We flew to Carcassonne this morning. Working in the Nordics means that I fly on average two to three times a week. On that basis it was something of a busman’s holiday. Or rather a frequent-flyer’s holiday.
But this was quite a different experience. Firstly I was flying from East Midlands Airport – 10 minutes from home rather than the usual hour drive to Birmingham. Secondly I was packing shorts and sun cream rather than shirts and a shaver. And most importantly, I was in the company of my lovely wife rather than flying solo. And I would far rather take off with Mrs B.
EMA has been redesigned and reconstructed since the last time we flew from there, presumably to make it more efficient and easier to get through. After all, an airport is simply a conveyor-belt of people with a few check points and Costa coffees.
This attempt to improve probably explained the enormous queue we encountered at the new expanded security facility. I am rather used to fast track when I fly to work – where I am only delayed when my shoes decide to exhibit strange metallic properties and set off the alarm. Then they have to go back through on their own.
Here, we were queuing in the extremely slow-track with hoards of novices and amateurs who had the temerity to turn up for their cheap holiday flights without the required degree of research or rehearsal of airport procedure. As the masses – already bedecked in beachwear – shuffled towards the scanning machines, there was a patronising video for us all to watch. A smiling cartoon figure explained how to dismantle yourself prior to the x-ray. Most people enthusiastically removed their belts and jackets far too early. Which meant they had to walk with their stomach’s pushed out to stop your pants falling down.
As we finally approached the processing plant, some amateurs were fumbling through their suitcases extracting hidden lipsticks and mascara to shove into the regulation clear plastic bag. Meanwhile, some of the women were removing their shoes and some were not. One chap failed to smuggle through a highly inflammatory bottle of water which he had just purchased from subversive WH Smiths shop.
Contrary to the video we had seen, it appeared that people were being asked to reveal not just their laptops but all of their electrical items. I am not sure what constitutes “an electrical item” but I interpreted this as being my phone as well as my laptop. The older couple in front had a more comprehensive definition. They unpacked every single item in their possession and assiduously sorted them into metal and non-metal piles. I suspected they were equally anally retentive about triaging their recycling. And now we all know rather too much about what old people take on holiday.
This was the equivalent of the person in front of you at the post-office counter paying-in four large bags of mixed coins. We watched impatiently as the couple untangled cables and wires, leads and chargers and placed them in the tray. The queue next to us was speeding through effortlessly. And we all know how competitive people get in airports.
Once they had finished, I simply dropped my phone in the tray along with my head and shoulders (oh yes) … and decided to call the scanner’s bluff. My shoes behaved themselves as they walked me through the metal detector. I emerged unscathed, probably because I adopted my well-practised relaxed, innocent, I-am-so-not-a-terrorist look.
Having passed through – as it were – to the other side, we waited patiently to reunite our cases with our various assortments of unrevealed electrical items. There was a hold up. Nothing was coming through. Had the scanner picked up my dongle hidden inside my running shoes?
It turned out that a rather full plastic carrier bag was jammed under a suitcase at the exit of the scanner, preventing anything else from passing through. We waited helplessly. This was a job for an expert security professional. Unfortunately they were a little over-stretched. As was the carrier bag.
As we waited, the slow whirring of the conveyor-belt rollers began to tug away at the bag. The rollers teased it opened up at the top and the contents began to slowly emerge, like a magician pulling scarves out of a hat.
First up was a frilly bra in a fetching shade of beige. Probably a D cup, I quickly estimated. It wriggled up like a snake being charmed out of a basket, and then, surprised at its unexpected chance of freedom, crawled out onto the rollers. It soon realised its mistake. No sooner had it escaped than it was immediately caught up in the very rollers which had released it. Like a prisoner who has been let out of prison only to be rearrested on the other side, like some cruel joke.
Undeterred and underwired, a bra for a woman of a similar build bravely followed suit. Then what looked like a corset eased itself out. Within seconds there was a whole fashion show of lingerie desperately fighting their way through the rollers, only to be further entangled. It was hopeless. We imagined the headlines “Holiday-makers tangled up in underwear chaos”.
A young security man had arrived. He glanced at the brazen display of ladies undergarments. We could see the panic on his face. How would he handle this delicate situation? How would he handle the bras and corsets? At least he was wearing rubber gloves.
We were all rather transfixed by this spectacle. The woman stood next to my wife put her hand over her mouth and whispered “I’d never wear anything like that”. We wondered whether she protested too much. Mrs B declined to comment.
The embarrassed security man extracted the first bra carefully – holding the strap gingerly between two fingers as if it were about to explode. He lifted the plastic bag and tried to push the remaining items back in as quickly as possible. One item chanced a final escape and landed on the floor. He security guy scooped it up in an instant, picked up the bag and walked past us.
“Is this yours” he asked gingerly to a couple stood at the end of the conveyor-belt. The man said “yes” and calmly took it off him. Rather than sneak away rather shamefully, he expressed his displeasure at the way the security guard had dropped one of the garments onto the floor, suggesting it would now be dirty. His wife looked undisturbed and unassuming as if this sort of thing happened every day. We tried not to imagine why she had packed so many choices of undergarments, or indeed why she had placed them in a flimsy plastic bag? I thought they all handled a delicate situation in a very English way – pretending it was all quite normal.
Meanwhile my own suitcase had been pulled out of the line for inspection, and I was grateful for the knowledge that I had a fairly predictable style and number of pairs of M&S smalls. Not that I particularly wanted them displayed to the great travelling public. In the end, they just waived me through and we ambled to the gate, with just enough time to buy some well-earned sandwiches.
Two hours later we were landing in Carcassonne. A mother behind us had spent the whole flight over-parenting her two little children whilst her husband stayed sensibly silent. Every aspect of the experience had been explained and every risk addressed. The children had to keep their seat-belts fastened until the plan stopped “because we could still crash”. Anxiety was breeding anxiety. Her voice shrilled like Sally Webster’s from Coronation Street. For those of you who do not get the reference, this is not a good thing.
As luck would have it, we proceeded to queue behind the same family for 45 minutes at the car hire kiosk. It took at least 10 minutes for them to be satisfied with the booster seat and 5-point baby-chair. We know it is inevitable that we will meet them again before the holiday is over. If I listen carefully, I can still hear her. Mrs B seized the opportunity to remind me never to complain again about her being over-fussy. Fair point.
The two hour drive to our house was delightful and relaxing. And here we are, nestling in the Pyrenees, bathed in peace and quiet. It is a huge property which the house could easily accommodate another four people. Who would we choose? The manic mother with her mute husband and over-protected children? I am not sure she could cope with the hazards of the pool and balcony. Maybe the couple with their bag of underwear? Maybe the older couple with their advanced sorting skills could do a similar job with bras and corsets?
After a regulation glass of Bordeaux and too many slices of baguette, we settled down to try – and fail – to get the football on the TV or on the internet. Who needs either? Real people are far more entertaining to watch.
Airports are wonderful places for people watching.
Indeed – and planes, but sometimes too close for comfort.