I hate airports. In the last 15 months I have been through 68 different airports, some of them more than once, but none of them a pleasure. Hurry up and wait describes the whole, unpleasant experience that begins before leaving home and clings like a bad smell for some time after reaching your intended destination. In the meantime, you are treated like a simpleton, ordered about, suspected of wishing to perpetrate any number of heinous crimes and generally made to feel miserable. All you’ve done is been stupid enough to purchase an air ticket. I am sure that every airport feels that life would be so much more pleasant if passengers didn’t exist.
It didn’t used to be like this. I can remember when air travel was glamorous; an era when being part of the ‘jet set’ was an exclusive club to which we all aspired. As a boy, I used to lie awake at night, too excited to sleep, thinking about the wonders of air travel, of seeing a jet plane, of staring at airgirls, of seeing famous people wearing sunglasses, striding purposefully into an airport trailing behind them a line of porters bent double under the weight of numerous suitcases
Of being able to tell my jealous mates how wonderful it was and how I got close enough to smell the perfume of Bridget Bardot or Raquel Welch. In the three hours it took us to go from London to Reading, the Jet Set would be in Barcelona. Air travel was exciting, exclusive and took you to exotic places in faraway lands that were a world away from Skegness or Tourquay.
But there’s nothing exciting about it now unless you are the sort of person who finds it fun to queue up to watch horror movies. You have to queue in your car to find a dropping off point, then you have to queue to check in a bag, then you have to queue for security, then you have to queue at the departure gate, then you have to queue to get on the plane. And all the time you have to rush from one queue to the next in a rollercoaster of alternating stress levels. Hurry up and wait.
Undoubtedly the worst experience is passing through security. The only relief from the dreaded expectation that you will be caught with something embarrassing is to hope that the beatnik in front of you has innumerable body piercings in sensitive places that will set off all the alarms in the scanner. But the reality is that after you have hurried up to wait in an interminable queue (that certain privileged people seem to be able to by-pass) and half undressed yourself, you are confronted by the security staff. These are people who don’t have the intelligence to become prison officers. They take great satisfaction from making everyone’s life a misery and enforcing rules they have thought up during the tea break as an amusement to satisfy their need for domination. The search for the Missing Link should stop with this lot.
Should you question why it is not possible to take your packet of Spangles on to a plane they will reply “It’s for your own security.” Should you feel bold enough to question this dubious statement (thereby risking arrest), you will be told “its Civil/Federal Aviation rules.” Ask to see the rules (thereby risking a full personal cavity search after your arrest), and you will be told to go to the back of the queue and wait for Customer Services to speak to you whilst you miss your plane. And that’s the bottom line that gives these Neanderthals power: we don’t want to miss the plane.
It’s not as if there is any consistentsy in the rules anyway. Different airports have different ‘rules’. In Quito and Guayaquil it’s OK to travel with bottles of alcohol and water, in Lima, water is allowed but the Gin was confiscated (security staff party). In Santiago we were fined $200 for attempting to smuggle 4 oranges into the country, in Australia water was allowed everywhere except Perth where we also had our Marmite stolen. This provoked one of those conversations that cannot be won:
“You can’t take this through,” says Matilda, holding aloft a small jar of Marmite like a trophy.
“It’s over 100ml.”
“How do you know that?”
“It says so on the jar.”
“No, it does not. It says 125gm.”
“Grammes and milliliters, they’re all the same thing.”
“No they are not. One is a measure of volume and the other a measure of weight. 100ml of Mercury would weigh more than 100gms.”
“Don’t get technical with me sonny, its going in the bin.” And with that, she tosses the Marmite into the bin whereupon it broke, thereby rendering any further conversation pointless. The triumphant look on her face told how much she had enjoyed our short debate.
The only thing I could do was to say, “Good luck with the prison officers’ exams.” And wave her a cheery two fingered farewell.
In China, it is forbidden to travel with a cigarette lighter either on your person, or in your hand luggage or in your check-in luggage. To attempt to do so is to invite arrest. Being arrested in China is not to be recommended but I couldn’t help it, feeling a little glow of satisfaction each time I beat the system.
In India, it was my trekking boots that drew constant attention. Without fail, I always had to take them off. No one else was required to go barefoot through the scanners so, in order to assert my independence, I would ensure that I always wore week old socks that smelt even worse than an Indian toilet. However, in India water was allowed as long as the bottle’s cap had been removed and discarded.
