Page last updated at 17:07 GMT, Friday, 22 January 2010

A 'new human frontier' - Manchester Airport

By Ruth Clegg
BBC News

Damian O'Doherty
Damian O'Doherty is integrating himself into the life of the airport staff

Families with screaming children, nervous fliers, business commuters buried in their laptops and groups of excited teenagers are just some of the people who pass through Manchester Airport.

Little do they know that, for the next year, their actions will be carefully observed by a scientist.

Anthropologist Damian O'Doherty is spending 18 hours a day examining the complex relationships between passengers, staff and the general life of the airport.

With its own police station, fire service, huge retail complex and even chaplaincy, it has gone from a few runways and a departure lounge to a sprawling metropolis.

Airport cat

Mr O'Doherty, nicknamed the Terminal Man after the film that depicts the plight of an Iranian who lived in Charles de Gaulle Airport for nearly 20 years, says he wants to become a native.

"Some people live in airports and 30,000 feet in the air. They commute from place to place, have business meetings in an airport hotel and then fly off somewhere else.

"I call them the 'kinetic elite' - always on the go, fixing business deals on their laptops, at the same time talking on their I-phone and perhaps posting a Twitter to friends and family.

Olly Manchester Airport's resident cat
Olly loves to eat fresh tunafish and is sent presents from across the world

"These people can be in several different places at once, at the same time as being on a plane taking off from a Manchester Airport terminal."

He feels that the airport is becoming a new style of city, a new way of living.

"Historically speaking, a place that develops a place of worship tends to be somewhere at the frontiers of human existence."

Funded by the European Social Research Council, the father-of-one is hoping to learn how airports can better service their customers and delve into the array of relationships that happen under its giant roof.

He will continue his study for the next year, and then has the huge task of compiling information for the managers at the airport.

"Not only am I watching the customers at the airport, I am also integrating myself into the everyday life of the staff.

"I want to understand how this new way of life works, who holds it all together - from the managers at the top to general staff, even down to the well-known, airport cat."

I am trying to immerse myself into its workings and how the body of staff keep the airport alive
Damian O'Doherty, anthropologist and lecturer at the University of Manchester

Olly the cat, which lives in the airport's main office block, Olympic House, even has its own Facebook page and is sent presents from passengers all over the world, he said.

At least 20,000 people are employed at Manchester International Airport, with only a tenth of them being airport staff.

The rest look after the 300 shops, bars and restaurants that line the terminals, joined by the musicians and artists who often perform for the queues of passengers waiting to check-in.

As part of his study, Mr O'Doherty is interviewing customers to see what, how often they are in the air and their thoughts on the overall experience at the airport.

"Not only am I trying to understand the relationships passengers have with the airport, I am also trying to immerse myself into its workings and how the body of staff keep the airport alive."

He is also training to become a project manager while he is studying the behaviour of his subjects.

"To be honest, I don't know what will arise from this project, I am not sure what I am going to uncover but I know that at the moment I am eating, sleeping and breathing the airport."

He has become so obsessed with the hustle and bustle of the terminals, the first word his two-year-old daughter Imogen spoke was simply, 'airport'.

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