I hate traveling home for Christmas. I enjoy being home for Christmas, but the journey to get there, never easy at the best of times, feels more like a desperate pilgrimage.
At an airport, a film of seething resentment covers everything. It feels as if the whole edifice is built reluctantly by people who firmly believe that nobody should want to fly anyway. Petty adherence to regulations result in onlookers powerless to stop sour-faced security employees methodically tossing toiletries into a bin because they weren’t in a resealable plastic bag. A torpid grey arch filters the swarm into those who may pass, and those who must be groped. Then, disheveled and clutching their belts, everyone is shepherded on a winding path through a glittering Duty Free shop, a cynical last attempt to extract whatever money remains in their pockets now that their spirits are broken and their resistances are low. And they need to buy some new toothpaste anyway.
Every single aspect of the experience is designed to remove any human touch, any dignity, any warmth, and reduce you to a number, a piece of cargo to shift, with as much humanity assigned to you as would be assigned a crate of powdered milk. We don’t care who you are or we’re you’re going, we’re just here to arrange for a you-shaped object to be somewhere else.
What follows is the tale of my brave struggle from Berlin to Newcastle, via the tormented wilderness of air travel.
The Luggage Queue Situation
Terminal A at Berlin Tegel airport is several concentric hexagons. Planes nuzzle up against the outer walls while suckling on fuel trucks so they can peer in, and each smaller enclosed hexagon represents a different level in the traveller’s challenge. You start at the smallest inner hexagon, and perform a series of challenges to gain access to the next. This is where my odyssey started: at the first level, with the Quest to Give My Luggage To Someone. My transformation into a non-person had begun.
I found my check-in desk and realised with a feeling of mind-numbing inevitability that it was of course the only one with a huge queue in front of it. Settling in with as much good grace as I could muster (which is to say, very little), I put my rucksack and hand luggage on the floor and prepared for the mode of movement reserved for such queues — wherein you shuffle forwards after the person in front, shoving your bags across the floor as languidly as possible while sighing out loud. In front of the check-in desks there was one of those snaking cordoned off areas designed to corral the waiting hordes into a manageable shape, but its approximate capacity of 15 people was woefully unprepared for the baying throng that was waiting for it today. Today it acted merely as an indication of pending success for the denizens of the queue rather than a curator of it. Instead, the tail of the queue ran down the corridor, parallel to a ticket office for the same airline, from which five employees watched on with baleful eyes.
Quite why the ticket office required five employees was beyond me but I don’t live in the Kafka-esque world of airport management. I had plenty of time to observe them, and, aside from one customer, all they did for about 45 minutes was drink coffee and chat.
How do I know they only had one customer in 45 minutes? Well, because that’s how long it took to get near the front of the check-in queue. Not the front, merely near the front. You see, while five people were allocated to ticket sales, only one was allocated to checking 80 people into a flight to Düsseldorf. That one had also presumably never done the job before, nor seen a computer, nor communicated with a human, as the process took several minutes for each person. 30 minutes in, a gruff gentlemen appeared, saw that there was a queue of probably 80 people for a flight whose boarding ostensibly ended in 15 minutes, and decided to get two extra workers for the desk. Well done him. It was apparently a thought beyond the call of duty or everyone else.
And then, finally, I was at the front — but not before one of the three workers had indicated they were going for a quick cigarette. This was my time to shine! I had my passport ready, opened on the correct page, I had my boarding pass ready printed and in my hand. My bag went onto the conveyer belt. I even managed a smile.
Wordlessly, they were taken, details were entered, and handed back to me along with a blank stare.
Not to be put off so easily, I had a question: “I’m flying to the UK via Düsseldorf, do I need to pick up my luggage in Düsseldorf and check it in again?”
A grunt and a nod. Of course I should have expected that, despite booking the flights at the same time with the same airline, they would not do anything as helpful as transfer my luggage for me. I sloped off, stage one complete. Were this an RPG, the worlds dreariest sparkle would have appeared with a morose sounding “level up” jingle.
The Gift of Change
By now I was in the passenger waiting area, having become a Level 3 QueueMage after getting through security. It was was merely as terrible as expected.
Since it’s Christmas, I was transporting gifts along with myself. My father had expressed a fondness for a certain brand of Berliner beer when he had come to visit in summer, and I wanted to take some with me. The last two times I had tried to take glass beer bottles in my hold luggage though, the baggage handlers had apparently been replaced by angry robots made entirely of hammers, and what I ended up with at the other end was a dripping bag and clothes covered in beer and glass shards. This time though I was cunning. I knew the duty free in the airport sold that brand of beer, and so I would simply buy it after going through security and keep it in my hand luggage. I picked up three beers, and headed towards the cashier.
Of course being in an airport, they were surprised by having customers and so had run out of change. Presumably the literally tens of previous customers had used it all up. The beers came to €6.75, and I wanted to pay with a €20 note because I am a fool. Much consternation and gnashing of teeth ensued, and I presented what change I had, perhaps €3 worth. The woman took my €20 behind the till spent a while figuring out the optimal way to take as much of my small change as possible, trying to get to €22.75 so she could return as little as possible in terms of coins. In the end I left with larger coins and she got a few additional pieces of change.
I was on the plane and in the air before I realised that she had forgotten to give me the €15 in notes. In the end, the beers had cost me €20.
