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The Lengths We Travel, Part II: The Special Hell of Airport Bars

Written by Dylan Jesse
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You’re in a major airport, and you’re tired. Suddenly, you see something up ahead–it shimmers. Can it be? Is it real? My god, yes–it’s a bar.

Trudge through the sweat-pant clad masses enough and you’ll experience the painful joy of seeing a place just up ahead, just within reach, just close enough that you can practically taste it. You know there is booze there, you know that you have found a place to sit down and grab a much needed drink. And then it hits you: you’re in an airport. In Utah.

And where better to examine the perverse nature of airport bars?

Finding a bar in an airport is like finding an oasis in an unforgiving desert. You’re far from your local, far from home, and you feel a tinge of comfort in its familiar setting, the smooth ease with which it lures you in and tells you that everything will be alright. And yet it lies. It lies like the whipped dog it is.

You see it shimmering up ahead. Your hopes escalate. You can practically taste the cool aqua vite that must flow from so glorious a fountain in so unforgiving a landscape. But then you reach it, the image coming more and more into focus: less a mirage and more a reality. And as you collapse upon your knees and stoop to drink, you find that the nectar in your hands is not the pure, crisp water you wanted, but a tepid pool of camel piss. Such is the nature of airport bars.

But what is it about airport bars that is so terrible? Having spent many hours in them, I think I may have some answers.

First, bars in airports lack something fundamental: there are no regulars. A bar in an airport is like a hooker in rural Kansas working the interstate: the clientele is always passing through, and there is no such thing as a repeat customer. Every person you meet is on a deadline. No one has the time to settle in and carve out a place for themselves in the ever-revolving cast of characters that breezes in from the terminal’s walkways. Businessmen from New York. Contractors from Omaha. Former Army officers from Seattle (but they’re good people, trust me). Drifters from Texarkana. It takes all comers and remembers none. Despite the gaiety of its lights, it cares not for you, nor will it ever.

Second, you and the bartenders alike have to pass through a level of screening and security that would set George Orwell on edge. What fun is a bar if there is no chance of someone rearing up, declaring that NO, “FAMILY MATTERS” WAS THE BEST SHOW ON TELEVISION BETWEEN 1989 AND 1997 and then punching a swath of dissenters clear out to the door? (In this scenario, we’re assuming that person was armed, but chose to be too cool to use anything other than their fists.) Having to remove your shoes and belt before going to a bar is antithetical to the very nature of what it means to go out in search of a drink. The shedding of belts and shoes should come after, not before.

And third, airport bars force upon us the most egregious of offences: they try to fill the void left by our locals with shine and lights and pap and nonsense. It’s hard to find an airport bar that isn’t a TGIFridays or some other abysmal chain joint. And if you do find one, they still fall victim to the previous complaints, and they will always be a poor substitute for the institutions that we hold dear. They masquerade as bars but cower as cheap shills in search of the weary traveller’s dollar.

But damn do I love them: their insouciance towards our destinations and our worries; their willingness to ply us with liquor while we flit from place to far-flung place; their total abandon of community in the local sense, embracing instead the idea that we are all part of one large community, all dissatisfied with where we are and all struggling to get somewhere better. And damn do I love, despite the cumbersome nature of it, having to carry both my figurative and my literal baggage with me while I stake out a rare and precious open stool and pen some self-serving nonsense. As terrible as they are, they serve a purpose. A terrible purpose, but a useful one nonetheless.

But airport bars are still just terrible. Go to one and prove me wrong.

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About the author

Dylan Jesse

Dylan is a freelance writer and general itinerant who now lives in what may very well be a some kind of hippie commune, but which has an official beer sponsor (thanks, Montucky Cold Snacks!). He has many thoughts on what you can do with your flavored vodkas, and none of them include drinking. He occasionally accosts ducks in public places, so please do not be alarmed if you see him doing this. They know what they did.

They know.

If you know of any breaking news or troubling rumors that should be brought to the unfocused attention of the drinking masses, write him a letter and include a SASE to [email protected]

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  • Kind of like stopping at a hot dog stand when you’re hungry. I fulfills the immediate need but you won’t remember the experience and won’t care if you never go back.

    • An apt comparison. They’re a complicated little critter, not really being a bar in a meaningful sense, but also not without their use. I’m starting to think of them like bowling shoes: they’re necessary, but if you had the choice you wouldn’t go for them.

  • They provide an over priced, under poured drink but you don’t care because you’re waiting to board a plane. Possibly your last drink, but you try not to think about that. You gladly pay $12.00 for a cocktail and savor its cool refreshment before having to board onto that tin tube like cattle. You just hope you don’t see your pilot on the stool next to you.

    • Maybe if the pilot was on the barstool next to you, the plane would be doing cool barrel rolls and inverted loops before you landed safely.