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Opinion
Scotland on Sunday
Sun 29 Aug 2004
The long wait: For most, spending any length of time in an airport can be a depressing experience, but, as Steven Spielberg’s latest film shows, there are those who call it home.
Photograph: Robert Perry
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In terminal decline

RAYMOND TRAVERS

LAST year, Tennent’s Bar in Glasgow Airport broke the national record for beer consumption, when it shifted 48,000 pints in three days as Celtic fans jetted to and from Seville for the UEFA Cup final. The four lads seated across from me in the same watering hole last week were clearly attempting to top that feat in one evening. They were, however, having rather less success with the four blondes who had parked themselves at an adjacent table. "I wouldnae shag you if you paid me a million pounds," was one well-judged feminine retort. I could only hope the squabbling octet did not end up at the same resort.

Meanwhile, Bob and his wife cut sullen figures at the opposite end of the bar. "We fancied a week away and chose Prague instead of the States, but there’s a bloody five-hour delay. All they’ve given us is three quid sandwich vouchers," said Bob. He then asked the question I had been dreading all day: "Where are you off to, then?"

Where, indeed? There was no easy answer, and I mumbled some rubbish about looking for a last-minute bargain. But the truth was I was going nowhere, except to the other end of the building, where I hoped a good kip on an airport bench would revive flagging spirits. As the bar staff disposed of abandoned food stuffs and half-gulped pints, and my fellow customers headed for the skies, I had nothing to do but find a bench, get horizontal, close my eyes and beseech blessed sleep to carry me off at the end of another teeming, steaming, made-for-dreaming day at Glasgow Airport.

Most of us have experienced the horror of long hours stuck in an airport, looking longingly at the departures board willing that word "DELAYED" to budge. At Heathrow last week thousands of Brits found themselves up a gum tree, as British Airways, plagued by staff shortages and technical hitches, scrapped more than 100 flights to and from the airport. Two return flights from Glasgow Airport and a return flight from Aberdeen were cancelled, affecting around 450 people.

But is it really so bad to be stuck in an airport? Steven Spielberg doesn’t seem to think so. In his blockbuster The Terminal, due to hit town on Friday, Tom Hanks plays Eastern European tourist Viktor Navorski, forced to live in a US airport after a crisis in his homeland.

It has all the trademark Spielberg ingredients: love, loss, humanity and lots of potential for lucrative sequels. And all in... an airport.

There was only one way to find out whether this was mere Hollywood hokum: spend an entire day immersing oneself in airport culture, submitting to the demands of what some doubters still regard as a mind-numbing, brain-curdling environment.

In Spielberg’s flick, Hanks’ stranded character gets off with flight attendant Catherine Zeta-Jones, arranges for a smitten couple to be married and wins favour among oppressed airport menials by championing workers’ rights. As you do. With this in mind, I began the day in expectant mood, cruising the departure lounges and provocative bistros of Glasgow Airport in search of similar action. If it’s good enough for Hanks, all this romancing and selfless goodwill is good enough for me, I thought.

Alas, I soon realised the likelihood of pulling a stewardess while toting a sleeping bag and rolled up copy of the Morning Star was slim, and that inciting airport floor sweepers and trolley pushers to overthrow the capitalist tyranny might result in immediate incarceration. Under the circumstances, I decided to seek less heroic distractions instead. Somehow, real life never quite parallels the cinematic version, does it?

Not to worry. WH Smith’s was doing a roaring morning trade, and I joined browsers and time-killers at the magazine rack. So much gloss and glamour, so much mindless guff. Goodness knows the amount of deforestation required to sustain this mountain of tripe, but that was the last thing on the mind of the teenage boy at my elbow, furtively ogling the top shelf. I knew what he was looking for, but he wasn’t going to find it there: the only pornography to be found is in Smith’s book section. The term "airport novel" is now used rather disparagingly, many claiming the genre is a front for smut, sleaze and shop-soiled erotica.

Personally, I would not praise airport novels so highly, an opinion unaltered when I clocked Smith’s selection of summer blockbusters. All the classics were there, stacked up in the middle of the floor, daring us to peek inside for some saucy sleaze. It was a difficult choice: Hollywood Divorcees by Jackie Collins, or a racy little paperback about corporal punishment called Tickle Torture by Penny Birch? Needless to say, when I presented Tickle Torture at the check out - acquiring it for research purposes only, obviously - the young cashier blushed when I asked if she’d read it. The question is: are the vice squad and other guardians of moral rectitude aware of the kind of deviancy being passed off as light fiction in our airports?

After this unsavoury discovery, I went for a purifying stroll along the main shopping thoroughfare. Airports are like little villages, or out-of-town malls for the (literally) upwardly mobile, offering consumers almost everything they could expect to find in any high street in the country. That’s the whole idea of them: give the illusion of normality and divert passengers’ attention from the impending anxieties of modern air travel: terrorists, cranks, cabin brawlers, engineering malfunctions, drunk passengers, drunk pilots… little wonder airports are designed and built with familiarity in mind.

