperwork. It’s the only place in our business where people want to sign their contract at the notary rather than electronically.


I have often wondered about these same things, but the same can also be said for many facilities where it’s basically a monopoly. A notable exception is the Dutch government, which curiously operates extremely efficiently in general.

172driver wrote:

Not in the US. I certainly have never been to an airport that fits that description round here.

I most definitely have seen this in many places, minus the fees (because usually it’s just paying the FBO for fuel). The thing in the US that falls into this category is waiting for the FBO fuel truck rather than self-serve. Obviously there is self-serve in some places in the US, but I maybe did this once or twice in many years of flying there.

EHRD, Netherlands

I think much of it stems from a “Regulatory compliance” approach to things.

Regulations about things that should be “common sense” are often very complicated. Someone looks at a new regulation and thinks “I don’t understand a word of this! We are a simple small airport. What are we supposed to do with this?”. So they get in a consultant who says “It’s all simple enough really. All you need to do is place this template procedure manual (which I’ve helpfully inserted your airport name into in all the relevant sections) on your bookshelf. Show it to the inspectors if they ever come to check. You’ll need this printer set up here connected to this services. That will leave you 100% compliant”.

Everyone is happy.

20 years later, the procedure manual is still there and nobody has ever read it. Nobody knows what it’s ensuring compliance with anymore (but they never really knew much about it anyway). The printer is old and outdated and they have to pay a fortune for the special ink cartridges and nobody uses it. But everyone is afraid to change it because the model is written in the all important procedure manual that they might have to show the inspector, and they were told not to change it by the consultant all that time ago.

The regulation is actually superseded and is of no relevance anymore. But nobody knows that.

It’s unfortunate that what should be simple regulations, which just encode common sense, are often written in airy fairy language that makles them very difficult for small organisations to understand. This is the result.

I’m sure the drive 50mtrs thing is also part of some safety procedure manual that everyone knows they have to comply with but is unsure how to change it (or the implications of changing it). Often it could be replaced by a “do not cross red line” or a assessment that there is no actual risk involved. But nobody knows for sure if that can be done or how to do it. So they just continue to insist that you are driven those 50 meters.

EIWT Weston, Ireland

Not in the US. I certainly have never been to an airport that fits that description round here

In the past I visited lots of US airports that had ‘hole in the wall’ FBOs and always enjoyed it. It certainly did not present any problems, quite the opposite, it was friendly and enjoyable. Communication if any was by phone or alternately by calling on Unicom to have the owners 12 year old daughter tell you the wind because the owner was up to his elbows in the hangar. There was and is no other reason to communicate before arrival. The non-US issues with communication for no valid reason, (over) staffing and generally being ripped off have never been present at little US FBOs and airports, and airport bums when present are part of the attraction of flying.

Nowadays I only occasionally go to an airport where contact with an FBO is necessary, and in many cases it’s not possible. Once in a while I do deal with an FBO, to collect a rental car. Otherwise it’s mostly listen to ASOS, land, pull up and pump my own fuel, then park in public parking or just find an unoccupied spot, pay in a box or not at all and Uber/Taxi/shuttle out of there.

Last Edited by Silvaire at 19 Sep 15:04

One notable aspect of this is that the employees willing to work in this scene can be recruited only from a narrow band of people.

I am not talking about needing to spend 10k on curtains to attract “top bank staff talent”, or even to attract most young people today (who can get a job in a bank type office where they have spent 10k on curtains) but nowadays the recruitment aspect will be pretty hard. It does tend to explain why the people working there tend to be pretty hard cases.

It’s a world which time forgot

It is also a world where lazy people can survive for ever. That is another aspect of a rule-bound environment. Lazy people love it.

Shoreham EGKA, United Kingdom

dublinpilot wrote:

Regulations about things that should be “common sense” are often very complicated

Yes, like for instance regulations for certified aircraft

  • Why do we still use 1930 technology engines and engine systems? Answer – compliance with regulations
  • Why do we use airframes designed in the 1950-60? Answer – compliance with regulations
  • Why do we still use fuel with led ? Answer – compliance with regulations + the regulations themselves are insanely antiquated.
  • and so on

There are newer (and vastly better) options. This involves turbines, jet and TP, as well as new airframes for them. The cost is however prohibiting for the vast majority of GA pilots.

The only difference here is the degree of sanitation. In some places people like to clean up the place every now and then, keep it in working order, regardless of the degree of antiqueness. It’s rather funny. A plane made in the 1970s – nice piece of equipment. Early 2000 office inventory – WTF !!!

Funny thing about dot matrix printers. A couple of weeks ago the check in at a gate at Gardermoen didn’t work. The scanners wouldn’t accept people’s tickets. The lady behind the desk was getting increasingly desperate. A couple of other people came, things eventually got sorted out. But not after a dot matrix printer behind the desk had spewed out pages and pages, of I guess something. “important” The lady studied it for a while. Seems like dot matrix printers are an essential airport thing

I think the Avinor airports are nice enough for a GA pilot. You will be picked up by an Avinor car, to and from your plane, and the people are generally nice. There isn’t much stuff there however, except the usual things outside security areas. A coffee bar or something All the planning things are expected to be done online through IPPC regardless. On private strips there is nothing. The entire admin consists of a mail box on a wall, at most. You could get lucky and arrive at a time for waffles and coffee in the local club house though

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