‘Hurry up and wait’


There are now some four billion airline passenger journeys annually. In the last 40 years the number of people traveling by air has increased by tenfold. Taking a flight for business or a vacation is now a commonplace. Airlines have prospered. Existing airports have expanded with new terminals and runways or completely new airports have been built to handle the burgeoning traffic. The actual cost of air travel per passenger mile has been driven down, even on routes where there is not strong competition.

The air transport sector is a classic case of successful expansion to meet market demand. Yet in the last four decades what was once a pleasure for those who could afford it has become something of a challenge. Many airports are far from the metropolitan districts they serve. For those booked on short-haul flights, it can actually take longer to reach the airport than the flight itself. Then at the destination, there is the same frustrating journey to the hotel or home.

Crowded skies, not least in Europe, with its still fragmented air traffic control, mean that aircraft that are for whatever reason delayed can disrupt the choreographed procession of takeoffs and landings. Once passengers have entered a terminal, they are effectively helpless until they exit the other terminal at the end of their journey. From check-in to departure lounge and on to the aircraft, there is a well-honed procedure designed to give travelers enough time to spend some money in the duty-free mall but otherwise hasten them along to conform to the set schedule.

Departure boards may perhaps say that a flight has been delayed but the gate calls are frequently premature. Airlines want to see passengers sitting patiently for the gate to open. The motto of international airports is “Hurry up and wait”. Even though seats are allocated, airlines do nothing to stop the absurd queues that form quickly once staff move to the final desk to check boarding passes, as if those who board first are going to reach their destination any quicker than those who get on last.

On either side of this herding process are the security and immigration checks. Thanks to the threat of terrorism, every passenger is treated as a potential terrorist. At airports around the world at any given moment, people are padding shoeless through metal detectors and body scanners while their hand luggage is slightly irradiated by X-ray machines. Upon arrival, if they are not native to the country, the immigration queues can be long and frustrating, and the actual examination by officials can be humiliating and unpleasant. US immigration staff have a reputation for rudeness and total lack of humor. But they are far from alone. For instance, waiting queues of foreigners can watch UK passport officials behaving boorishly, especially with visitors from the Indian subcontinent who may not have a good grasp of English.

It does not help when airline staff themselves mistreat passengers, as has happened most recently on an IndiGo flight at Delhi. Racial profiling on US flights has caused outrageous abuse and, sometimes, physical assaults on paying passengers. Airline bosses apologize profusely saying that staff were not following procedure. But for all the glossy advertising, for the average passenger air travel has ceased to be a pleasure and turned into an endurance course that can only be negotiated with the utmost patience.