But all the ground-level reassurance comes at a price. Airports scream at us, loudly and remorselessly: "Give Us Your Money." With check-in times now prolonged because of security issues, traders are lapping up even more business as they tempt us with their trinkets and gewgaws. In airports, people shop just to fritter time, and if there was such a thing as an airport motto, it would be this: ‘A flyer and his money are easily parted.’

Dixons, Dorothy Perkins, Boots, The Body Shop… it could be Sauchiehall Street, but instead of dogs’ dirt and aggressive begging, you get muzak and an almost pathological desire for orderliness. One day, all town centres will look like this, and if you step out of line - jaywalking, litter-bugging, laughing too loud - security will be summoned. The world is homogenising, but airports got there first.

All the unabashed consumerism was making me hungry. I, too, needed to consume; grub, not goods. Airline food has a reputation for being about as appetising as a mouse in a loaf, but what about the scran on the shop floor, as it were? Recent charm offensives by fast food retailers - a rearguard action brought about by the anti-burger publicity of cult documentary Supersize Me - assure us these junk joints and furter dens have reinvented themselves as oases of health and wholesomeness.

But Glasgow Airport’s Burger King outlet was clearly not going down the salad and fresh fruit route just yet. Everything implied excess (‘Whopper’, ‘XL’, ‘Go Large!’). No one minded, because fast food - with the emphasis on fast - is exactly what hurrying, scurrying transients want. But unlike everyone else, I wasn’t in a hurry, and with an entire day to kill crossed the concourse and opted for a slow-taste ‘Harry Ramsden regular’ instead.

Before leaving Burger King, something odd had caught my eye. A snacking businessman realised he was running late, and left half his meal uneaten on the table. Nonchalant as you like, a lurking stranger immediately pounced on the leftovers, shamelessly devouring the departed businessman’s titbits. Was this my first sighting of an airport freeloader, I wondered? In many of the worlds’ bigger airports, the homeless and the dispossessed and the plain crooked are increasingly congregating, realising the scope they provide for buckshee food, drink, beds and bathroom facilities. It is an opportunist’s paradise. Indeed, a recent BBC documentary recounted the extraordinary tale of a Londoner who lived a not uncomfortable life inside Heathrow for two-and-a-half years. It’s cheaper than a mortgage and the overheads are negligible, you have to say.

I asked Alistair Smith, a senior airport official, if freeloaders were a recognised scourge, and if the Burger King meal-steal incident was commonplace. "It just shows you, there is such a thing as a free lunch, after all. I’m not aware of any big problems with freeloaders because Glasgow is not a big enough airport for crimes to go undetected. We’ve uncovered all sorts of contraband here, though… live snakes, furry handcuffs, artificial limbs. But you’d be amazed at the amount of people who are addicted to airports. I still see the same faces I’ve seen here for 15 years - planespotters, day trippers and the like."

After just half a day in this cosseted, consumerist wonderland I was already beginning to feel that anyone who willingly spent their free time in such a place must be a dashboard short of a cockpit. After scrubbing up in a washroom that was so antiseptic, you almost felt guilty about soiling its gleaming porcelain, it was time to squander more money. Amusement arcade or Relaxation Station? Located on the first floor, this seated massage facility assured customers they would enjoy unimaginable relief without having to take their clothes off. That’s a new one on me, I must admit. Check these impressive boasts: "Reduces muscle tension and pain… calms the nervous system and increases circulation… boosts energy and alertness." Yes, but does it relieve crippling tedium and cure writer’s block, madam?

The clink and jangle of the amusement arcade caught my ear, and I joined other eager gamblers throwing good money after bad in the name of pre-flight entertainment. We stood there, row after row of blank-faced benefactors, feeding coins in to what are now called fruit machines, but were once known more accurately as one-armed bandits. It’s amazing how little fun you can have for a tenner these days.

For an hour or two I had been putting off the inevitable, resisting the temptation to do what all high-spirited holidaymakers do in airport terminals. Namely, getting hammered in the bar. But airport bars are wonderful places, a riot of humanity in all its guises: buttoned-up businessmen closing deals, teenagers anticipating a Mills and Boon tryst in exotic Torremolinos, multi-lingual backpackers, anniversary celebrants, soused pensioners telling you life ain’t what it used to be, sonny. And then, finally, to bed (of sorts). When no one was looking, I even enjoyed a quick decko at my new paperback, but even that couldn’t relieve the boredom, and I soon nodded off.

Proving that truth often really is stranger than fiction, the Iranian subject on which The Terminal was based - now a reasonably wealthy man - has decided to stay put, living out the rest of his life in his beloved airport and adopted home. Me? The long minutes between check-in and departure will never quite be the same again.

NO MAN'S LAND

THE Terminal tells the story of Viktor Navorski, a visitor to New York from Eastern Europe, whose homeland erupts in a fiery coup while he is in the air en route to America. Stranded at Kennedy Airport with a passport from nowhere, he is unauthorised to actually enter the United States and must improvise his days and nights in the terminal’s international transit lounge until the war at home is over.

The film is based on the true story of Iranian immigrant Merhan Karimi Nasseri, who has lived in Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris for 16 years because of diplomatic red tape.
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