Something went wrong somewhere along the line. Fifteen years ago, if
someone told you that they’d never been on an aeroplane, you’d be a little
surprised, a little sorry for them; but at the same time, you’d also feel
a little bit superior. Nowadays, such statements elicit the kind of envy
normally reserved for Manhattanites with rent-controlled apartments.
It’s standard to blame the sorry state of modern air travel on the airlines,
those huge faceless corporations who seem determined to make our lives
as miserable and expensive as possible. Delays, cancellations, reroutings
via Pittsburgh: everybody has a story of airline incompetence. America
has no problem electing oilmen such as the Bushes to the presidency; it
will even elect Dick Cheney, whose company did millions of dollars’ worth
of business with the evil SLORC regime in Burma. But there’ll be a lesbian
atheist in the White House before anybody votes for a major airline executive.
My issue, however, is not with the airlines, useless though they are.
My issue is with the passengers.
I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, nearly all tourists
flew to their holiday destination, and we all know how exasperating tourists
can be. But the behaviour of people in airports is astonishing all the
It all begins at check-in, which inevitably comprises a queue which has
doubled back on itself so many times that even finding the end of it can
take a quarter of an hour. Standing in these queues is something of an
exercise in zen: the only way to prevent yourself from going spare is
to remind yourself that now you’re in it, you’re not going to miss your
flight, and that really, you wouldn’t be all that much better off sitting
in the departure lounge.
There’s also an art to finding reading material for queues. You have
to stay relatively alert to your surroundings: keeping an eye on your
luggage, jumping forwards in that weird leap-stop-leap-stop way that airport
queues always move, cruising your fellow passengers for someone thin,
young and good-looking whom you wouldn’t mind being seated next to. So
no experimental novels or university textbooks.
Also, space considerations generally preclude the perusal of a broadsheet
newspaper, which would otherwise be ideal. There are those people who
can read the Financial Times cover to cover without ever fully unfolding
it, but the ability to do so requires a minimum four-year apprenticeship
on the 7:04 Connex Southeastern service from Penge to Victoria, and there
are very few with that degree of dedication.
What’s needed is something easy to read one-handed, which rules out most
paperbacks. Weekly magazines are ideal: the New Yorker if it’s available,
otherwise whatever comes to hand. It should be engrossing enough that
your attention isn’t drawn back, like a moth to a flame, to the Arab chap
with enough luggage to furnish Buckingham Palace who seems to have been
in negotiations with the check-in clerk for long enough to have hammered
out a final peace treaty in the middle east.
More inexplicable, however, is the perfectly normal-seeming American
guy at the desk next-door, who wandered up with his passport and ticket
half an hour ago and hasn’t moved since. He’s slightly podgy, though far
from obese, with dyed-brown hair, brown shoes, a pair of slacks his wife
bought him seven or eight years ago on sale at Macy’s, a poly-cotton white
shirt, and his favourite houndstooth sports jacket.
But this innocuous-seeming man is rapidly becoming a hate figure on the
order of Saddam Hussein or Katherine Harris.
What is he doing there, at the check-in counter? What improbable occurrence
has caused his immovability? Has he forgotten his ticket? Has he suddenly
decided at the last minute that really he would rather go to Timbuktu?
Did he truthfully answer all those questions about whether he packed his
Nothing seems to make any sense, no one can think of any possible reason
why this guy should have been holding up the queue for so long. But the
attendants are still attending him, and hell would freeze over before
any of them made eye contact with the rest of the queue: despite the fact
that we’re directly in front of them, their ability to not look at us
would make a Parisian waiter proud.
And then you finally get to the front of the queue. The whole ordeal
has taken so long that all your fantasies of being able to sit in an exit
aisle have long since been forgotten: right now you just wish for something
vaguely near the front, so that the so-called deplaning doesn’t take longer
than the flight itself.
It’s only a matter of time, I’m convinced, until the airlines, so impressed
with their ability to get the word ‘deplane’ into the English language,
are going to start replacing ‘board’ with ’emplane’. “Ladies and gentlemen,
we will be emplaning in five minutes; would any passengers with small
children or Gold or Platinum cardholders please present themselves at
the gate for pre-boarding.”
