Lord of the Flights – Airport Survival of the Fittest

Anyone who thinks “getting there is half the fun” doesn’t travel by air. Surely the most loathsome aspect of getting from point A to a distant B is navigating an airport. From curbside to boarding gate, the whole process seems designed to bring out the worst in people.

And it does bring out the worst. Otherwise upstanding citizens, usually quiet and courteous, degenerate into snarling, shoving masses of irritated travellers.

Come along with me on our next flight:

The stage is set for societal meltdown. Before we even arrive at the airport, we’ve made an arduous journey. If we drove ourselves, we’ve battled congested big-city traffic, confusing airport access signage, and steep parking fees. If we persuaded a friend to drive us, we can subtract the parking fees and add the curb chaos of the departure drop-off. We envy the lucky travellers who live a short cab or public transit ride away. But, however everyone got here, the fun is only beginning.

Experiments in mass obedience. When the airline told us to arrive hours before our flight, they weren’t kidding. From our arrival at the airport until we plant our bums in the tiny seats we’ve paid hundreds of dollars for, we’ll be standing in line. First, we’ll line up to check in. Even if we check in online or at a kiosk, we’ll still have to line up to drop off our luggage. Then we’ll line up to get into the line-up at airport security (Yes! Two line-ups! The second of which is hidden behind frosted glass so that we think we’re getting to the front of the line when, really, we’re just about to join the end of the next one.) Once we reach our departure gate, we can expect to line up to get coffee, a bite to eat, or to use the bathroom. And the mother of all line-ups is still to come.

Big Brother is feeling you up. Let’s back up a bit and talk about security. If we weren’t in a bad mood when we started, we might be after passing through the security checkpoint. We arrive at security already anxious, because we can’t possibly know what to expect. No matter how often we fly, the security regime varies by airport, and seemingly by day and by employee. We may or may not have to partially disrobe (jackets, footwear, devices that are holding up our pants), take certain items out of our carry-on for closer inspection (laptop computers, cameras, small containers of liquids even if they’re obviously solids), and/or have our hands swabbed for reasons that are never explained. Then, we run the gantlet of the metal detector, followed suspiciously often by the “secondary inspection” including what in airport parlance is a pat-down but outside of an airport is called groping or worse, depending on the thoroughness of the action.

Everyone else is the enemy. After several hours of getting to the airport, shuffling in interminable lines, having our carry-on bags rifled through, possibly getting groped by people purportedly assigned to protect us, and then paying inflated prices for coffee or supposedly duty-free alcohol, we’re feeling fractious. Now we’re lurking near the departure gate and everyone else—even though they’ve gone through the same heartless process as we have—is an enemy. We know that every one of them wants to get on the plane before we do. (We also know subconsciously that boarding order is irrelevant, because everyone has an assigned seat. But there’s no reason to get all rational now, is there?)

We circle the desk at the departure gate like vultures, watching for signs that boarding is imminent. Another passenger casually stands near the gate, pretending to examine the departure info display. Ha! Nice try. We position ourselves just slightly between him and the gate. We’ve now established what other passengers perceive as a line-up, and they stampede to form an unruly line behind us.

Airport staff finally make the call—for pre-boarders only. A rag-tag collection of the weak and infirm must now push their way through the mob of healthy adults to get to the ramp leading to the plane. As the last pre-boarder disappears down the ramp, the line-up surges forward, pawing the carpet and steaming from nostrils.

The final meltdown. Passengers are released two at a time into the ramp. The stampede is on. Any hapless pre-boarders still hobbling down the ramp are pushed aside. It is survival of the fittest! It is essential we get into the plane first to establish our primacy! We push, push, push until we get on the plane and find our row.

Flushed with victory, we glance around to confirm that very few passengers boarded the plane before us. Heedless of the just-boarded passengers in the aisle behind us, we leisurely stow our carry-on luggage in the compartment above before settling into our seats. The crazy competition is over. We’ve survived the angst of the airport and incivility of civil aviation. Sanity returns to society as the last passenger clicks his seatbelt shut.

At last we can pretend we’re nice, normal people again. Until the plane lands.

Barbara Lehtiniemi is a writer, photographer, and AU student. She lives on a windswept rural road in Eastern Ontario. Follow Barbara on twitter @ThereGoesBarb.

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