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Into the Blue with the Terminal Blues

Wait, hurry up, who are you? Belt off, hurry up, wait. There was a time when air travel was associated with glamour; a world of long-legged elegant women inviting you to converse with dashing uniformed gents as they flew you across the sunshine land that lies above the clouds. Today, air travel seems a lot more grounded. These days planes are as populous as pigeons, and just as unappealing. Vector-like, they spread the human infection from place to place. Not only do airlines provide the means, but thanks to the politically challenged economics of the industry, they also cover some of the cost of the journey. Most flights are effectively subsidized by the loss-making carrier. Even so, perhaps the carrier’s munificence does not go far enough. Too often, I feel like they should be paying me to fly. To be fair, often somebody is paying me to fly. The ironic need for interpersonal contact in an impersonal materialistic world dooms some of us to being regularly flung backwards and forwards across the globe. The rest sit in envy, still seemingly seeing travel through the joyous lens of a 60’s kaleidoscope. To have friends, family, colleagues and associates on another side of the planet would seem miraculous to most people living a few hundred years ago. Miracle though it is, every day spent away from home is a day when I am not a good neighbour or bastion of my local community.

The transitory nature of our modern lives is epitomized in the high church of transit: the airport. It is a place where all your needs are catered for, so long as you only need to shop, eat or use the loo. This place serves the human need to be somewhere else. But do they have to do such a good job in making you want to escape the airport’s confines as rapidly as possible, even though you have no control over the time taken for the ‘minor repairs’ needed by your plane? This church’s eternally refreshing congregation most commonly pursues the worship of the sun, or the worship of the dollar. The airport offers nothing for the soul that the passenger has not brought with them. Most of all, the airport is the place where human relations are most minimalist and utilitarian in nature. There are few friends to be made in this congregation. It is an intersection, and the greatest recognition you can give a fellow traveller is to avoid bumping into them as your paths criss-cross, or to assume your proper place in line instead of cutting ahead. Needless to say, these mediocre hopes are too often dashed by the inevitable dregs of abundant humanity. Even when arriving at your destination, the airport is typically a lonely place. Contrary to the schmaltz found in some movies, few of us are greeted by a happy smiling face and a hug as we make our exit. Being met by a friend would always be the premium class way to end a journey. A man holding up a sign with your name written on it is the business class finale. For most of us, the reward on arrival is to look for those signs that point towards the ill-understood public transport options, and to try to determine the cheapest way into town.

When flying, the principal mode of transport is not flying. It is queuing, so long as you measure the journey in terms of time, not distance. Airports love nothing better than to have everyone queue, in order to maximize the efficiency of their service – which they measure by cost, not quality. No better example comes to mind than the one I went through today, mid-way through writing this post. Arriving at Heathrow Terminal 1 for a connecting flight at Terminal 3, I was obliged to join the back of yet another enormous queue to scan passengers (though I find it hard to believe that somewhere in the airspace between Portugal and Britain I became significantly more dangerous). As I joined the queue, three ladies, seemingly employed to manage the queue, loudly discussed the need to open another one of the scanning machines. Hmmm. They pay people to debate whether expensive machines should be left idle. What an excellent way to anger both shareholders and customers alike.

Saying that, the misery of air travel is not caused solely by bad management. You do not need to be much of a student of the airline business to realize many carriers have gone bankrupt over the years. The only people oblivious to this are striking airline employees, convinced that a broken business model is best fixed by taking a hammer to the few pieces that seemed intact. Losses cannot be turned into profits through the magic of giving staff better pay and conditions. I would be very happy for staff to have better pay and conditions, if I ever felt better treated than BSE-infected cattle, or if a basic level hospitality did not require a seat that costs four times the economy price. The worst example of comically atrocious service I endured came on a flight where the cabin crew decided customers would best enjoy their meal if its remains were left to visibly rot in front of passengers for several hours longer than necessary. With just minutes left of the flight, the cabin crew started to haphazardly collect the offending waste. They did this in such a flurry and confusion that for no particularly obvious reason, mine was left to last. The pilot, doing his job at normal, had long since instructed passengers to belt up and put their seatbacks and trays in the upright position. Fair enough, if I could. But when one of the dim-witted stewardesses reinforced the message, telling me pointedly about my failure to comply with the pilot’s instructions, I was left with no alternative but to point out her rather remarkable failure to do her job as a waitress of the skies. Perhaps the airlines should take a tip from the more static restaurant business, and pay their staff minimum wages whilst encouraging customers to pay tips to make up the shortfall. Doubtless the silly stewardess is amongst the thousands who voted to go on strike. Twenty years of ash clouds loom darkly over British Airway’s future. What joy for their rivals if BA staff can push their employer over the brink of destruction, lessening the competition they face. After all, Britain is one country that is both so highly indebted and so laissez faire in economic culture that a state bail-out cannot be assumed. If the death of BA means an improved probability of flying on an airline that neither needs nor wants to employ bolshy cabin staff, I too would celebrate their demise.

