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  • Philip Bryer

Airports. Or Purgatory With Shops

Updated: Mar 15, 2022

Big Ben

Fancy some shortbread in a tin with a picture of Big Ben on it for a tenner? Or a store-branded teddy bear for upwards of fifty? Or some aftershave, because, well, there’s an awful lot of it here and you might as well buy something. Nothing else to do. No? How about pie and chips? And a pint? At 6 a.m. Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends; the wonderful world of the airport. Like purgatory with a permanent sale on. Except sometimes you have to take your shoes and your belt off.

I’ve always enjoyed a good airport documentary. The recent one at New York’s JFK featured some of the scariest customs and border control staff imaginable. “Up against the wall,” they’d bark, requesting the suspect to assume the position to be searched, and if the, alleged, ahem, ‘perp’ should hesitate, they’d be nudged in the right direction with this simple advice, “Just like you see on TV”. That’s my theory about Americans, regardless of acting talent most of them could step into a prime time starring TV role and carry it off without breaking sweat.

What I most enjoy about the airport docs made in this country - where, in contrast to our American brothers and sisters, the staff look less set for a glittering career in showbiz than one dishing out parking tickets or retrieving unexpected items from bagging areas - are the people who wander up 20 minutes late or pissed or without a passport or, if it’s a Scottish oil worker, generally all three, and can’t understand it when they’re given the flick by the fussy folk who man the barricades.

En route to Paris a few years ago, at the steps of the aircraft, and Sandra turns to me and says, “Where’s my passport?” In your handbag? At which point she ups the ante with, “Where’s my handbag?” Have you ever tried going back through security and all the other checks the wrong way while your old man waits on the plane wondering whether he’ll be having a romantic dinner for one tomorrow evening and it’s not even his birthday? With the help of a friendly security guard, she made it of course, but surprisingly, when it’s happening to you it’s really not so much fun as being at the proctologist.

Coming back from Rome, while waiting for our flight to appear on the screens, we were having that last holiday drink in an airport bar. “Still nothing,” advised the ever-vigilant GLW. "Well, they’d better get a move on," I said, "the gate closes in 20 minutes." She pointed at the sign which told us we were a 20-minute walk from our gate. We took off. Even though I figured I had plenty of time to stop for a slash and a paper, we powered on past bars and restaurants which, most annoyingly, looked much nicer than the one where we had tarried for the last hour. Mrs B showed a turn of speed not seen since we ran for the last bus after seeing The Stones at Twickenham, and I was not far from her shoulder. No problem, I assured her, right up until we encountered a barrier of passport control desks right before our gate, and that’s when I began to consider staying over in the Eternal City for another night, and missing the next morning’s meeting, and re-booking the flights and, OH, COME ON…we’re in the wrong queue here, you know.

Through we go at last, only to find that now we have to get on the little monorail shuttle thing, and, well, we got there, just, and I vowed to be more sympathetic in future to the poor saps on TV. Except those who clutter up the baggage carousels with huge, battered cardboard boxes wrapped up in miles of tape, obviously.

Battered box on baggage carousel

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