It started with a bit of time before my flight, some reheated pizza, and a crappy beer. I was heading out to Alberta for a conference last month and, due to a delayed flight, found myself waiting at Hamilton’s John C. Munro International Airport.
Now, to be honest, most people don’t wait at the Hamilton airport. In fact, this is a selling feature of the place. The primary reason that people catch flights out of, or into, Hamilton is so they don’t have to wait. John C. Munro is the anti-Pearson of airports. No sitting in Toronto’s disaster-grade traffic, no palpitations as you sit wondering if you’re going to make your flight or die staring at the ass-end of a transport truck heading to Brampton. No line ups to check in, no line ups to check your bags, no line ups at security, and you don’t even have to breathe the stale air of the jet bridge in the line up to get on the plane. You walk right out of a door, breathe a bit of fresh mountain air, and climb right up the ramp to your plane.
Hamilton’s is an airport situated and built to go through, and go through fast. You don’t wait at Hamilton’s airport. In fact, you barely even notice it. Which is why, when you do have to wait and actually take the time to notice the place, you start asking questions.
What, I thought, does Hamilton’s airport communicate about the city that it’s in?
As I thought about this, I took the time to notice what it was that I was eating: a reheated piece of tasteless pizza and an equally tasteless (though thankfully colder) beer. These were bought at the only place where hot food and drink was available inside the security lines.
The airport communicates that Hamilton is stale and tasteless. Yet, as someone who works downtown and lives on the mountain, and has had the good fortune to sample more than his fair share of Hamilton’s restaurants, I know that this isn’t Hamilton. Why is this? Why does Ham- ilton, which speaks a wide range of culinary lan- guages, speak the language of stale pizza and crap beer? Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Garth, or Queen St. Pizza, but the pizza at the airport doesn’t even reflect this, let alone the pizza you can find at Na Roma, or the Bread Bar.
I also took the time to look at the walls, or for something that showed me more about the city in which I was waiting. I looked in vain for evidence of the thriving art community in the James St. North area, and came up short in trying to find any information about the city’s vibrant and diverse cultural scene, its communities and neighbourhoods. If the Hamilton airport communicates anything besides staleness, it’s silence.
I think this is a problem. An airport is supposed to be a gateway — a first introduction — to a city. Our airport might be a staging ground and warehouse for packages, but it shouldn’t be a warehouse or conveyor belt for human flesh. A good airport should give a glimpse, a hint about the life of a city’s neighbourhoods, its commerce, its history, its geography, and its cul- ture. It should instil a desire in the traveller to go to, rather than through, the city.
As I thought through this, I asked another question. What is to be done?
My first response was to make a change to the name. Why not name it something that people will recognize and that will stand out? But, after tweeting back and forth with some leaders in the Hamilton community, I now think that first response was faulty. Perhaps the thinking behind the name is the ticket to filling in what the airport is missing. From an international, or even national, perspective John C. Munro (he was a junior cabinet minister under Pearson and Trudeau for those who don’t know) is a minor player. But he was — to the bone — a Hamiltonian, with all the grit, intrigue, and interesting stories that come with this city of ours. Why not take a page from that book and use the airport as a showcase for the grit, hard work, and interesting stories that make up Hamilton today? Perhaps the various communities, business associations and other parts of Hamilton’s vibrant civil society could turn John C. Munro International airport from the stale, silent warehouse it is today, into a show- case for the vitality of this great city? It might take a while, but it would be worth the wait.