The silent airport

Turns out there's quiet and there's too quiet. Plus, your strangest terminal sightings

Published July 15, 2010 3:01PM (EDT)

The other day I worked a flight into Brussels. A passenger left some valuable items in one of the overhead bins. One of the flight attendants suggested to the station manager that a P.A. announcement be made down at baggage claim to help the person retrieve his things.

"We can't do that," she was told. "This is a silent airport."

A silent airport? It turns out that Brussels does not allow public address announcements of any kind, except during emergencies.

And I have to admit, walking through the arrivals hall, it was hard not to savor a cathedral-like peacefulness and quiet. This, in stark contrast to the sonic bombardment experienced at airports in the United States.

If you're an Ask the Pilot regular, you're plenty familiar with my disdain for the noise levels inside U.S. terminals, where a hurricane of public address announcements and the chatter of gateside TV combine to push already frazzled nerves over the edge.

Just the same, over in Brussels, I thought the refusal to make a single announcement, in the interest of helping a passenger recover important belongings, was a touch extreme. Here at home, the problem isn't P.A. announcements outright, but the sheer number and uselessness of them. Enough already with Security Alert Orange, or whatever the heck it is. And a five-minute dissertation on airport parking policies is of no use to a person sitting at the gate waiting to depart. Worst of all is the way they are layered on top of each other. It's not uncommon to hear three or more announcements blaring simultaneously from different speakers.

Somewhere between America and Belgium is a happy and (mostly) quiet medium.

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 Congratulations to reader Tom McLaughin, by the way, for being first in line to solve the "Battery Dance" mystery. He gets a free hat.  Last winter I had seen a man at the arrivals hall in Accra, Ghana, holding a sign with the words "Battery Dance" printed in crisp block letters. I thought it was one of the funniest things I'd ever seen.

As was revealed almost instantly through a Google search, the sign was a reference to the Battery Dance Company of New York City (Battery, as in the area at the southern tip of Manhattan). Back in February the group sent a pair of dance instructors to Ghana.

I could have looked it up on my own, of course, but I chose not to. I enjoyed savoring the humor of that seemingly bizarre phrase. "Battery Dance."

As these things tend to go, the truth is pretty boring. I think the pre-Google world was a more interesting place.

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 In my column about the Battery Dance sign, I solicited readers to send in accounts of the most humorous or inexplicable things they'd ever seen at an airport.

The most commonly reported sighting was that of on-duty U.S. military soldiers and National Guardsmen, some of them carrying weapons, being wanded and patted down by Transportation Security Administration guards. I have witnessed this absurd spectacle once or twice myself. It's not funny so much as depressing.

My favorite tidbit comes from reader Bob O'Brien. He writes:

"Back in 1990 I was taxiing in a corporate jet down the runway in Asuncion, Paraguay. Running at full tilt from the opposite direction was a white Andalusian horse pursued by a jeep full of soldiers."

Brilliant. That could easily be a line from one of my favorite travel books, John Gimlette's hilarious "At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: Travels Through Paraguay."

Chances are you've never thought much about Paraguay. You should read that book.

Another e-mailer, who asks that I not publish his name, tells of the time at the airport in Abu Dhabi when a local sheikh and his phalanx of armed bodyguards arrived at the security checkpoint, headed for a falconing excursion in Pakistan. The bodyguards were asked to put their weapons and their falcons through the X-ray scanner.

"The falcons appeared to be fine when exiting at the other end. And I trust it did not affect their hunting in Pakistan the next day."

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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