On Friday evening, at an appropriately lavish ceremony in the Czech capital, Prague airport was officially renamed Vaclav Havel Airport. The grand gesture was made to honour the dissident playwright and former president of the country, who was instrumental in the Velvet Revolution that brought an end to Communist rule in what was then Czechoslovakia back in 1989.
There is something particular about airports, especially the big international hubs, that makes them apposite memorials through which we can pass and remember the great figures of political office and public life. They are gateways, focal points, the scenes of so many heartbreaking departures and emotional reunions.
But I am not sure that the international airport-naming community has always got this right. For starters, there are a number of statesmen – and yes, they are usually men – for whom the eponymous naming of an airport was one entry on a long list of often absurdly self-aggrandising achievements. Anyone who had the dubious privilege of viewing the blackly comic opulence of Saddam International Airport in Baghdad will be acutely aware of the problem.
But despots and dictators ultimately tend to unify opinion – if only in disapproval and disgust. What about your more liberal, right-thinking politician? Can everyone get behind them as a moniker for a modern airport? Well… in some cases. Few but the most strident critics of John Fitzgerald Kennedy begrudge the assassinated US President his memorial at New York’s JFK. But head down the eastern seaboard for just a few miles and the story is a little different. Even some passionate local Republicans struggle to attach the name of their illustrious former hero, Ronald Reagan, to their very own Washington National airport.
The most committed Gaullists aside, most Parisians will direct their taxi to Roissy, in loyalty to a nondescript little country town, rather than to the grandiose-sounding Paris-Charles de Gaulle. When in Rome? Well you’re better off asking for Fiumicino rather than Leonardo Da Vinci airport, despite the renaissance genius’s politically neutral and intellectually inspiring achievements.
The list of unlikely beneficiaries of this honour goes on and on – and I struggle to find many that truly belong on the over-engineered canopies of our global airport network: George Bush Intercontinental in Houston, anyone? Imam Khomeini airport in Tehran? Warsaw’s Frederic Chopin, George Best Belfast City, Liverpool John Lennon, Bill & Hilary Clinton in Little Rock…. Why am I not convinced?
Perhaps because I like an airport to have a designation that is rather more, well… grounded. No jostling politicians, prolific polymaths or pop-culture personalities, just a name that tells me where I am. I like my airport to earn its reputation by delivering a great experience, not by borrowing the name of a great figure from history. Excellence, efficiency, and enjoyment, all delivered with its feet kept firmly on the ground. Isn’t that what you really want when you’re about to take to the skies?