In Defence of Curmudgeonliness 1: Air Travel

Air travel? Don’t you love it?

Younger members of my family are of the opinion that my policy of being a grumpy old git at airports is a deliberate ploy to irritate them and ‘ruin the holiday atmosphere’. However, the truth is that I am unable to share the enthusiasm of those for whom flying is the norm, a pleasure and a right; setting aside the hypocrisy of ignoring any ecological concerns, their relaxed, sanguine and pragmatic views are entirely alien to me; and whatever they say about my being more likely to be run down by an ice-cream van in Antarctica than killed during air travel, my distaste for airports and flying machines remains intractable.

In deference to my nearest and dearest, I have pondered long and hard upon the topic. Here are my objections:

  1. Discomfort

I am 6 foot 4½ inches tall and have recently celebrated my fifty-seventh birthday. With these credentials, who would not dread paying hard cash to be folded in three and wedged amongst strangers for eleven hours between closely packed seats?

  1. Swelling

The last time I flew, I hobbled up the disembarkation tube with the splendidly swollen feet and ankles of a true Old Fart; a puffiness which did indeed subside after a mere couple of days but which is clearly a precursor of thrombosis, a coronary or stroke during my next long-haul flight. (And this despite conscientious flexing of calf muscles to encourage blood-flow; not to mention regular periods spent disconsolately pacing in small circles outside the loo.)

  1. Nausea

Turbulence is a blight in flight, especially when I’m trying to sleep. How apt that the leaps and plummets of the aircraft so perfectly correspond with my own downward spiral of emotions; not to mention the momentary loss of abdominal control as my thoughts turn to the five miles of nothingness beneath my feet.

  1. Patronisation

My section of the plane is always under the gimlet eye of that flight attendant, the one po-faced and overly professional member of the crew who has been specially employed to keep both passengers and colleagues in line. He is the one (and it is invariably a He) who, with unsmiling adherence to Procedure, insists that the baby three rows in front of me is thoroughly woken up and correctly attached to its seat belt; the steward’s strict training ensures that he can unswervingly ignore both the child’s subsequent screams of bewildered outrage at its loss of nocturnal routine, and the despairing wishes of its distraught and catatonic mother.

  1. Frustration

My in-flight entertainment system is guaranteed to be the only one on the entire plane which declines to function. Poke and prod at the screen as I might, no much-needed divertissement will be forthcoming, either audio or visual. That I am the sole recreation-free punter on board is confirmed to me when, whilst performing my anti-mortality physical jerks from the rear of the cabin (see above), I can observe every seat-back – but mine – enlivened by the bright rectangle of Amusement. And will any member of my family (for whose tickets in all probability I have paid a fortune) offer to swap seats with me so that we might share the movies on offer? Unlikely.

However (and you knew there’d be a However), the greatest of my objections to this avian form of personal purgatory actually concerns:

  1. Humiliations and Confiscations

Lest any member of my aforementioned family is tempted to give me the look and enquire whether I’ve ever considered ‘getting over myself’, may I point out that my feelings for and/or against airport security officers the world over have been reignited only this week by reports of a particularly bureaucratic confiscation at Gatwick.

This news has rekindled old resentments.

In the name of Our Security (said he, bounding up the steps to today’s Podium of Outrage), the authorities have historically vied with each other to mete out the juiciest and most humiliating of inconveniences for the avid air traveller. It is obvious to me that the plotters gather every Tuesday in a sparsely furnished room adjacent to Starbucks marked ‘Airport Staff Only’:

“Here’s an idea, Brian.”

“What’s that, Colin?”

“Let’s make absolutely certain that the buggers start their holiday as knackered and cross as possible.”

“I agree, Col. What’s your plan?”

“Sleep deprivation!” Gales of cruel laughter. “After an hour-and-a-half’s kip – max! – they’ll be so dozy and compliant that we can do what we like with ’em.”

