Most people are probably unaware that the South Terminal of the Vancouver airport even exists. Decades ago, it was the main terminal, but now it is reserved for small local airlines, and the occasional celebrity hoping to slip into town unobserved. A ten minute shuttle ride from the main terminal will take you there, but the effect is like stepping back in time. Looking at the two-story, yellow brick building and the small, aging Dash-8s on the tarmac, you half expect to see Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains standing around in trench-coats talking about what they will do next over a bottle of Vichy water.
Okay, that might be an exaggeration, but the scale and the pace are very different from what you find at the main terminal. For one thing, the building is no more than seventy meters long. Inside, it looks more like a shopping mall than an airport terminal. Counters for half a dozen companies line one side, and the center of the building is dominated by a cafe. At one end is a gift shop, full of the inevitable smoked salmon and vaguely Northwest Coast designs. You have to search to find the security checkpoint, which opens on to the single waiting area, which might manage to hold a hundred people, if it were ever full (which, in my experience, it never is).
The crowds are smaller, too, and their members more casually dressed. You don’t get many executives flying out of the South Terminal – or, if they do, they are flying upcountry to small towns where blue jeans and a T-shirt are acceptable as business casual. Who you do see are many men and women in middle age, heavy set and looking as if they might have fished or cut timber thirty years ago. A few music players and netbooks are visible if you look, but not many. You can count them on the fingers of one hand, if you choose, because, there’s rarely forty people waiting at any given time.
This setting makes traveling far more casual than at the main terminal. If you have to wait in line at the counter, it’s only for a couple of people at the most. The counter staff are relaxed and chatty. So are the security staff; while they are by no means slack, they are the only security staff I’ve ever encountered who could be described as friendly and forthcoming. When I forgot my keys in a tray after my belongings were scanned, one even hurried after me with them. They almost make an annoying and pointless procedure bearable, apparently well aware that the chances of suicide bombers targeting a flight to Campbell River or Terrace are remote. Of course, they don’t have to hurry, since there are almost never two planes taking off at the same time, but I appreciate the general atmosphere all the same.
When you line up and are led to your plane along the pedestrian walkways painted on the tarmac, you find the same casual efficiency is found on board the aircraft that fly from the South Terminal – or at least you do on Hawkair, which I’ve flown twice now. When was the last time you remember that WestJet or Air Canada held an in-flight raffle? Or handed out complementary newspapers (even if it was just The Vancouver Province)? Or invited you to take advantage of the empty seats to give yourself more room? Admittedly, once on a SouthWest flight into Phoenix, the pilot announced that we were ahead of schedule and detoured so we could see the sunrise over the Grand Canyon, but I can’t remember the same atmosphere anywhere else.
If you can’t guess, I love flying out of the South Terminal. If the airlines attached to it flew every place I wanted to go, I would use it exclusively and never come near the main terminal (except to view its display of Northwest Coast Art). Given that my parents didn’t have the decency to let me born independently wealthy, it’s probably the closest I’m ever going to get to flying in a private charter.