N Touch
Saturday 7 December 2019
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Flight or fight



ON MONDAY, I woke up in South Clapham, London, and went to sleep in St Ann’s, Port of Spain. Modern jet travel means one can travel halfway across the world in a little more than half a day. Quick, yes, but is it progress? I will be impressed if I manage to fly back from St Ann’s to Mayfair.

Travelling by plane always makes me very, very tense even though I genuinely enjoy takeoff and landing (the most dangerous parts) and the actual flight part of it – the eight or nine hours in a seat in a tube in the air – is, provided you’re not claustrophobic, more likely to induce ennui than hysteria. No, the rough part of any plane journey is getting to and from the airport, even in countries where you don’t have to leave the capital city before 2 pm to beat the traffic for a 7 pm flight.

The hassle starts long before you wake up anxious on the morning of your flight (if you’ve managed to sleep at all). Airlines, I suspect, have full-time Difficulties Creating Departments which consider existing systems and see how best they can be made to make the passenger more worried and edgy.

Who else would hit you with a baggage allowance?

Allowance! As if they gave it to us. They should call it the “baggage paid for.” The Difficulties people worked overtime on the baggage allowance. At one time it was a flat 22 kilos and that was that. Simple. Weigh it and take something out. But then, partly because the airlines were bus’ing on that deal (there were more people travelling with five suitcases full of clothes than there were people carrying one suitcase full of lead), but mainly to make things more difficult, a change was made.

With a fanfare of publicity to obfuscate the commercial basis of the change, the Difficulties Creating Department switched to an “allowance” of two pieces of luggage per passenger. They retained this system for a while, long enough to extract maximum confusion from the sheep at the check-in counter, who were, at the airport, forced to leave or repack an entire suitcase. And then they hit upon the hybrid system, which combines both previous schemes, utilising the most difficult aspects of each and making a whole considerably worse than the sum of the parts.

So you are now allowed to leave certain destinations with baggage limited by weight but the return journey may be limited by the number of suitcases; tell me that is designed to do anything other than annoy the punter.

There is a whole category of flying stress which, regretfully, I can’t blame on airlines: carrying your in-flight bag, camera, umbrella (you don’t need one, but airlines allow it, so take one), handbag, ghetto blaster (see umbrella parentheses) and duty-free purchases on to the plane itself. And all of this stuff has to be picked up and set down at least twice, at emigration/immigration and at security check/customs.

In the departure hall, however, the airline reassumes the job of making your life difficult. Calling it the departure lounge makes it sound relaxing but it isn’t; it should be called the departure tense. Airlines insist you arrive at the airport two hours before your flight to ensure you are in the departure lounge when they delay your flight for six hours. No matter where you sit, a screaming baby will be right next to you and the bar will be at the other end of the building.

If you do get onto the plane that day, there is a good half-hour or so of solid stress until you have stored your hand luggage. When the doors are closed, you wait for another hour or so for the plane to taxi to the runway, wait another 20 minutes in the queue for takeoff; and, all the while, the airline has seated you next to a loquacious bore with terminal halitosis: your companion for the next nine hours.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step but every plane journey ends with a thousand steps pacing around the baggage carousel. To whom do all those suitcases, circling untouched for hours, belong? Are they special effects laid on by the good people at the airline’s Difficulties Creating Department?

The baggage hall is where the airline triumphs. Even if you persuade yourself you are not on the most difficult and overrated form of mass transport yet devised, but rather embarking on a romantic, exciting journey from one fabulous destination to another, at the very end of your trip, the airline will put it all in proper perspective: Breakfast in London, dinner in Port of Spain, luggage in Hong Kong.

BC Pires is a professional complainer. A version of this column appeared in September 1991

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