I love an airport. More specifically my holiday begins at the moment the baggage has been left at the checkin desk. From the on you enter a strange world built on glitter, efficiency and no little bureaucracy but it is nevertheless exciting.
I don’t know how many airports I have been through in my time but the various combinations of security checks always fascinate me. Personally I like a security guard who is paying attention. I like when the x-ray conveyor belt stops, rewinds a little and then proceeds. I like to see a bag taken to one side and then spill its guts onto a table until someone in uniform is satisfied. The dead eyes of bored teenagers on work experience is not for me. Will I need to remove my trainers at this airport (feeling slightly sorry for my fellow travellers) and just what is that swab all about anyway?
I still get a tingle as I step through the little archway. Normally I’ve checked my pockets, removed my belt and strewn coinage in an infeasible large tray. When I get through securely I can only look back at my hat being buffeted by the plastic fronds on the machine and then churned into the rollers on the conveyor belt. I can look back at the poor folk with titanium buried in their bodies being asked to go through time and again before being prodded with a handheld device.
And then the world of “duty free”. I must admit this used to be an Aladdin’s cave of bargains but, like most of the airports these days, everything is pretty samey. Thanks to supermarkets at home discounting heavily and the limitations on duty free across Europe you can easily accidentally buy something more expensive than your local shops can provide. They are presented so beautifully though, interspersed with unfathomable local produce which will lose its charm the moment you get off the plane. There are many cupboards at home with stashes of grappa, metaxa, limoncello, “those biscuits” and “those chocolates”.
The cafes too are nowhere near as enticing as they used to be. There was a time when you could have a bargain breakfast before boarding the plane but there now seems to be a conspiracy which has changed the rules. Back in the day the airport shops were trying to coax any last penny out of travellers while they could. The footfall and competition meant they could discount deeply. This has now become “we’ve got them trapped, let’s screw every penny out of them”. No doubt this has been encouraged by the delightful Mr O’Leary and his charge-per-breath attitude.
Then the long wait. This is a game of cat and mouse between airline, airport and passenger. The airport wants to manage the flow of people to avoid bottlenecks and minimise the staffing levels they need. The airline wants to ensure all their passengers have negotiated the various checkpoints and shopping in time for prompt boarding and departure. The passengers want to minimise wasted time and to just make it so that fellow passengers aren’t kept waiting. The wily know whether “Boarding” is a soulless room in the basement or a warning to get ready to walk on. The only exception is Ryanair who really don’t seem to know the difference and don’t seem to care – if you can’t charge for it why would they? The perfect timing allows something to eat, time for a leisurely browse of the shops, a comfortable stroll through all the checkpoints and a maximum of ten minutes just waiting for the gate to open. It also involves an air bridge rather than one of the silly buses.
Once on board it’s time to lay out the travel kit – reading, music, games and snacks. You have to gauge liquid intake by the length of the flight to minimise toilet trips. Almost certainly you’ll be seated on the aisle seat of the row containing two frequent leg-stretchers, overhead locker checkers or urinators. Behind you will be the small child who repeatedly kicks the back of your chair while mommy repeatedly tells him to stop doing it. In front will be the screaming baby. Depending on which airline you are flying with there may or may not be food. If you’ve gone budget it is almost certain that the passengers sitting next to you will all have ordered the food package and it will be a curry of some sort. The debris will sit on their tray until ten minutes before landing. If there is food provided there are also some unbreakable rules. I think the bread rolls and butter can only have been hanging in a carrier bag outside the plane to get as cold as they are. No amount of resting the butter on the hot foil covering can penetrate the permafrost. This makes buttering the biscuits to go with the rubber cheese even more hilarious. The main course smells identical regardless of what it actually is and the vegetables are cooked to the lowest common denominator of dental capability. If you can’t eat it with gums it isn’t getting on the plane! The dessert is almosts always some strange blancmange confection which will take you right back to school dinners.
And yet I love all of this. Once that baggage is left behind the journey has begun. You are in international waters and surrounded by all nationalities heading off to strange and exotic destinations. The holiday, however mundane, has begun.