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An airport is a canvas

Saul Singer: With a little effort, Israel could turn its 'front door' into something memorable for tourists and business travelers
Ben Gurion airport's Duty-Free mall (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Ben Gurion airport's Duty-Free mall (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

We have a love-hate relationship with airports. We run through them, stressed to the gills and steeling ourselves for security checks and stale air. But they are our portal to the world and our first glimpse of home when we return. Airports are the heartbeat of a nation. Every union knows there is no better way to grab a country by the throat than to shut down the airport.

Airports, accordingly, become national showpieces. Heathrow, JFK, LAX, Charles de Gaulle, Beijing, Bangkok, Istanbul – for many these names conjure the countries they serve, for better and for worse. As the doorway to nations, airports are physical ambassadors, signaling much about a nation’s economy, culture and place in the world.

Accordingly, Israelis justly take pride in their polished, greatly expanded main terminal of Ben-Gurion Airport, opened in 2004 after many years of anticipation. While airports in many countries are bursting at the seams, and ours will be too by the end of the decade, for now it still has a fresh feeling and is within its planned capacity.

And yet, if Israelis, ardent travelers as they are, thought for a moment about other airports compared to their own, they might notice something strange. Our airport, has a major flaw that also represents a great opportunity: it is an empty canvas.

Land at Heathrow and you might see a full-scale reconstruction of a London park, an exhibit of historic photos of the Rolling Stones in 1965, or even a performance of the London Philharmonic. Land in Helsinki and experience an exhibit called “Sit Down and Seize the Moment” of chairs designed in Finland. In the Wellington, New Zealand airport passengers pass under a giant replica of Gollum, a character from the movie The Hobbit, which was filmed down under.

In John Wayne Airport in California, look up and you will see “Flight of Ideas” – a stunning 30 meter long installation with 21 aluminum birds with wings made of aeronautical charts flying over the baggage claim. A traveler wandering through Hong Kong’s airport can enjoy five themed exhibits on history and culture, including 17 magnificent costumes from Cantonese operas. Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport has a library, indoor park, and a taste of the permanent collection from the city’s Rijksmuseum, including ten works from Dutch masters.

Now rewind the experience of landing at Ben Gurion. You walk out of the sleeve from the aircraft and you might notice a very small “Welcome to Israel” display surrounding some elevator doors. It looks like it was stuck on as an afterthought by a random tourist agency. Then you spill out into a very long and empty, but sunlit, corridor leading to the terminal. The corridor becomes circular and surrounds a stunning atrium overlooking the departure lounge with a large fountain in the middle. The inner wall is all glass, providing a view of the departing passengers below, while the outer wall is a long, continuous advertisement, variously for Heineken, a German beer, or Chivas Regal, or Bezeq, the phone company.

The corridor becomes straight again and opens into a hall that slopes down toward passport control, also sunlit by enormous windows. Through these windows a large advertisement made of flowers can be seen, either for Nokia or Tnuva, the large Israeli milk conglomerate.

Are you beginning to get the picture? Land at Ben Gurion and, aside from the stickers on the elevator and the Hebrew in the ads, there is little sign that you have in fact landed in Israel. Yes, much of the airport is faced in Jerusalem stone, a quiet architectural expression of national identity. Yes, if you look carefully on the wall above as you enter into the passport area, there are hard to identify ancient mosaics. And as you leave the country there is a rotating exhibit of large posters, lately of Israeli sports figures throughout history.

But that’s about it. There is no real sign that you have arrived in Israel, a country that almost everywhere else is bursting with creative energy. As the country with more high-tech startups than anywhere outside Silicon Valley, some visitors might expect to see some sign that they have arrived in Start-Up Nation. Even these visitors might not be aware that the same spirit of innovation that infuses high-tech is also evident in the realms of social entrepreneurship, arts, and culture.

And that’s just Israel today – what about Jewish history, Israeli history, pioneering, the faces of Israelis who hail from a hundred different countries and cultures, the land holy to great faiths, and so on? Why is our airport so sterile that the closest thing to a sign of creativity is the beer advertisement?

The large, airy corridors and halls of the airport should be curated for what they are: exhibit halls in the most trafficked “museum” or visitor’s center in the country. The airport should be a place that inspires and amazes residents and visitors alike.

Why not install an enormous digital canvas stretching the length of the entrance corridor, displaying photography, film, and art exhibits? Why not surprise waiting passengers to musical performances?

The UK, France, Finland, New Zealand and many other countries that use their airports as showcases do not have an image problem they are trying to overcome. They simply recognize that basic self respect, healthy confidence, and national interest require that a country put its best foot forward in the place where most visitors gain their first impressions.

Every year, 800,000 people visit the beautiful, renovated Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Ben Gurion airport currently handles over 13 million passengers a year. Our airport is the biggest physical platform we have to display our creative energy. Let’s join the rest of the world in taking pride in showing who we are.

About the Author
Saul Singer is co-author, with Dan Senor, of The Genius of Israel: The Surprising Resilience of a Divided Nation in a Turbulent World.
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