That one always puzzles me: why would a gold or platinum cardholder want
to spend any more time on the plane than is absolutely necessary? Especially
the ones in economy class: what possible advantage can there be to boarding
before everybody else?
But the sheep in the departure lounge always rush the gate whenever the
plane starts boarding. Some of them even run there when the announcement
is made, just so they can get onto the plane as quickly as possible. This
is one part of airport behaviour I can never understand. They’ve just
been standing in the check-in queue for half an hour: why on earth would
they want to stand in a boarding queue as well?
My favourite passenger is the polite middle-aged lady who goes up to
the desk during pre-boarding, and is politely turned away, as it is explained
to her that she is neither a passenger with small children nor a gold
or platinum card holder.
That’s OK, she doesn’t take it personally, she stands there next to the
desk watching people file in, and then steps up again when rows 35 and
upwards are announced.
I’m sorry, the check-in woman says one more time, we’re only boarding
rows 35 and upwards at this time, and our passenger once more steps back
and watches as dozens of her fellow passengers get onto the plane before
her. It’s obviously unfair: she got the front of the queue before them,
but they get onto the plane first!
Eventually the sheep have boarded; you unfold yourself from the plastic
seat and half-stretch, half-walk to the gate. It’s going to be your last
opportunity for a while to breathe stale airport air; for the next few
hours, it’s stale airplane air or nothing. You suddenly wonder whether
you should have bought that fifteen-year-old postcard of the airport runway
after all, but then shake your head and remind yourself that really it’s
only funny in the artificial environment of an airport.
Of course, your seat is way up near the back. And the cutie you saw in
the check-in line is way up near the front. And you’re next to the Sea
The Sea Monster is polymorphic: it takes a different shape each time,
but it’s always next to you, squeezed into a seat way too small for it,
overflowing into what’s laughably considered your personal space. You
are accosted by blubbery arms halfway into your seat, the rank smell of
stale curry failing to mask the fetid smell of undeodorised armpits and
sweat-drenched sneakers. Worst of all, though, is the psychological torment
of the knowledge that it is going to talk about its job, its children
and its fear of flying for the entire flight.
You cast a panicked eye about the cabin, hoping against hope that a stewardess
might take pity on you and relocate you between the axe murderer in 38A
and the nursing mother in 38C.
But it’s not to be, and you have an uninterruptedly miserable flight
all the way to “thank you for flying Marquis de Sade Airways, we hope
you enjoyed your flight, and look forward to disembowelling you further
on future journeys.”
They used to say that the shortest known interval of time was that between
a New York City light turning green and the cabby behind you honking his
horn. Whether it’s something to do with Guiliani I don’t know, but scientists
now believe that in fact the unit of time shorter than which nothing can
be measured is that between the fasten-your-seatbelts sign being turned
off and an entire planeload of travellers jumping up into the aisles to
start rummaging around in the overhead lockers for their Samsonite carry-on
Of course, this alacrity on the part of the passengers doesn’t last long.
The couple in front of you are the sort of people who vote for Pat Buchanan
by mistake. Perfectly benign when confined to Palm Beach golf courses,
they slowly make their way, side by side, up the corridors and down the
escalators, their luggage completely precluding any possible overtaking
By the time the three of you get to immigration, an entire 747’s worth
of passengers has just managed to file in front of you from Jamaica, each
one of whom needs at least 20 minutes to be admitted to the country.
The really big annoyance isn’t the Jamaicans, however. Nor is it the
locals who happily waltz through immigration with a jaunty wave of the
right-coloured passport. The one thing which drives you over the edge,
the straw which finally breaks the camel’s back, is the idiot behind you
in the queue who insists on standing about eight millimeters behind you.
You try standing in front of your hand baggage. You try sighing very
loudly as you look over your shoulder. You try letting about two yards
open up between you and the person in front, just to prove that no one’s
going to butt in. None of it works: this arsehole behind you is going
to make sure that you can feel his breath on the back of your neck for
the next hour that you’re in this queue.
And that, your honour, is how I end up before this court. I plead provocation