With tourist numbers on the rise in Iceland, the country is in a frenzy of construction and refurbishments are taking place all over: hotels are being erected and restaurants spruced up or even enlarged to cope with increased demand. Not to be outdone, Keflavík International Airport is gearing up for the imminent onslaught with the redevelopment of its departure lounge. To the credit of those involved, the work has been carried out quickly and relatively quietly, while both outbound and inbound passengers have been given ample warning about the potential disruption caused by the project.
For those who, like me, are curious about what these changes will mean, the airport’s dedicated website helpfully explains the concept behind the refurbishment: “Iceland is the antidote to an overly defined world. Everywhere you go, nature is ordered, routine prevails and thoughts are rationalized. Yet Iceland is an island and people that will never succumb to this taming. This is truly enchanting.”
While this made very little sense to me, I was still looking forward to the finished product. But when I arrived at the airport at 5:30am last week I was met with levels of chaos and cacophony never experienced during the renovations.
After the duty-free store (through which one is currently obliged to walk) there is a large (and largely empty) space. The seats that once filled the area have all been removed. If I remember correctly, there was even once a smattering of sofas—but these too have all gone. I appreciate that at the time of writing the refurbishment is still in its final stages so I am keeping my fingers crossed that the seats will make a return.
For the time being, the only places available to sit in the departure lounge are located within the F&B area. (This is shorthand for “Food and Beverage” and since it is used quite liberally on the website, it will be used quite liberally here.) The website goes on to proclaim that the renovations “will result a [sic] full range of products and services.” This is not totally untrue. Pre-renovation, there were a couple of places for a coffee and a sandwich. Now, however, the departing traveller or tourist has a dizzying five options for pre-flight snacking.
As well as an abundance of choice, the website also promises that the area will be “rigorously designed.” While such phrases are rather empty, the F&B area is certainly not. It is bursting with design—perhaps even too much design. Each of the F&B outlets are, for example, enclosed by a wall, decorated with the most dizzying of patterns—the design of which looks like a cross between a Magic Eye picture and the upholstery in the VIP lounge in an Eastern European nightclub circa 1989. The website promises that “the harder you look, the more the space in the departure lounge will reward you.” The harder I looked, however, the sicker I felt.
Fastened to a few of these walls is a small ledge, seemingly intended as a bench, or at least that is what people were using it for. It was obvious, however, that whoever designed it never tried to sit on it since it was far too narrow. I noticed an older gentleman, perched on the ledge, clasping his backpack on his lap, his legs braced against the floor in order to prevent him from falling off. Of course, had he entered one of the F&B establishments then he could have sat on an actual chair. But a word of warning if you do this: in quite a few places the enormous lamps are hung far too low over the tables so you do run the risk of banging your head when you stand up. (Presumably, having never sat down, the designer never had to stand up and therefore didn’t anticipate this danger.)
The website does promise a “richly immersive environment” and it certainly delivers. For as well as the dizzying choice, dizzying wallpaper and potentially dizzying low-hanging lamps, there is a further hitherto unmentioned sensory experience awaiting you in the departure lounge. Taking pride of place in the F&B area is everyone’s favourite juice bar Joe and the Juice. Now I have nothing against hip kids with hip hair- cuts serving up hip smoothies, but the hip beats they were blasting across the entire F&B area at 5:30 in the morning did seem a bit much. The intended demographic was right at home: it almost seemed as if they were hanging out at the airport because it was too early for the mall to be open.
And that is what the new departure lounge feels like—a mall. The Portland- based design team behind the trans- formation state that they were aim- ing to “[complement] the downtown Reykjavík experience.” It would seem that when (or indeed if) they visited Iceland, they only made it as far as the Kringlan mall. And by comparison, Kringlan seems a lot better designed than the departure lounge—at least it has sofas.
Keflavík International Airport was ranked the best airport in Europe last year, by the Airports Council Interna- tional. So good is the airport, in fact, that some people don’t even want to leave—as was the case with one wom- an who reportedly lived at the airport for a week. Her story raises three im- portant questions: with so many F&B options available, why did she only buy a Coke and a banana every day? How did the music from Joe and the Juice not drive her insane? And given the lack of chairs, did she spend the whole week perching? Or maybe that is why the powers that be have made the place as uncomfortable as possible: since there aren’t enough hotel beds for everyone coming to Iceland, maybe the old, cozier airport was proving too tempting for bed-less backpackers?