When the seat belt signs go on and the airline captain wishes you a “pleasant flight”, you know that is never going to happen. The only pleasant flight I have ever had – out of more than a 1,000 taken – was not in a plane, but in a hot air balloon, drifting with the cloudlets on a warm summer evening.
Why is flying so “unspeakably” different from other forms of transport? Trains can be packed, can break down in tunnels, can suffer from delays and disputes with guards, or be unbearably hot or cold when the air conditioning fails, but with a train the centre of gravity is the passenger. The train is, by comparison with the plane journey, something of a magical platform that whisks everyone around to their destination – a destination often in walking distance of where you actually want to get to. With a plane the centre of gravity is the system and the people who run it, and so very often the guardians of the Augean stables are a self-selected group of those with assertiveness problems – or possibly even the faintest dollop of good honest sadism.
Why else is the process made so needlessly complex? The distances from car parks, the long half-lit walkways, endless lifts and escalators, checking in before arrival at the airport and then checking in again on a faceless machine after getting to the starting point – before the ever-delightful interrogation at the bag drop. The endless warnings as you go through passenger controls, the joys of further warnings about unattended baggage being taken away and destroyed, more QR checks on boarding cards, the zigzag of needless taped walkways (when someone could so easily open up the way directly to security stations that stand ahead like abattoirs waiting for our bovinity), and then the strip-tease leaving the trousers sagging towards the knees and revelation of bag contents, hands raised in some body-searching machine before the actual body search with the hands driving their way through intimate parts we seldom even touch ourselves. Then the final ordeal of the selective search – holding up the unwashed bra of the lady ahead in the queue to watch her sink in a stoical pang of humiliation. And finally the gauntlet of Gucci and all the brands that sniff out to you as you crawl towards the final departure gate – where a further ordeal awaits and an imagined toy drone on the runway or actual technical fault in air traffic control might also lie in wait.
How much of such things can truly be justified in the name of security, and how much to satisfy both an institutional and personal perversity for those in charge of the beast? Moreover, we do this – and actually pay for it – in the name of business because such travel is ironically so essential in our quest to do things personally and employ our own human relations skills at our destinations. However, hopefully with the spread of high-speed trains, the Tesla traffic jam avoidance system, other advanced vehicles and improved virtual communications, there will be less need for all of this very soon.
But, in the midst of it all, there are a few quiet gems. This happens, for instance, if you find yourself at the delightfully named Chopin Airport in Warsaw and are categorised as travelling from one non-Schengen country to another. Within the “strefa” where all the gates are designated by an “N” is a little cultural oasis that is Polska at its best – an unassuming café where, if you smile nicely, the smart waiter will bring you local dumplings to die for and strong local beer full of that nuttiness that only comes when there is a good helping of alcohol. Then, when you cannot justify savouring the inexpensive treat any longer and you ask for the bill, it arrives neatly written as priced in the menu – and no invitation to tip. Later, I get a coffee from the downstairs café, forgetting my bag with all my credit cards and wallet on the seat as I leave. Twenty minutes later I look down as an incessant announcement is made in Polish on the tannoy. Realising my loss, I dash back and meet the barista on the stairs, intact bag in hand. Warsaw is at least one place worth flying to – even if you do not venture beyond the terminal.