The romance of international air travel. Ha! If there was ever a cliché more unsuited to our times, then I have yet to hear it. As somebody who spends a fair amount of his life at airports and in aeroplanes, I have to say that I hate nearly every ghastly bit of the experience.
When people hear me complaining about flying, they imagine that I’m cribbing about the food. But that, in fact, is the least of my grouses. My basic problem is not with the planes themselves or even with the plastic food they serve on board—it is the airports that I really object to.
Any frequent traveller will tell you that Indian airports are probably the worst in the world. At Delhi airport during peak season, the immigration queues in the departure hall snake all the way to the X-ray machines and then, once around again. Even after you’ve spent an hour waiting for some immigration officer to demonstrate to you that he doesn’t know how to use his computer, you still have to run the security gauntlet.
The Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), which handles security at Indian airports, is astonishingly pleased with itself. Its senior officers will tell you that a specially commissioned market research survey (you know that we are in big trouble when policemen start quoting market research; what’s next: focus groups on the third degree?) has demonstrated that passengers love the CISF. Presumably this survey was conducted in Toyland because in the real world, all I’ve come across is incessant carping about the long queues and the rudeness of inspectors.
Customs, the traditional bullies at Indian airports, are now actually the most civilized officials in the building. In Delhi, they rarely hassle you though Mumbai can still be a problem. My chief grievance concerns the X-ray machine. Most airports have the customs’ X-rays concealed behind conveyor belts, (if they spot anything suspicious, they mark a huge chalk “X” on your bag) but because they forgot to design enough space for X-ray machines at Mumbai airport, customs officials X-ray your baggage after you’ve collected it. So, after an 18-hour flight in hellish conditions, you will be made to queue up before the X-ray machine. There will be no porters and old women will be expected to haul heavy suitcases onto the machine. As any fool can see that the solution is to make space for X-ray machines before the conveyor or to at least provide loaders, you begin to wonder quite how thoughtless the folks who run the customs department at airports are.
But why single out Indian airports? Those in the West can be much worse. You have to be a maniac or an Italian to brave the chaos at Milan airport. Immigration queues at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle make Indian riots seem well organized. In New York, JFK is widely acknowledged as epitomizing the worst of America: crass, rude, unfriendly and unwelcoming. And now, even Heathrow, once among my favourite airports, has become a nightmare with baggage security rules that change every month so you never know what is permitted, security staff who can make our CISF seem like the Samaritans and queues that rival the breadlines in the 1980s Soviet Union.
East Asian airports can be far better. Tokyo’s Narita may be miles from civilization (and the cab fare will cost more than your air ticket), but once you’ve actually got there, the experience can be pleasant. Hong Kong’s new airport looks a little like a film-set version of a real airport, but there’s nothing wrong with it. And Singapore’s Changi could well be the best airport in the world.
Compared to the hell-holes that are international airports, the flights themselves can shine in comparison. I have two basic rules for flying. The first is to avoid the so-called white airlines. Not only are they staffed by surly, grudging cabin crew, but even the Indians who work for them treat their own kind with disdain. Besides, if something goes wrong on Air India or Jet, you can always complain. And the chances are that somebody will know somebody else who knows somebody who works for the airline so you can count on a little help. Try and complain about Alitalia or British Airways and the carriers’ European management won’t really give a damn about any bad publicity in India.
My second rule is to try and take direct flights. This is not always possible, but is worth the effort.
If your flight involves a European carrier, then there’s a good chance that by the time you’ve got to Frankfurt or Paris and negotiated the scrum at immigration and queued up to collect your new boarding card, your connection has already departed. And even if you do make the flight, your luggage often won’t.
But even if you’ve managed to brave the bear pit at the airport and been fortunate enough to snag a Club Class seat, don’t ever imagine that you’ll enjoy the journey. The best you can hope for these days is that your flight actually gets there and that your luggage arrives at the same time. And that you have two free days to recover from your ordeal. After which you can brag to your friends about the romance of air travel.