Thus, we are obliged to rise at 2.30 in the morning to rush headlong (and, if in a taxi, at great expense) to the airport. If not in a taxi, but at comparably great expense, we explore at length all the myriad one-way systems under, through and around the airport in question before locating the correct Long-Term Car Park. Then, with planes roaring tantalisingly overhead, we begin the long, shivering sojourn in the dark, sometimes in freezing wind and rain, waiting for the ‘Courtesy Shuttle’ to take us to Departures. (We know the vehicle to be merely a bus, but Brian and Colin have renamed it in order to instil a sense of the foreign and exotic even at this ungodly hour.) We can see it in the distance patrolling at a snail’s pace each and every avenue as it makes its strictly timetabled approach. No point in worrying about being late now because we still have to queue for hours – sorry, not for hours, but for our own safety – in order to remove our shoes, boots, belts, hats and pacemakers to the satisfaction of today’s first set of unsmiling representatives of officialdom.

That this is a serious place, I can dimly understand, even with no sleep, but surely, if I were really determined to blow us all up halfway between here and our holiday, I would feel duty-bound to think up devious and cunning new ways of doing it – ways that haven’t in the past been observed, analysed and countered by the authorities and their political masters. An imaginative professional would surely swallow a bomb in advance, have one sewn into his buttock, inserted into a chocolate bar or piece of fruit or shoved safely supra-sphincter into his rectum. How incompetent these days would a bomber have to be to try and smuggle some death device on board in a water bottle, or a half-used tube of toothpaste, or a jar of make-up remover purchased Duty-Free on the outward journey (don’t start me)? Bombs in liquid, or secreted in the soles of shoes, in mobiles or laptops are so passeés. (See how I agree that French word, even in English?) In fact, a real stickler for innovation would load his explosive into an unopened carton of ‘Président’ fondue purchased in an Alpine supermarket at the end of a skiing holiday. I can still see the silly fat faces of Brian and Colin’s colleagues at Grenoble airport passing the sealed pack of pre-melted cheese to each other, daring it to blow up, and discussing whether of not it was a liquid.

“C’est du liquide, ça, non?” queries Jean-Yves.

“Ouais,” responds Jean-Pierre sagely. He’s shaking it, listening to the cheese slop back and forth in the plastic container. “C’est pas solide.”

“Alors, puisque c’est du liquide, c’est pas permis.” The jobsworth looks smugly over at me: “La fondue, ees nut allowed.” And into the gaping mouth of the waiting bin-bag goes my souvenir snack.

Bearing this miserable saga in mind, here’s Tim’s Top Tip for any putative destroyer-of-human-life-for-religious-or-political reasons: why not tamper illicitly with a pot of my homemade ginger marmalade thoughtfully selected by my stepson as a gift for his hostess in Barcelona? During this year’s season, I made thirty-nine pots of this delectable addition to the breakfast table, but, cudgel my brains as I will, I have absolutely no recollection of slipping plastic explosive into any of those jars, let alone into the one randomly selected for export to Spain. I can almost hear the altercation at Security:

“Oho, what have we here, young man?” enquires Brian, peering up at my stepson who towers over him at six foot eight. (How can the lad even bear to enter a plane, knowing what’s in store for him?)

“That’s a pot of marmalade,” replies William. (Obviously, that’s not his real name – or is it? Am I double-bluffing here?) He’s a good boy, and a loyal one. “My Stepdad made it.”

“It’s liquid.”

“It’s marmalade.”

“Still a liquid.” The idiot tilts the jar a little. “See, it’s moving slightly.” What? Is Brian criticising how well-set my jam is?

“But it’s marmalade. It’s not a –” William lowers his voice to a whisper, “ – not a you-know-what.”

“It’s still a liquid, sir. You can’t take it on board. It has to be checked in.”

“But I’m travelling light: hand luggage only, see?”

“Not my problem, sir.”

“So, it’s fine to stow a marmalade BOMB in the hold of the aircraft, is it? Just not in the cabin?”

“It’s a liquid, Sir.”

“But look, you can actually see through it,” persists William uncharacteristically. “It’s a transparent, firm liquid in a clear, glass jam-jar; you’ll be telling me next that glass is also a liquid, but it’s not.” (William is an A-level Physics student.) “And the jar contains a breakfast conserve made of sugar, orange juice, sliced peel and assorted citrus pith.” (And he’s not lisping.) “I saw it being made. Can’t you see, there are no bomb-making ingredients in this pot of marmalade, you fuck-witted tosser?” He unscrews the lid and sticks a long forefinger in; he offers the officer a lick.

