Sleepless at Stansted: A Nocturnal Airport and its Representations

Recently, I had an early morning flight from London Stansted Airport, located 40 miles outside the capital’s city centre. The day before, while cursing myself for not flying from central Heathrow Airport, I checked my travel options to Stansted and was left with two alternatives. Either, I would take the last evening train and sleep at the airport; or I could get some sleep at home but leave in the middle of the night to take, first, a night bus and, then, a coach. A little curious, I chose the first option, which inspired this blog post. Needless to say, I did not sleep at all. In what follows, I seek to make sense of this nocturnal experience of an out-of-town airport architecture and how different media play into that experience. Three types of representation formed part of my trip: a website about spending the night at airports; a TV show that another night guest watched on her laptop; and an airport information screen. Throughout, I explore night-time Stansted in relation to what anthropologist Marc Augé has established as typical of airports, in order to pin down what made my experience so peculiar.[1]

First of all, I started an internet search at home to check under which conditions a stayover at Stansted was possible. Google pointed me to “The Guide to Sleeping at Airports.” This website assures you that “[a]irport sleeping is no longer just for the cheap young backpacker” but an accepted activity for any early flyer. The online guide normalises the idea of being private and restful in a space commonly associated with publicness and passage. This approach challenges Augé’s definition of airports as non-places which are destined for transit and in which time is spent economically.[2] It suggests that, at least for a few hours every night, people can try to turn this site from a non-place into a place. The guide even promises first-timers to become part of an established community of “fellow airport sleepers.” This counters the loneliness that individuals experience in the typical non-place where they only share their status as consumers with others. [3]

The tips and reviews do not only verbally invite the travellers to imagine the upcoming experience but the website also visualizes it in illustrative drawings of what the bivouacs should look like. A lady in one illustration has gotten comfy on a row of seats, equipped with blanket, pillow, slippers, alarm clock, and magazines. Are past airport sleepovers shaping their representations on the website or is the online guide moulding future airport behaviour? The website leaves it undeterminable which influence is stronger, yet the acts of normalising and visualising the sleepover help to establish it as a cultural practice.

I arrived at Stansted shortly after midnight. Indeed, a considerable amount of people had come to sleep there and they had come prepared with blankets and even air mattresses. The check-in and security-check counters were shut. Individuals, couples, and families with children had begun to populate the floor in front of the security check. Early settlers had occupied the desirable electricity sockets to keep their devices charged for the sixty free minutes of Wi-Fi flagged in the Stansted review online. Others were wrapped up in sleeping bags and snoring. A quasi-colonization was in progress, leaving the colder, windier spots around doorways empty. Couples walked around, contemplated a spot as if it was a piece of real estate, only to move on and find a more favourable night quarter. Pathways remained clear in the middle for wheeled (suitcase) traffic. I observed in miniature what non-places in Augé’s view do not accommodate: the becoming of an “organic society.”[4] At first, people attempted to keep some distance from others. This was not an act of isolation but mutual respect of privacy. As the fringes of the hall filled up, settlers became neighbours.

This proximity put me next to a lady watching Desperate Housewives on her laptop. Her choice of entertainment is strikingly intimate. She did not turn to video games or YouTube clips, both of which are connected to usage in various locations, from desktops to parties to means of transport. The (horizontal) reception of a television show like Desperate Housewives is most closely linked to the home living room or bedroom. Additionally, this specific show concerns itself with residential space and its intimacies. By lying down on a pillow and watching this series, my neighbour privatised her airport spot. Her individualisation problematizes Augé’s claim that the airport non-place defies identity.[5] My neighbour brought a hint of her personal living room to her nocturnal stay at Stansted.

Another screen attracted my attention almost simultaneously: while the hall lights were dimmed, an airport animation on the wall stoically showed the steps for placing hand-luggage into security trays. Yet no one was currently allowed to pass through the security area. Stansted Airport neither stopped this light source nor customized it with information tailored to the nocturnal settlers. The screen confirms what the website guide suggested: Stansted “tolerates” but does not endorse this colonization. This standard communication which is neither specific to this airport nor the stayover passengers, corresponds to Augé’s writing on airports: the abstract institution of the airport contacts an anonymous mass of customers through depersonalised signs.[6] Stansted continues this communication at night, reminding everyone of its ultimately de-individualised nature.

Stansted Airport presents a paradox: it is both tailor-made and badly-suited for inviting sleepovers. Located out of the city and not easy to reach, it tempts the guide’s sleep-community to arrive the evening before their flights by train. They avoid the longer and more stressful trips by bus in the middle of the night. The airport is a likely target for individual nocturnal appropriations which shake up the characteristics of this non-place for a couple of hours a night and which made my time there feel so unusual. Yet, specializing in cheap flights, Stansted does not provide additional comfort to its stayover customers inside the airport hall.[7] The unpleasant lights of the daytime screen keep flashing throughout the night. They prevent the travellers from making the airport really homely – and from ultimately turning it into a place.

Around 2:30AM, my night ended abruptly. The shutters went up and the night quarters became an airport hall again. The website guide does not prepare users for this part. People looked unsure, hesitant, before they started wrapping up their camps. They joined the queue at the security check behind which duty-free shops encouraged a nocturnal shopping spree in glistening light. But that is a story for another night…

[1] Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Super-Modernity, trans. John Howe (London: Verso, 1995).
[2] Augé, Non-Places, 96, 103-104.
[3] Augé, Non-Places, 101-104.
[4] Augé, Non-Places, 112.
[5] Augé, Non-Places, 103.
[6] Augé, Non-Places, 96, 101-102.
[7] The only option for such comfort is to book a room in one of the surrounding bed and breakfasts.