I could go on and on about the discrepancies between what is and what is not allowed but it would be profitless. The point is that the moment you enter airport security, you place your life in the hands of idiots wearing a uniform. These people are bent on making themselves feel better about their shortcomings by making our lives miserable. And if you think things are bad now, wait until the billions of people enriched by the emerging economies of the Far East decide to spread their wings. Stick another couple of hundred people on to every airport queue and you can add another hour on to your journey.
Personally, I await the day when the US Rifle Association takes the US Aviation Association to court claiming that the banning of guns on aircraft is against the US citizens’ Constitutional right to bear arms. No doubt the USRA will claim that the horrors of 9/11 could have been prevented had all the passengers been in possession of their full armoury of weapons and able to fill the terrorists full of holes. The fact that they would also have shot up the plane and, probably, each other would not count.
Enough of this speculation! When you finally make it through security and have got dressed again and repacked your bag (because the laptop goes at the bottom), you enter the world of airport shopping. This is supposedly duty free but, if that were the case, everything would be a least 20% (or whatever is the sales tax) cheaper. In the UK, alcohol would be around 50% cheaper and it would be a financial pleasure to spend some time in an airport bar. It would feel like I was going back in time to when I was a student and a pint of beer cost 30 pence. But, of course, it isn’t duty free at all and it’s all a bit of a con. I don’t know who is trousering the extra money – I think we should be told.
The biggest con is the stand that sells tickets in a draw that could win one lucky person a Ferrari. Needless to say that you can only look at it; no touching or breathing on it and for a mere twenty pounds of hard earned cash you could end up owning it! Frankly, I object to paying for a car for someone else to own and I end up earning the enduring enmity of the salesgirl when I tell her so.
The most bizarre airport shopping area is in Delhi’s new (almost working) Terminal. Thinking I could shift my unused Rupees, I tried to buy all sorts of goodies only to be informed that I was welcome to spend Rupees only upon presentation of my Indian passport. Otherwise, dollars, pounds and euros were most acceptable. “Aha,” I thought, “I will show them. I will go to the foreign exchange desk and change my miserable rupees for wonderful dollars.” However, even Thomas Cook wouldn’t touch Rupees with a barge pole.
“We are not buying Rupees, sir. Perhaps we could sell you some?”
Get stuffed matey. I’ve still got the wilting, dog eared notes in my wallet. Chalk that one up as another reason not to visit India again. Their economy must be worse than we think if they won’t accept their own currency in payment for goods.
Next up, you hurry up and wait at the departure gate. This is usually a fairly civilized affair unless you happen to be travelling on a budget airline that doesn’t allocate seats. Everyone wants to be one of the first on the plane and able to grab a seat of choice. At the slightest movement of one of the airline staff, everyone jumps up, pushing and jostling like a bunch of Chinese. Etiquette and social niceties are thrown aside as you become intimately acquainted with the personal perfume of those pressing against you on all sides. On one occasion, an Easyjet person stood up and said “Right. We are going to start boarding in a minute and I want you all to come forward slowly and calmly. I don’t want to get killed in the rush!”
Idiot! It is his own airline’s policy that has created the problem and we all ran over the top of him in protest.
At last we are on the plane and, if we are lucky enough to be in Business Class, able to tuck into an indifferent meal using metal knives and forks and cut glass tableware. But a word of warning: never take rows one and two because the overhead lockers are full of staff bags that are more important than your own. You will find that some helpful airgurl will, with a smile, place your hand baggage in an overhead locker some 15 rows behind you. Then, when you land, you will have to wait whilst 400 people move past you before it is possible to retrieve your bags. I have found that the answer to this problem is to remove the staff bags from your overhead locker and place them on the floor whilst I stow away my stuff. It’s an excellent way to witness several trolley dolleys moving faster than Usain Bolt! It’s also a guarantee of dreadful service but, hey, what’s new there?
Overall, commercial air travel is so dreadful and unpleasant that the rich and glamorous now avoid it at all costs. They prefer to spend stupendous amounts of money using private jets out of private airfields. Fortunately, they can afford to avoid the abuse. Not for them the hurry up and wait.