UK airport hires writer to tell travelers’ tales

LONDON — Heathrow Airport has hired a writer-in-residence to chronicle the modern travel experience in hopes of showing frazzled passengers there’s more to flying than long lines and waiting.

Alain de Botton, author of highbrow best-sellers including “The Consolations of Philosophy” and “How Proust Can Change Your Life,” is spending a week inside Heathrow’s Terminal 5, the airport said today.

De Botton began his stint Tuesday and spends some of the time sitting behind a desk in the departures area, observing and interviewing passengers and staff.

De Botton, 39, said airport officials had agreed to give him full access to the terminal and to allow him to write what he likes. The airport hopes the project will give readers a more rounded picture of what goes on behind the scenes.

“My agent and I devised the cockroach test: in other words, I had to be allowed to discuss every last cockroach I might spot at the airport if that’s what I felt like doing,” he wrote in today’s Evening Standard newspaper.

He said airports — so often thought of as places to be endured — were fascinating locations where big global themes including technology, globalization, consumerism and the environment came to life.

“If you wanted to take a Martian to a single place that best captures everything that is distinctive and particular to modern civilization, in its highs and lows, you would undoubtedly take them to the airport,” said de Botton, whose latest book is “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.”

Overcrowded Heathrow is Europe’s busiest airport, but far from the best-loved.

Terminal 5, designed to modernize and expand the airport, opened last year in a blaze of negative publicity. Hundreds of flights were canceled and thousands of pieces of luggage lost after the terminal’s high-tech baggage-handling system broke down.

Heathrow chief operating officer Mike Brown conceded that opening the airport up to a writer’s scrutiny was “a bold and adventurous step.”

De Botton’s observations will be collected in a book scheduled to be published next month. Some 10,000 copies will be given away free to travelers at Heathrow.

Heathrow says it is the first airport to employ a writer-in-residence, but in-house writers have been adopted by institutions from prisons, shopping malls and football teams to London’s ritzy Savoy Hotel.

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