On airports and aeroplanes

I didn’t really go on holiday when I was a kid; there was a weekend in Blackpool, a week in Falmouth, and numerous trips to see relatives in Yorkshire, but that’s all. But I grew up in Dawlish! Every day’s a holiday when you live by the sea. Except when the sea is cold, and you get sand between your toes, and a rash from walking home up the cliff in a damp, clinging swimming costume.

I didn’t go abroad until I was 25, when I flew to Dublin for a friend’s stag party. I was best man. Since then I’ve flown to Guernsey for work, and to Leeds/Bradford for other work. Before this year Emma and I had taken three holidays in our ten years together (not counting the odd night away to see friends or bands); long weekends in Barcelona in 2005, the Alps in 2006, and New York in 2010 for our honeymoon. So I don’t really know how to be a tourist, or what a holiday is. As a kid we couldn’t really afford it, and so I grew up thinking of holidays as unimagined indulgences for the bourgeoisie.

This year we’ve gone a little crazy, though: a couple of days in Cornwall for our anniversary in April; a couple of days in Scotland in May for the wedding of some friends; an entire week (almost) in a cottage in the Andalucían mountains in June; and, just now (we got home at 3:30am last night / this morning) three days camping in the east of Ibiza, well away from San Antonio and superclubs and awful steroid-freak, E-guzzling, cocaine-snorting, vodka-shooting Welsh rugby boys on a raucous stag weekend, shouting, boasting, swearing, drinking, causing a ruckus, making the flight be delayed, being egged-on by a gaggle of 19-and-20 year-old girls from Bridgwater heading out for a hedonistic birthday weekend. Sadly, though, our flight out was not well away from them. Neither was our flight back.

We wanted three days of sunshine, scenery, tapas, warm seas, and cheap wine. The rugby boys and birthday girls did not. We each got what we wanted, more or less. One of the rugby boys also appeared to get a black eye. Many of them were much, much more subdued on the way back than on the way out. I heard the word “detox” on numerous occasions. I find, these days, the best way to avoid having to detox is not to tox excessively in the first place. Maybe I’m boring now. I used to drink like a moron a decade or more ago. But never like this.

The Bristol to Ibiza flight, and its return leg, must be the most awful flights to work on to or from a South West airport. I’ve never seen security called onto a plane before takeoff to warn a passenger to behave. I’ve never seen passengers be prevented from leaving the plane straight away so that the captain can remind them of the law and of the common decency of polite aeroplane deportment. I’m not exactly a frequent flyer (except this year), but even so. I have no idea how any of these people involved, be they sober, drunk, drugged, whatever, could possibly think that any of their behaviour was acceptable in a city street, let alone a compressed cigar-tube doing 500mph at 38,000 feet above sea level. But I guess that’s not my culture, and though I may see evidence of it on TV, I seldom encounter it in the flesh.

Airports themselves are weird places. Obviously, by their nature, they are designed to be passed through on one’s way to somewhere else, rather than visited in their own right. They are also, I have no doubt, especially about the larger ones, designed to make you spend money; they always seem to be too hot or too cold, never temperate, the seats uncomfortable and arranged in alienating ways, as if to encourage people to stand and walk around, browse shops, feel thirsty, spend money. This is, I suppose, a pretty common way of designing large commercial buildings, from supermarkets to multi-unit shopping centres to those weird outlet villages to big blue and yellow Ikea shops. They all share common properties. Massive. Disorienting. Alienating. Physically a little uncomfortable. You never want to sit still in them, so you keep moving, keep consuming.

We spent several hours in Ibiza airport on Saturday evening, from a little before 8pm until after 1am when our flight departed. It was the longest, by far, that I’ve ever spent in an airport; bus timings, lack of finances, and a desire to not hang out in Ibiza town after dark on a Saturday night when I could be reading a book somewhere comfortable, with the vague concern over getting to the airport exorcised from the back of my head, were the factors that drove us there. We hoped the airport would mirror the culture we’d seen over the previous few days; surely Ibiza airport, which must be large, cosmopolitan, full of young ravers, slightly older hippies, and aged sun-seekers of all nationalities, social backgrounds, and creeds, would have the same kind of relaxed feel that we’d come across in all the Spanish places we’d visited, in Barcelona, in Andalucía, in Ibiza itself. We imagined we’d be able to while away a few hours with a cerveza and some tapas, reading, sitting somewhere comfortable and relaxed, that it would feel different to Gatwick or Bristol or Jersey City or Heathrow or Geneva.

Of course it didn’t. It felt like every airport ever, including Malaga and Barcelona, the other Spanish airports we’d flown through (Barcelona was, to be fair a little better); a Burger King, an identikit duty free shop, an overpriced newsagent, somewhere to buy a handbag or a Lacoste polo shirt, an anonymous Americanised grill-bar eaterie, and the same long, tall, empty corridors of alienating space as any other airport anywhere else. With hours to kill we watched different cohorts of passengers travel through the space, saw the waxes and wanes of busyness, witnessed some of the shops close as 11pm drew near, felt the airport slowly wind down, tease towards hibernation but never actually quite stop working and moving completely, like a massive shark that will sink and die if it stops moving and consuming completely for any length of time. There must surely be some way to make these spaces better, nicer, more comfortable?

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2 responses to “On airports and aeroplanes

  1. Excellent observations, it’s something that I’ve never stopped and considered before but you are bang on. I generally hate airports for all the mentioned reasons in your blog. Travelling could be made much more comfortable and enjoyable. Hope you enjoyed Ibiza, do you have any recommendations should I visit in the future?

  2. Pingback: And another couple of posts… and one other. « My Writing Diary

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