the Emergency Almanac text / art double issue...winter 2003 / summer 2004

Mark Bayer

Airport Review: Toronto Pearson International

Airport Review: Toronto Pearson International

Today's column is the first installment in an ongoing series of airport reviews that will appear in The Emergency Almanac. With discussion, frequently devolving into a reflexive and uncritical denouncement, of an increasingly interdependent global community so prominent on today's cultural horizon, I think it's useful to take a more refined and balanced look at the components of this phenomenon, and especially the physical institutions that enable it.

Airports are clearly a symbolic and practical manifestation of the shrinking global community and bear more careful scrutiny than the casual observations and abrasive complaints which frequently comprise the extent of commentary on these locations. I, for one, despite the annoyances and delays that attend any complex logistical operation, like air travel and usually enjoy airports. For all the complaints, we, in the early 21st century, can fly most anywhere in the world in a matter of hours-something inconceivable to previous generations.

There are some, of course, for whom international travel represents anything but advancement. For these people, airports symbolize the impostures of an increasingly global economy and the anomie posed to more traditional social integuments. They point, for instance, to the recent SARS outbreaks in Toronto and Southeast Asia and note the instrumental role of air travel in spreading this disease. Although there is an undeniable cogency to these remarks, their amplifiers fail to identify this same industry as instrumental in mobilizing the resources necessary to swiftly contain the epidemics and treat them at their point of origin. Even the most vehement opponents of the state of affairs known as globalization recognize a certain inevitability to air travel. This is because an aeroplane, in itself, is politically neutral; it just as easily accommodates a professor of political economy traveling to lecture on corporate excess as the CEO of the multinational conglomerate who is the target of that diatribe. In these reviews, I'll try not only to describe the unique ambience of these airports, but explore the culture of air travel more generally with an aim to understanding why these places are the way they are and why they provoke the strong responses they do from the people that use them.

My first "airport review," of Pearson International in Toronto might seem, to some, a bizarre choice. It's certainly not as large or as well known as the truly massive and iconic airports of this world-Heathrow, LAX, Chep Lap Kok, or Dubai—all of which will be the subject of future reports. Each of these airports, despite a degree of homogeneity essential to facilitate utility, is notorious for offering a unique response to the challenges of maintaining diversity and cultural identity in a sector that, through its very nature, offers an implicit challenge to that premise. Toronto, though, is my hometown, and like many Torontonians and Canadians generally, I feel the need to educate the rest of the world about our fair city and the country in general that, for many, is thought to be merely a snowy appendage of the United States. But as idiosyncratic as my choice might be, Pearson remains a large international airport worthy of this type of commentary.

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Section 26 of the repatriated Canadian constitution of 1982, known as The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, states that "[t]his Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canada." This clause, like the document from which it derives, signals not only a procedural commitment to the protection and maintenance of minority rights, but to the advancement of ethnic populations and their special institutional role in Canadian life and in Canada's future. Nowhere is this active perpetuation of diversity more evident than at Toronto's Lester B. Pearson International Airport. Like the city which it serves, the Pearson airport's commitment to Canada's multiethnic heritage extends to the Greater Toronto Airport Authority's (GTAA) efforts to promote diversity in its hiring practices, the airlines which it serves, and services designed to make passengers, many of whom are immigrating to Canada and arriving here for the first time, feel at ease. Such a policy, however just in its design, often falls short of these goals and is frequently viewed as chaotic and an annoyance to the residents of Toronto who use the facility regularly.

Pearson is Canada's largest and busiest airport, receiving approximately 30 million passengers and 425,000 flights each year. In addition to hourly flights to frequent business destinations like Montréal, Vancouver, Ottawa, New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., Pearson boasts more departures to London than any airport in North America, with the exception of New York's JFK. Passengers departing Pearson enjoy non-stop flights to an ensemble of destinations in the United States, Europe, South America, Israel, and Asia. Pearson is the only airport in North America to serve Cuba (due to the ongoing American embargo of that country) and, at the time of writing, Air Canada has instituted flight 051 to New Delhi, the only non-stop flight between North America and India.