“It’s a liquid, SIR!” Voices are beginning to be raised. Colin and a squat, fierce woman called Karen come running. Sniffer dogs are summoned, but lacking both a taste for or training in homemade provender, they fail to impress and are soon dismissed. My stepson is frog-marched behind a screen, strip-searched, bent over a stainless-steel table and inspected rectally with a latex-sheathed digit. Line Managers are consulted, but after heated discussions about the likelihood of the lad being the first marmalade bomber in the history of civil aviation, into the bin-bag goes my product.

Presumably, the staff canteen later echoes with Christmassy cries of joy as gleeful employees empty the bag onto the floor and squabble over the goodies from today’s haul. Who will have taken my marmalade home and been treated to the controlled explosion of taste on their toast the following morning?

*

A five minute walk from the airport in Tobago, there’s a touristy knick-knack market for the use of travellers whose luggage has already been checked in. How odd, then, that the burly and humourless officials on duty in the terminal should decree that it’s unlawful to export conch shells purchased at said market only a few moments before. Is it on ecological grounds that they defy you at this late stage of your holiday? Or do they worry that, in revenge for my little screen not working, I might belabour the crew with the evicted crustacean’s former abode? How fortunate for my conch collection that my own son Sebastian (again, I use another name) was quick-witted enough to whip the contraband out of the bin bag whilst the man’s back was turned.

Forty years ago, you were positively encouraged to export potentially lethal hardware. I remember having no difficulty flying from Dulles Airport with a nice new stainless steel hammer I’d fallen for in a Maryland hardware store. (It boasted three screwdrivers concealed in the handle like Russian dolls.) I was able to hand it personally to a benign and avuncular Captain as he welcomed me on board. My hammer made the transatlantic journey safely and sensibly in the obliging gentleman’s blazer pocket. I still treasure it.

In recent decades I have not fared so well, being required to hand over not one but two Swiss Army knives in quick succession; these I was forgetful enough to have left in my hand-luggage. I understand that a knife is a weapon, so make no complaint. The Powers that Be were right to fear that I might savage an attendant with the little pointy thing that removes nails from horse’s hooves. Let alone any of the blades. “Or was it the case, Sir” (again with the patronising) “that you expected to be required to attend a lame equine during the flight?”

I can sort of appreciate the undesirability of on-board weaponry such as guns, daggers, pick-axes, blow-torches, sledgehammers, pneumatic drills and chainsaws, but quite why you are still permitted to carry tweezers and a lighter onto a plane remains a mystery. I bet even a dullard like me could do a great deal of damage with either of those two dainties – or a combination of both. Think of the potential for carnage as I set fire to a pile of complementary Daily Mails and in-flight magazines before emasculating a crew member with the tweezers.

Airport staff will continue to be trained to follow the rules, eschew common sense and avoid taking the initiative until the end of time. Like automatons, they will aggravate the travelling public until we become so irritated with the inconvenience that we decide to holiday at home. Of course, they need to be seen to be trying to avoid the untimely deaths of plane-loads of innocent people, but is it not the case that their good intentions are merely knee-jerk reactions to past horrors, and as such, largely inappropriate and draconian? As has been seen in so many recent air tragedies, horses that are absolutely determined to bolt do so despite the best efforts of airport security.

I am informed by the young that to travel with me is in itself a major cause of stress. Security officers “are only doing their job,” they scold, “and wouldn’t you rather feel safe on a plane?” Well, yes, of course I would, but my real horror of flying stems neither from the possibility of being deliberately blown up or hijacked, nor from my own childish impatience with the inconveniences mentioned above. No, what I really dwell upon prior to and during a flight is a statistically unlikely yet fatal combination of circumstances entirely beyond our control. With the constant possibility of our frail little flying machine straying inadvertently into a hostile weather system, I am vulnerable to flights of cowardly imagination. What I really fear is:

  1. Human error, Weather and Mechanical Failure

Even as we enjoy a perfectly smooth and peaceful flight to some delicious destination; even as I sip my wine and marvel at the quality of provender provided, I can never be persuaded to feel safe in that plane.

If, for whatever reason – man-made or ‘Act of God’ – we are destined to explode or crumple at thirty thousand feet, no well-meaning precaution will make any difference.

Which is why – despite the anticipated queues at Passport Control this summer ­– I do love a cross-channel ferry.

Timothy Edward’s novel “Lessons in Humiliation” is available through http://www.timbartholomew.co.uk

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