Are airports really parallel universes?

Flying off on holiday has become a joyless matter because of crowds of passengers and extra security

Flying off on holiday has become a joyless matter because of crowds of passengers and extra security, says Steve Downes. Picture: Steve Parsons/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Have you ever visited a parallel universe?

I don't mean Ipswich, though it could easily qualify.

I mean the places in science fiction and dystopian plots, where things are the same as here but subtly different.

Think episodes of Doctor Who. or Red Dwarf, where Lister visits a place where he's a smooth operator who got the girl, not a lonely slob.

Or think airports.

These are the parallel universes that do not require a time machine or a ticket to another dimension. They are part of our society yet so odd as to be other-worldly.

What is it with these places? They are focal points for what should be our best times – going on holiday. But they have been shaped into locations that visit misery upon our souls.

Most Read

Between entering the terminal and taking off, we are stripped of our humanity, disrespected, herded like cattle, treated as terror suspects (presumed guilty) and drawn to conform to behaviour that is undignified and demeaning.

I went through one a few days ago. What used to be a pleasant experience has become an ordeal – and a strong argument for staying at home. The airport facilities simply haven't grown in step with passenger numbers.

I find myself wondering whether there's a machine at the entrance that sucks out our basic humanity.

People jostle, bump, swear, argue and behave with total selfishness in the single-minded quest to be first.

Then, even at 5am, they wander like zombies to the nearest bar to pay £8 for a pint of lager.

Either that or it's a cheese sandwich that costs about the same as pie, mash, peas and a pint in plenty of pubs.

Not only are we robbed of our humanity and common sense, we lose our ability to judge value.

There are never enough seats for us in the waiting areas – largely because of selfish travellers who stretch out over three seats because their sleep is so important.

And, even though the plane leaves at the same time for all of its passengers, it becomes crucial to be at the front of the queue.

And, once on the plane, people put on their blinkers as they scramble for their (reserved) seats, ignoring anybody who is near to them.

Rewind a little, though, and it's easy to understand why.

For the security process and – often – the staff combine to distance us from our better selves.

The security officers scowl at us as we empty our pockets, take off our belts, put our laptops in separate trays and play our part in a ritual humiliation.

I forgot to take off my Fitbit, so I bleeped – and was treated to removal of my shoes, a full body scan and a stranger's hands all over me (which might be ok for a visitor to Amsterdam, but not me).

A smile or a cheerful word are too much to hope for, because we are all guilty unless proven innocent.

And that's the root of my problem with airports: the way in which wise caution has been used as an excuse to treat people with disdain.

We are not criminals, we are customers.

People at airports have jobs because we travel. If we stopped, they'd have nobody left to take out their inadequacies on.

Security must be stringent, for obvious reasons.

But it's time to change the culture of high-handedness and intimidation that bookend our breaks with stress.