There’s a song about air travel by Flanders and Swann which never gets round to being a song at all. Available on their 1964 LP At the Drop of a Another Hat, ‘By Air’ has Michael Flanders giving a humorous preamble about the pleasures and tribulations of flying, with each well-crafted gag getting a laughter of recognition from an audience that was of the first generation in Britain for whom air travel was starting to be common. Flanders pokes fun at the petty indignities of getting to the airport and negotiating your way around it once there: the absurd language of instruction (“beware of low-flying aircraft”), the petty rules and regulations, the impenetrability of announcements, the special challenges faced by one such as Flanders who was in a wheelchair (he recalls being raised up to the plane by a fork lift – “why they need a great machine like that just to lift forks I don’t know”). In the end he says that he agrees with the old lady who said that “if God had intended us to fly, he would never have given us the railways”, and so they sing a song about trains instead.
The clever thing about ‘By Air’ is that it doesn’t describe flying in a plane. There’s a brief bit at the end about take off, where the plane shakes violently and the ashtrays fall off, but that’s all. What Flanders identifies as being the essence of flight is the getting in readiness for it. It’s the decisions and the preparations beforehand that matter, because once up in the air you lose all choice, and can only reap the benefit (or otherwise) of the decisions you made while on the ground.
So it is that air travel is all about airports, and very little about airplanes.
Modern airports, at least the major ones, are all the same. They offer the same procedures, the same services, the same indignities, the same experiences. They are perhaps the only places on earth that are entirely democratic. Every traveller is treated in the same way (so long as they have been able to afford their ticket). Whatever their nationality, class, belief, politics, culture or fashion-sense, they all get the same tickets, queue up in the same way, pass through the same security procedures, receive the same messages, are offered the same services, and end up on the same plane as everyone else.
Airports are an idealist’s dream, where everyone is equal. They are stateless, for all that they promote soft power messages that sell you the virtues of the country in which they are located (I am writing this in O.R. Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg, once named after Union of South Africa prime minister Jan Smuts and now bearing the name, and a cheerful statue, of the one-time ANC president). So it is that there is such particular resonance to the story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, the Iranian who, owing to complications over his refugee status, spent 18 years living in the departure lounge of Charles de Gaulle airport, the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s 2004 feature film, The Terminal. It’s not just that the airport represents a place where nationalism no longer applies (or cannot be enforced), but that the airport supplies our every need – bar the crucial one of needing to belong somewhere.
We sit and wait at airports, and our every need is catered for, bar one. Whoever we are, we can be fed, watered, entertained, protected; we can rest, shop, move about freely, subsist in a controlled environment where the temperature is just perfect, humidity does not exist, and it never rains. To fly is to wait in Utopia.
But Utopia has no residents. We are all passing through. Airports welcome everyone, and by doing so tell us that we all belong somewhere else.