Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Airport blues

I must admit that I do not like air travel and avoid it as much as I can. It’s not the flying – I quite like that, apart from the fact that you can no longer smoke – but all the things around it in terms of airports. Nevertheless, airports are quite fascinating organizationally, as many studies attest (e.g. Knox et al., 2008). They are on the one hand enormous, chaotic, global confluences of highly disparate people and, on the other hand (or maybe the hands are linked), highly regimented local spaces in which people are managed as flows or throughputs.

Because I avoid it I am not a great expert on it, but having just flown (from London Heathrow to Copenhagen) I have been thinking about the experience. None of these thoughts is particularly original, of course. The first of them is, indeed, how managed the process is. You are shepherded through a series of stages from entry to seat. But, contrary to that, it is a strangely unpredictable process. For different airports seem to have completely different rules – for example, sometimes at security you must take your belt off, sometimes your shoes, sometimes both, sometimes neither.

As well as being unpredictable, there is a strange mixture of clarity and lack of clarity. So, along with the regimentation, there are inaudible and, for that matter, incomprehensible boarding announcements. For example, ticketing is now so complex that as you board the plane there are announcements for a multiplicity of different categories of passenger who may, or may not, go through the gate. Perhaps if I were a ‘frequent flyer’ I would understand it, but that in itself suggests that within the global democracy of air travel there are insiders and outsiders.

One way that this is manifest takes us back from the boarding gate to the check in. When I first flew, that meant going to a desk and talking to a person. Now it is a self-serve terminal, and even that seems like the option of those too technologically lame to have responded to the emails and texts inviting you to check in electronically. And at hand for the doubly lame is a uniformed assistant to deal with the hopeless old crocks like me who can’t scan their passport correctly. It all reminded me of something so different as to be an almost laughable comparison to make: going to church and not being sure about when to stand, sit or kneel, or when to make the appropriate gestures.

I’m certainly not alone in my confusion. At the automated passport controls (which, to boast, I managed effortlessly) there were numerous people who got stuck in the booth, either unable to face the camera in the right way or unable to scan their passports in the required manner. As a result, the line through the manned booths moved much faster than through the automated ones, whereas presumably the opposite was intended.

Between check in, security, boarding and passport control there is of course the bulk of the airport, and that would best be described not as an airport but as a shopping mall. The nature of that has also changed in the course of what might, at a stretch, be called my flying career. It used to be about buying duty free goods, but at least within the EU, and at least as long as the UK is within the EU, that function has disappeared. For me, now, all it means is the headaching stench – so much worse than the smoking that is now forbidden – of multiple, promiscuously mixed, perfumes.

All in all, a dispiriting experience. Perhaps its strangest features are the occasional hark back to what is sometimes called ‘the golden age of flying’, meaning, I suppose, the twenty or so years after the Second World War when passenger air travel got going but before mass tourism started. The uniformed staff greeting you on board, for example. When did that last happen to you on a bus, which is what a plane effectively is, when stripped of its trappings?

Knox, H., O'Doherty, D., Vurdubakis, T., & Westrup, C. (2008). ‘Enacting airports: Space, movement and modes of ordering’, Organization 15, 6: 869-888.

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