With all the queuing that takes place in the church of transit, human nature dictates that some people tend to over-queue. Training can sometimes be too successful. If your seat is allocated, then why rush to be first in line to be first to board your passenger pigeon? For the longest time I considered an eagerness to board quickly as the product of a mental aberration. Whatever time a person boards, the plane takes off and lands at the same time for all. More recently I have realized the foolishness of my thinking. I was thinking I was such a clever chap, because I travel light and only carry cabin baggage (which saves me from the extraordinary tedium of watching innumerable cases circling the luggage merry-go-round, only to eventually conclude that mine is not amongst them). Yes, I like to think I am clever by travelling light. But when I get to my seat, time and again there is no overhead luggage space remotely nearby. So my precious laptop gets whisked away, placed near someone who might be capable of lying when asked ‘did you pack this bag yourself?’ The surfeit of luggage of all types rather makes me wonder just how much stuff is needless carried around the world. People, when it comes time to travel, please learn to buy smaller tubes of toothpaste.

In the church of transit, nobody knows who you are, but they fear what you might do. This places a lot of emphasis on security – the check for the raw materials of trouble-making. Ask what is in the bags. Scan the bags. Look in the bags. Shoes off. Belt off. Anything in your pockets? A beep and please stand to one side so we can check your person. What is this? A spectacles case you say. And this? A laser pointer. Please open it up so we can see what is inside. You do not know how to open it up? Okay, we had better break the thing by trying to open it up. For all its annoyances, it is hard to argue with the reasons for a security check. What is less obvious is the need for the repeat check. Or for the occasional repeat of the repeat check. Am I alone in thinking that multiple luggage checks are a reason to doubt security rather than be reassured by it? Much the same can be said about verifying the passenger’s identity and that they have a valid ticket. On one occasion at Heathrow Airport, an airport so popular that you would hope their was ample opportunity to learn how to be efficient, I was asked to show my passport and boarding pass three times within the space of ten minutes. On the third occasion, I was sat in the short-term concentration camp now deployed at so many airports to hold the waiting-to-board as opposed to those merely waiting-to-waiting-to-board. As the camp commandants had supposedly limited access to those with the requisite travel documentation, it was galling to then find two people in official uniform, wandering around the passenger pen, asking for exactly the same documents. The two of them, a man and a lady, meandered. They followed no pattern that I could discern, and were oblivious to whom had checked whom already. After a short while, the inevitable happened, and the male half of this wandering pair of passport examiners shambled up to a passenger who had been reviewed by the female half only one minute earlier. The passenger, a polite and elderly fellow, explained he had had his passport checked already, to which the response was a courteous apology. And there you have it: the incompetence and inefficacy of security. Should we expect that, having craftily circumvented not one but two checks already, a hardened criminal, confronted with this last ditch tripwire that might catch him out, will lack the ingenuity to simply say: “don’t look at my passport, the woman’s already done me”?

Flying aboard the passenger pigeon is as close as many of us come to paying for a taste of hell. It is an investment in hope; that the misery of the present moment can lead to the increased happiness of the future. The similarities between the airplane cabin and hell are many in number. To begin with, we tend to imagine hell as a place that is either too hot or too cold. Airplanes are invariably too cold or too hot, and certainly not kept at a temperature with any association to origin or destination. So no choice of travel wear will ever be right for flying. We also imagine hell to be crammed full of forlorn souls. How often do you spend time in a place more crammed than the typical economy cabin? The clincher for me comes from philosophy. Sartre wrote that ‘hell is others’. He may have been thinking of a long haul flight stocked with babies that cry all night, or a low budget excursion dominated by terrifying, braying mobs of drunken merrymakers.

When I got to my seat in the final of the three flights I took today, I feared the worst. The cabin looked virtually empty, but I had still been allocated a window seat next to a stranger. As someone prepared to obey the rules, I do not mind sitting in my seat. What I mind is that everybody else gets to lie down in a row of four seats and luxuriate in an unusual level of comfort, all because the fellow sat next to me is too slow to move when we are allowed to unbuckle belts. And slow he was. The fellow, a South African named Steve, instead engaged me in a tremendous and unexpectedly diverse conversation that ranged from the construction industry to South African economics to how Steve uses the internet to lobby for improved fire safety. Fascinating stuff. The blues have melted way as I traverse a starlit sky; my passenger pigeon is nearing home. Perhaps I will ask one of those long-legged elegant women of Qatar Airways for another drink, and flirt a little when I do.

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