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See what the world’s deserted airports looked like during lockdown

Tom Hegen photographed grounded airplanes last year when travel was at a standstill. The results are starkly beautiful.

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Airports are beginning to bustle again, but this time last year they were deserted. And that gave one photographer a rare opportunity to capture the beauty in their stasis.

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German photographer Tom Hegen wanted to convey his personal quarantine experience, and after hearing how airports were closed and planes grounded across Germany, he decided to focus his project there. His aerial images, which capture runways dotted with grounded aircraft, striped with colorful lines, and punctuated with luggage carriers at a standstill, are a graphic ode to travel during a time when no one was going anywhere. These photos are now compiled in a new book aptly titled Airports.

[Photo: Tom Hegen]
The images from above would have been nearly impossible to capture at any other time because of air traffic. Travel restrictions due to the coronavirus hit airlines hard. In April 2020, when these photographs were taken, the Transportation Security Administration saw a 95% percent drop in air passengers in the U.S., and at least half of the planes in the world were grounded. International air travel still dropped 60% overall last year, according to the United Nation’s air transportation agency. Without the usual flight traffic, Hegen got the okay to fly a helicopter above the taxiways at six major German airports around Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Berlin. He leaned out of the helicopter’s open doorway to capture the shots.

It’s easy to look at the drab gray cement of an airport at eye level and see the space purely as a means to getting somewhere else. But Hegen’s photographs make airport runways a visual destination. Shot from above, the airplanes almost seem like miniatures, perfectly placed in symmetric and correlating patterns and surrounded by brightly colored accent lines. But it’s also a reminder that the space is a feat of architecture and engineering; its layout is a beautiful and precise way to get all of us from point A to point B safely.

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It should also come as no surprise that Hegen was trained as a graphic designer, so finding a graphic composition in the everyday is second nature for him. He looked for clean compositions that emphasized geometric shapes, pattern, and lines. “The concrete ground resembles the stage for all the elements and colors appearing in the scenery,” says Hegen. “[It’s] like a miniature world.”

About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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