The Second Luggage Wrangling
The flight to Düsseldorf was uneventful. I almost slept through it, except the air steward woke me up when handing drinks to the people next to me. I didn’t get offered a drink, however, presumably because I had been asleep. The flight was a little delayed, which worried me as I would only have one hour once we landed to fetch my luggage and re-check it. I made sure I was up and ready to get off the plane as soon as I could.
I sped through the arrivals area, following the signs for the luggage collection. If the queue was like the one at Berlin, then I would have some problems, but I figured I could legitimately use the priority lane in this case. What I hadn’t really thought about, though, was that the baggage claim is outside the secure inner sanctum. I’d also have to go through security again.
As I stood waiting for the baggage belt to fire up, tapping my foot impatiently and checking the time every two minutes, thoughts turned to what might happen if I missed the connecting flight. Sympathy was not high on my list of things to expect, but at least there’d be no queue at the ticket desk.
These thoughts continued to go round and round in my head as the baggage turned up and the suitcases went round and round on the belt. People appeared, found their case, and went. Eventually I had to admit that my bag probably wasn’t going to arrive, though I wasn’t terribly surprised. Two years earlier, EasyJet lost by bag for about a week, and faffed so much that I only got it back when at the airport on the way home to Germany.
I asked at the lost luggage. Turns out that my bag was automatically routed to the next flight. Who knew! Certainly not the person I had asked that very same question to in Berlin.
The security queue was mercifully short, and as I went through the rigmarole of filtering my belongings into appropriate boxes, taking my laptop out of the bag, taking off my belt, I at least had the comforting thought that this would be the final queue. Except the one to get my luggage and the one to get through passport control in Newcastle.
“Whose bag is this?”
Bugger. It was mine. I went over to the security guy, who asked me to open the bag.
He looked inside and fished out the three cans of beer.
Then They Tried To Feed Me
At this point I’m on the last part of my journey, the final flight to Newcastle. I was very hungry. It had been a long time since a quick breakfast at home before setting out. A gentle surprise was to befall me, however, as it turns out I had accidentally purchased a drink and a sandwich as part of my travel ticket. Then it arrived, and in the words of Dewey, I expected nothing, and was still let down.
This looks like the results of an experiment to surgically remove the joy from food. It’s like somebody has tried to find the simplest object which is still technically a sandwich, removing concepts and ideas just like Picasso’s Bull until only the very purest essence of sandwichdom remains, and one of the first things deemed not essential were things like ‘flavour’ and ‘appealing ingredients’. “How can we make something so bland,” they seemed to say, “that there will be nothing worth describing?”
This is ennui distilled into a single slice of dry brown bread and half a slice of greasy salami. While looking at it I could actually feel it sanding off the highest highs and lowest lows on the spectrum of my emotional response, reducing the extremities until nothing would be left except a monotonic drone of apathy. After eating this sandwich, I knew, I would never feel happiness or sadness again.
I put it back in the bag and hid it in the seat compartment.
Eventually the ordeal was over, the plane landed and vomited weary, defeated travellers onto the tarmac, who filtered through passport control and got their luggage with no ability left to care if it took a long time. Stripped to an emotionless husk, I just shuffled towards the exit. There was still time for one last disappointment — there is a Greggs at the airport, but it had no sausage rolls left, how is that even possible? — but I was through. Finally free! Except there was no euphoria, because I have to go back to Germany in a week from now and repeat the miserable journey.
And therein lies the rub. Air travel is what it is and you can’t change it. In fact, they have every incentive to make things worse. Cheap air travel has changed the way we live and move, especially in a small place like Europe, but what you don’t pay for with money, you pay for with dignity and comfort. There are a thousand small add-ons which remove the misery a piece at a time, until you’re left paying more for the privileges of being treated like prime cattle instead of regular cattle than you are for the flight itself.
A New Yorker article recently entitled “Why Airlines Want to Make You Suffer” summarises this effect:
Here’s the thing: in order for fees to work, there needs be something worth paying to avoid. That necessitates, at some level, a strategy that can be described as “calculated misery.” Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it. And that’s where the suffering begins.
That sandwich above was not on the basic ticket. I had in fact bought a “smart” ticket not a “basic” one, which includes something laughably described as a meal. That abomination, that affront to nutrition, was meant as a bonus. I dread to think what happened to the people who purchase only the simplest of tickets. Perhaps the air stewards come round and punch them. Or perhaps their emergency oxygen won’t work unless they upgrade to “survivor class” for €40.
The fact from that article that “Wall Street analysts accused JetBlue of being ‘overly brand-conscious and customer-focussed’” sums up the whole situation for me. What fools, for caring that their customers are happy with the experience! Although I suspect it was always true, it seems that more and more, us regular Joes are looked at and treated as simply walking wallets, from which corporations must extract as much money as possible, and more and more, they’re not shy about that. Our attention is grabbed violently at every opportunity, as adverts spray the landscape flashing and shouting “hey you!” everywhere. Hollywood drags out the last book in a series into movies part one and part two not because it improves the narrative, but because it’ll get you to pay twice as much. Our fears are played on constantly — “Are you too fat? Too ugly? Not sexy enough? Try this one trick, Doctors hate it!” — and the only trick involved is the one on your subconscious.
I’m seriously considering using the train next time. It may take 18 hours in total but at least you’re allowed to keep your dignity and hope. Not to mention that a nice, sit-down meal in the restaurant car, a bed to sleep on if there’s an overnight train… it sounds positively luxurious.