Category Archives: Travel

A Week at the Airport

From the excellent A Week At The Airport: A Heathrow Diary Alain De Botton

The quality of this interaction was the responsibility of Diane Neville, who had worked for British Airways since leaving school 15 years before and now oversaw a staff of some 200. It was never far from Diane’s thoughts how vulnerable her airline was to its employees’ bad moods. On reaching home, a passenger would remember nothing of the plane that had not crashed or the suitcase that had arrived within minutes of the carousel’s starting if, upon politely asking for a window seat, she had been brusquely admonished to be happy with whatever she was assigned. In the earliest days of industry, it had been an easy enough matter to motivate a workforce, requiring only a single and basic tool: the whip. Workers could be struck hard and with impunity to encourage them to quarry stones or pull on their oars with greater enthusiasm. Once it became evident that someone who was expected to wheel elderly passengers around a terminal, for example, or to serve meals at high altitudes could not profitably be sullen or furious, the mental wellbeing of employees began to be a supreme object of commercial concern.

But even true friendliness was not always enough. I observed a passenger running with shoulder bags towards a check-in desk for a Tokyo flight, only to be courteously informed that he had arrived too late to board and would have to consider alternatives. Yet his 747 had not already departed — it would sit at the terminal for a further 20 minutes, its fuselage visible through the windows. The problem was a purely administrative one: the airline had stipulated that no passenger, even one awaited by a bride and 200 guests, could be issued with a boarding card less than 40 minutes before departure.

The presence of the aircraft combined with its unreachability, the absence of another seat on a flight for 48 hours, the cancellation of a day of meetings in Tokyo, all these pushed the man to bang his fists on the counter and let out a scream that could be heard as far away as the WH Smith outlet at the western end of the terminal. I was reminded of the Roman philosopher Seneca’s treatise On Anger, and in particular of its thesis that the root cause of anger is hope. We are angry because we are overly optimistic, insufficiently prepared for the frustrations endemic to existence. A man who screams every time he loses his keys or is turned away at an airport is evincing a touching but recklessly naive belief in a world in which keys never go astray and travel plans are invariably assured