People-Watching, Celebrity-Spotting Acceptable Pastime in Airports

Social media has turned America into a nation of gawkers.

ByABC News
January 23, 2012, 8:11 PM

Jan. 29, 2012— -- One thing's for sure when it comes to flying. You're going to end up waiting at an airport at some point.

Some frequent travelers endure it by reading books or magazines. Business travelers check e-mail. But many others indulge in what's become an acceptable pastime in the era of long security lines and delayed flights: people-watching.

"I am a traveler obsessed with people-watching," says Michelle Butler, a nutritionist and yoga instructor in Redondo Beach, Calif. "We're all sitting around with nothing else to do but listen to some tunes, read a book and stare with glazed eyes out of the window or at a person. I would much rather have the opportunity to watch someone, because it's much more entertaining, and I can get away with it."

Social media — YouTube, Facebook and the like — have turned America into a nation of gawkers. And nowhere, it seems, is gawking more tempting than at airports.

"It is no longer deemed inappropriate by many to stare at others, even if they do not invite us to do so," says Elizabeth Lombardo, a psychologist and author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness. "These are people you will most likely never see again. So the concern you will offend someone and have it adversely affect you is not so strong, because you will not come into contact with them."

There's now a website and smartphone app dedicated to people-watching at airports. On, travelers can post funny photos of people taken at airports. Since it launched a year ago, FreakJet has received about 600 photo submissions, says co-founder Michael Figliuolo, a Columbus, Ohio, resident and former corporate executive. "It's a guilty pleasure, looking at funny pictures online. That's what the Internet was built for," he says.

Figliuolo examines all the submissions before posting them, and if a photo subject asks him to take down a photo, he complies. One of his favorite photos so far was of a woman at Chicago's O'Hare Airport wearing a gold fedora, a multicolored shirt, four jackets and five scarves. "It was like the Goodwill store threw up," he says.

Favorite airports

USA TODAY's Road Warriors, who fly millions of miles a year, have favorite airports for people-watching. Among them: Los Angeles International, Las Vegas McCarran International, Orlando International, Miami International, New York's John F. Kennedy International and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, the world's busiest airport.

Even some smaller regional airports provide good people-watching.

Kenneth Morgan, a Bridgeport, W.Va., health care consultant, spotted Muhammad Ali at South Bend Airport in Indiana. Those who shouted adoringly got a treat. Ali shook their hands and gave them a signed postcard with his picture on it. "I am now the proud owner of an autographed picture of the greatest boxing champion," Morgan says.

Celebrity sightings ranked high on the list of favorite people-watching experiences.

Once, Mike Nicholes, a consultant in Portland, Ore., saw actress Ann-Margret in Los Angeles and ended up sitting next to her on the plane to New York. He confessed to her a crush he had developed on her after her performance in the 1963 movie Bye Bye Birdie.

When they landed, he gave her his business card, and two weeks later he found in his mail a photo of her in her Bye Bye Birdie years with the inscription: "Mike, thanks for the thrilling time at 35,000 feet."