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Prisons, hospitals, airports: the places you simply want to leave as soon as possible

I abhor the whole airport experience,” writes Steve M. “What methods do you use, Simon, to make it slightly more bearable?”

For many travellers, airports belong in the same category as prisons and hospitals: the natural desire is to get out as soon as possible. Yet I picked up Steve’s question at Sarajevo airport, where I am shortly to board a Wizz Air flight to Luton, and beg to disagree.

There is something intrinsically good about airports: they extend our horizons and foster international understanding, as well as playing host to infinite human dramas. So I hope I can help Steve learn to love them.

Your timing in reaching the airport is important. I very rarely arrive two hours before departure, which is what passengers are encouraged to do. Either I try to time my run to reach the airport at the last possible moment (allowing a bit of contingency for disruption), typically an hour ahead; or, as today, I allow more than ample time.

When flying transatlantic from Heathrow Terminal 3, for example, I will often take the first Tube from central London (at around 5.30am, arriving at 6.30am) even for an 11am departure. I am fortunate enough to be able to work remotely and, for a travel journalist, an airport is a perfect place to feel the spirit of mobility – and talk to fellow passengers.

Heathrow Terminal 3: a perfect place to feel the spirit of mobility – and talk to fellow passengers


Today, I took an early tram to the stop nearest the airport and a taxi for the final couple of miles. The airport in the Bosnian capital is a fine example of how to make the experience bearable. It is small, modern and lightly used.

Local bureaucracy means everyone has to queue up and get a paper boarding pass, even when travelling with cabin baggage only. But I sat and read The Independent Daily Edition while waiting for the queue to subside, and wandered up to collect the precious document as the last passengers checked in.

By then the security queue and passport line had both subsided. Sarajevo already has the new security scanners that don’t require passengers to remove liquids and laptops from bags, and that hurdle was easily crossed.

Once “airside”, the walk from passport control to the furthest gate is about two minutes. I like to explore airports. At the vast hub that is Dallas-Fort Worth, I found a neglected art gallery lurking in a corner of Terminal D.

I share with Steve one negative aspect of airports: the duty-free labyrinth. Airport sales are driven by a combination of these human factors:

  • Excessive “dwell time” caused by the uncertainty of how long formalities will take, and rationally arriving an hour before the journey time would suggest
  • A desire for an apparent bargain, even though prices for alcohol in particular will probably be lower at your destination
  • Sub-rational behaviour due to being in a strange and often exciting environment (unless you are Steve)

Eating and drinking, too, are popular time-fillers. I have a few favourites, notably Wagamama at Gatwick’s South Terminal, where you can watch the beautiful choreography of aviation while you devour noodles. A window seat at Pret a Manger at Luton airport provides a similar unscripted drama. And for watching people rather than planes, the vast Gregg’s at Newcastle airport offers excellent value.

Abroad, Greece seems to specialise in tavernas very close to airports; I particularly like the one directly opposite Preveza airport on the Ionian coast.

Few airports in Europe are set in as stunning a location as Innsbruck


The purpose of travelling to an airport is to fly somewhere, and typically I take a seat at the gate about half an hour before departure. By then other passengers are already standing in a queue. Some may be fretting about squeezing cabin baggage into an overhead locker, but for others, I surmise it is simply a hidden anxiety that somehow there will not be room for them on board. (On airlines that routinely overbook flights for more than there are seats available generally identify targets for denying boarding before the departure gate.)

I watch the queue to board dwindle and, when it seems everyone else has gone through, I walk up to the counter and provide my passport and boarding pass. If anyone arrives behind me, breathless and apologetic, I let them go through first. I always seek to be the last one on the plane, to spend less time in the faintly claustrophobic combines of an aircraft than everyone else.

Sometimes, I may also identify a seat with more space than the one I have been allocated – or closer to the door for a swift exit on arrivals.

When the plane touches down, a small airport is a beautiful airport. Of the UK capital’s options, London City and Southend are ideal. At both, you can get from aircraft to train platform in five minutes or less (assuming you have not checked in baggage). For an exit barely having to break step, the frequency of public transport becomes relevant; Gatwick, Heathrow, Manchester and Edinburgh perform best in Britain.

Finally, very few airports have locations so breathtaking that any time spent there is a joy. In Europe, for me, they are Madeira, Gibraltar and Innsbruck. Perhaps not coincidentally, they are all rated extra-difficult for flight crew and have more than their fair share of diversions and “go-arounds”. Aesthetically, though, as planes land amid soaring landscapes, airports can comprise performance art.

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