It is in this way that Pearson, like airports generally, occupies a liminal space between two-often extremely diverse-physical and cultural locations. If it is the aeroplane ride itself that actually bridges these locales, then it is the airport that functions as the portal for this uniquely contemporary phenomenon. That an airport serves this gatekeeping function is both a tangible manifestation of its legal obligation (it regulates travel and properly credentializes travelers for entry to and departure from different nations), and its metaphorical capacity as an international zone, not tied to a particular location due to the transience of its residents. It's little wonder then that making the public feel "at home" or even remotely comfortable in such a setting proves beyond the capabilities of even the world's most renowned architects and interior designers.

Like most large airports, Pearson serves as a hub for a major airline. Two of the airport's three terminals serve Air Canada and their Star Alliance Partners (United, Lufthansa, Mexicana, Austrian, Varig, and Singapore), terminal two for domestic and transborder destinations, terminal one for international departures. Because of the rapid growth of Toronto and the concomitant increase in air travel to and from the city, these terminals operate over capacity and, due to this overcrowding and idiosyncratic customs, immigration, and security procedures, catching one's flight can be a daunting prospect. Travelers to the United States must clear both American and Canadian passport control within the terminal to allow for more streamlined connections at major American airports. Unfortunately, this legal requirement requires a passenger to stand in several seemingly interminable quays before reaching the gate. And, owing to the GTAA's commitment to diversity, American passengers are often annoyed by the substandard English proficiency of the staff. In defense of the GTAA, however, their employment policy is not a deliberate or excessive distortion of the demography of Toronto, 60% of whose residents were born outside Canada and where over 100 languages are regularly spoken.

Linguistic diversity at the airport offers an enlightening view of the facility in microcosm. Announcements and posted signs in terminal one (and, presumably, terminal three, though I haven't been there in years) are given in Japanese, Cantonese, Urdu, German, and Italian, in addition to both official languages. Although this assiduous consideration greatly assists native speakers of those tongues, the terminal itself is a bewildering cacophony of unintelligible sound and the visual landscape is garbled and incoherent. The custodians of any large and complex public building must determine at what cost visual appeal is to be sacrificed for utility for the greatest number of users. Although the planners of Pearson have clearly chosen the latter, airports elsewhere (especially in the United States and Western Europe) have opted for the former with the result that arriving, departing, and connecting through these destinations is a much less arduous-and potentially even pleasant—exercise, at least for the Anglophone traveler.

Because the airport's terminals are quite old (terminal one was built in 1937), connections are not as streamlined as at newer and more modern airports, nor does Pearson provide travelers with the extensive shopping facilities offered at other destinations. Pearson does, however, offer the usual array of food and beverage outlets to satiate weary travelers, but again the selection is limited. This lack of space, however, will soon be redressed in April 2004 when a new terminal is scheduled to open and terminal one will be decommissioned and dismantled. Named by somebody with a genuine dearth of foresight, Terminal New can accommodate 50 million passengers per year, and will provide augmented shopping and leisure services for both domestic and international Air Canada passengers.

For many, airports are impersonal and sterile; they're utterly incongruent from the typical patterns of ordinary life (though of course there are many who use airports on an almost daily basis). Without a doubt, airports can be annoying; but they also offer an unprecedented occasion for doing business, reflection, and any number of recreational activities. The Toronto airport has the usual compliment of fast food restaurants and sports bars, but there has also been an attempt, of late, to recreate ordinary street life in the city. All three terminals now have a Mars Food outlet, a very popular and hip health food joint on College Street in the heart of Little Italy. My personal favorite is Amato, serving a variety of creative wood-fired pizzas-try the goat cheese and aubergine. Probably one of the last things anyone would consider doing at the airport is exercise. Yet walking the vast concourses at a very large airport like Pearson takes hours and you'll cover a distance of several kilometers, not to mention the abundant occasion for people watching. Of course it's my choice to walk; like most airports, more rapid transportation options exist. I walk so extensively simply because air travel does not otherwise avail itself of any other opportunities for exercise.

Passengers, therefore, arriving or departing Pearson are immediately immersed in a welter of languages, and a variety of ethnic and confessional backgrounds. Such diversity is certainly a reflection of the city which it serves, but like Toronto generally, newcomers are often overwhelmed by this frenzied environment that, many would argue inevitably unsuccessfully, attempts to cater, in quite specific ways, to the needs of its diverse plurality of consumers. The airport, therefore, refracts both the advantages and the pitfalls of Canada's institutionalized commitment to multiculturalism. But let's not get carried away here; certainly this is mostly for the better.

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