By James Wysong Travel columnist
updated 8/14/2007 9:51:22 AM ET 2007-08-14T13:51:22

My life seems to revolve around airports. I am a flight attendant, my wife is a pilot, and I write about air travel. When I look up in the sky at home, there's always an airplane overhead. Even when I'm sleeping I'm at the airport, now that airlines send their flight crews to airport hotels for short layovers. I'm not talking nearby the airport, either — I mean open the window and you see the runway.

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So I know a thing or two about dead time — those endless hours of time spent doing pretty much nothing at the airport. You know, the time you spend sitting at the departure gate, staring at the runway, because your airline insisted you get there three hours before your flight. Or the time you kill between connecting flights, or waiting out a delay, or praying for the weather to give you a break. I figure I have endured thousands of hours of dead time at airports over the last 18 years.

Luckily, I like airports. They are full of interesting people who are out of their natural habitats. Since very few people are at their best at the airport, dead time presents some good people-watching opportunities. There are always the loud, obnoxious cell phone callers, the late-to-the-flight runners who sweat profusely as they pass you, the stunning blondes you try not to stare at, and the frazzled mothers herding cranky kids, with the pack-mule fathers trailing behind toting all the luggage. Sometimes the characters are unexpected: a guy in a rabbit costume or a prisoner being transported to another jurisdiction. You never know. It's a parade of humanity, and I find it endlessly fascinating.

Next time you have hours to kill at the airport, think of it as a chance to do something different. Here are my 10 favorite time passers.

1. Check out the bookstores. Browse, read, or buy the books — whatever you do, it can take a good hour off your wait time. When my own books first came out, I would always go into airport bookstores, locate one, page through it, laugh extra loud and order five more copies. I thought little by little I could make a difference in my overall sales stats.

2. Go online. Some airports offer free Wi-Fi access. Others charge for it, but $10 is a small price to pay for an amenity that can pass the time productively, creatively and swiftly.

3. Look for displays and expositions. Many airports have interesting displays. San Francisco Airport has museum displays that change monthly, and you can visit the Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center from Washington Dulles airport if you have a long layover. Explore the airport you're at — you may be surprised by what it has to offer.

4. People-watch. Different cultures, attitudes and agendas all get mixed together at the airport, with many interesting results. Grab a coffee and enjoy the show.

5. Put pen to paper. Bring postcards or a notebook and write down any thoughts that come to mind. You might be amazed at what comes out and how quickly the time passes.

6. Do the java jive. OK, coffee is probably the last thing you need at the airport, but the long lines you usually find at the airport Starbucks will usually burn the better part of an hour.

7. Talk to a stranger. I've had many fascinating conversations with strangers at the airport. There's something about being outside our normal habitat that seems to inspire honesty, storytelling and confidences.

8. Play a game. Whether it is sudoku or a crossword puzzle for yourself, Yahtzee for the family, or a hand-held computer game for the kids, it can pass the time fast.

9. Riddle me this. My favorite way to pass the time is in mind games. Have everyone in your party share their best riddles and don't give the answers right away. Let everyone search deep and hard for the solutions.

10. Meditate. As funky as it may sound, focusing on one thing can really clear your mind. Take a break from the stress of your life, rise above your worries and, believe it or not, you will feel wonderful. Yes, even at the airport.

Some airports have standout food that I wouldn't miss. For example, in San Francisco, I get the Mexican Tortilla Chicken Soup from The Soup Factory; in New Orleans, I get a beignet and a chicory coffee; and in Boston, I head for the clam chowder at Legal Sea Foods. These treats give me something to look forward to each time I find myself at those airports.

How about you? What do you like to do at the airport, and what are some special airport offerings you wouldn't miss? Let's start a list. Post your comments below, or e-mail me and I will pass on your suggestions in a future column.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit his Web site or e-mail him.


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