London - There’s a fair chance you’re reading this at an airport, waiting for your flight, or sitting on a plane which has been stuck on the Tarmac for the past hour.
If you are, you’re probably wondering why you didn’t stay at home this year.
No one expects air travel to be glamorous any more. The glory days of Alan Whicker and I’m Mandy, Fly Me are long gone.
Flying anywhere today is an ordeal, compounded by the greed, stupidity and sheer bloody-mindedness of the airport operators.
Much as I love to travel, I dread the journey. It’s not fear of flying, it’s the attendant aggravation. As the old whore said: it’s not the sex, it’s the stairs.
Even a short-haul flight can take a day out of your life. While you can’t blame the operators for the need to get up at the crack of dawn to allow for the inevitable, interminable delays on whichever motorway you happen to be taking to the airport, the moment you arrive they do their best to cause you the maximum possible inconvenience and expense.
Passengers aren’t seen as valued customers, they’re viewed as cattle to be herded and milked at every opportunity.
The disgraceful practice of charging “drop-off” fees is now widespread. According to a report this week, only six out of Britain’s 24 airports allow drivers to drop off passengers outside the main terminal free of charge.
At Luton, it’s £3.50 (about R60) for 15 minutes. Stay longer and it can cost up to £53 an hour. Stansted imposes a £50 fine on anyone who dawdles more than ten minutes.
What other business would even contemplate charging vehicles bringing paying customers to their front door? It would be commercial suicide. Yet airports can get away with it because they don’t have any competition.
Leave your car at the airport and long-term parking can cost more than your air fare. Choose the convenience of valet parking, and the chances are your car will be dumped in a muddy field or used for a little light joyriding by the spotty youth to whom you entrust the keys.
Airports around London justify these charges because they are well-served by public transport and you can always take the train. That’s if you can afford it, of course. The so-called “express” services are the most expensive per-mile journeys in the wurrrld, as Jeremy Clarkson would say.
And who wants to clamber onto a crowded train with a couple of fractious kids and enough luggage to last a fortnight — especially when there’s no guarantee that the RMT won’t call a wildcat strike on the day you’re due to travel?
Once you’re over the threshold, the nightmare has only just begun. We all accept that security had to be tightened in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the liquid bomb plot at Heathrow ten years ago. But we’re also entitled to expect that such precautions will be carried out with intelligence and proportion.
Fat chance. How many times have I written about watching Howard and Hilda from Hemel Hempstead being forced to empty their hand luggage? How many middle-class, middle-aged, Middle England terrorists have attempted to blow up planes recently? Precisely. So why subject them to the third degree, as if they were Izal sleepers?
After you’ve removed your belt, your bracelet, your shoes, your jacket, your watch, your phone, your laptop and placed them all in separate bins, there’s still the tyranny of the plastic bag police to be endured.
It was revealed this week that airports are throwing away 140 tons of confiscated liquids every year. At Manchester, they fill 80 wheelie bins a day with this stuff.
Is that all?
I’ve brought you stories of all manner of “dangerous” items being seized at security — from lipsticks to jars of Marmite.
The rules governing what you can and can’t take on board are as complex as some councils’ recycling rules. At Glasgow recently, my wife had to empty out all her cosmetics because the transparent freezer bag she had put them in was ‘not of regulation size’. How the hell does that make air travel safer?
The suspicion is that the restrictions on the size of liquid and gel containers are only so they can sell you overpriced toiletries once you get airside. At Luton, they even charge £1 for plastic bags.
Having cleared security, you think you’re home free. No such luck. Before you can get to your gate, you’re forced to navigate a long and winding road through a perplexing array of retail outlets, flogging stuff you couldn’t poss-ibly want to buy at the start of your holiday.
British airports now resemble Brent Cross shopping centre with a few departure gates tacked on as an afterthought. You have to run the gauntlet of women in mortician’s make-up spraying you with perfume — a bombardment of sensory deprivation to rival anything they’ve come up with at Guantanamo Bay.
I’d rather be waterboarded than showered with the fragrance of Midnight In Marrakesh at seven o’clock in the morning.
Some airports are now telling you to arrive three hours before your long-haul flight is due to depart. What’s the betting that this is not just to allow enough time to clear security, but to give them a couple of hours to screw every last penny out of you?
And while we’re being subjected to security screening falling just short of a colonoscopy, can we have any confidence that the same level of scrutiny is being applied to those who work at the airport?
Three hundred staff at a company which provides airline lounge services at Heathrow have just had their airside passes suspended as a “precautionary measure”. To be fair, Heathrow has a reputation as one of the world’s safest airports.
But can the same be said about some airports abroad? Last week we saw pictures of a Ryanair passenger running across the Tarmac at Madrid airport, chasing a plane which was about to take off.
He was carrying two pieces of hand luggage. But what if he’d been carrying a bomb? Perhaps he was delayed by sultry signorita salesgirls trying to sell him duty-free sangria.
Then, when you do finally make it back to Britain, there’s no chance of a “welcome home” mat. You’re forced to queue at passport control behind assorted Romanians, Bulgarians and citizens of every other EU country. No special treatment for British citizens.
Roll on Brexit. Oh, and if you are reading this at an airport or on a plane, have a nice holiday. You’ve earned it.