What's worse than getting to the airport too late? Getting there too early, according to the US mathematician, Jordan Ellenberg. This week his book about "the hidden maths of everyday life," entitled How Not To Be Wrong is out. Professor Ellenberg points out that one way to be wrong is never to miss a flight.
To paraphrase his view: if you habitually allow way too much time just in case something goes awry, you might not miss any flights but you will squander more than you need of your valuable life in the airport – a location that is right up there with prisons and hospitals as a place where you want to spend an absolute minimum of time.
As I outlined in Tuesday's Independent, Professor Ellenberg formalises what some of us already do: work out the last possible departure of scheduled transport to the airport that would get you there, and then take the previous one. Almost all the time, it works.
You can read the story, and some of the comments it generated, online at bit.ly/PlaneGone. I'd like to say that loyal readers agreed that the sum of human happiness would be increased. But instead: "It would be the height of rudeness to miss the flight," wrote one, calling himself Roman Citizen.
"I always turn up at the specified time, because there are always people I have arranged to meet at the other end. Who knows what changes to their schedules have been made in order to accommodate me?"
He also explains that "dwell time" at the airport need not equate to purgatory: "Any spare time can be spent sipping a beer and watching the crowds of idiots, which is endlessly fascinating. Three weeks ago, I watched a Hungarian couple (I know what they are like, my wife is Hungarian) faffing in the duty-free shop. I knew their flight had been called. Sure enough, 20 minutes later they were rushing around asking where gate 52 was. Worth the price of a beer, I thought."
Another reader writes: "Everyone seems to be forgetting the herd of cats called a family. If you want stress, try getting a spouse and daughter to the airport on time."
"Sooz Pink" says: "My husband worked in Manhattan for a large corporation in the 1980s. He and his co-workers had corporate travel cards which they could use for travel at a moment's notice. He and his boss were used to being able to take a cab to La Guardia [New York's main domestic airport] at the last possible moment and stroll on to a plane just before the gate closed. Then came deregulation of the airlines, cost-cutting everywhere and terrorism." As a result, she says: "Ellenberg's book bears as much relevance to us cattle at the airport as my husband's former Mad Men lifestyle."
"Breezer" completes the rout with these remarks: "You are neglecting to mention the stress one endures while hurrying to the airport. Also, airports themselves are an extremely stressful environment if you are pushed for time. When I was younger, I was quite cavalier, but now that I am older I am happy to turn up two or even three hours early – all in the quest to avoid stress. For the record, I have missed just two flights in the past 25 years – and that's two too many, as far as I am concerned."
Over the same quarter-century, I have missed about a dozen or so flights – disproportionately many of them because of disarray on the Stansted Express and, in particular, the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow. You may have the good fortune never to have taken the Tube to Europe's busiest airport. So let me explain that at Acton Town, where the dark blue line splits, it starts to unravel – as do some passengers as they realise that the only thing going west is their travel plan.
If your luck is in, and a train for your terminal turns up, then be prepared for the Hatton Cross lull. No other airport service I know of would wait for five minutes at the last station before the airport in order to "regulate the service".
I thought it was just me, but Holly Brodie responds: "Sometimes I get the Piccadilly Line when I'm not in a rush, 'for a change'. And then I tell myself never again." By comparison, the old steam-hauled shuttle train between Asunción and the Paraguayan capital's airport looks a picture of reliability. And on both occasions, when a collapse of public transport has obliged me to hitch-hike to any airport – in Arkansas and Seattle – I have made the plane.
A desirable streetcar?
Perhaps you are blessed with a local airport with reliable transport. This week Edinburgh airport's tram finally opened to the public, though when I checked the journey time (half-an-hour from the city centre) I was interested to see that the online trip planner urges travellers to catch the faster and more frequent bus rather than a streetcar named Edinburgh Airport. This is clearly not yet the age of the tram.
Compared with the South-east's mega-hubs, there is plenty to be said for using a regional airport – except it is widely held that there are far fewer options than from the London airports.
Yet there is a select group of destinations that have air links from Britain – but none from the capital. Trapani in Sicily is connected by Ryanair only with Manchester; Charleroi in Belgium, an excellent gateway to the Ardennes, has links with Manchester and Edinburgh; and, of course, from many UK regional airports, including Alderney, Cardiff, Liverpool and Durham Tees Valley, you can fly to other British cities – but not London.