Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Fasten your seatbelts - you're entering the weird world of the airport
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The Independent Travel

Airports are odd places. Each day, three distinct groups of people turn up at them. The first bunch, often stressed and anxious, are the outbound passengers. They find themselves in a strange environment that is full of hidden traps - from choosing the wrong terminal, to leaving forgetfully a pair of nail scissors in hand luggage and having them confiscated.

Airports are odd places. Each day, three distinct groups of people turn up at them. The first bunch, often stressed and anxious, are the outbound passengers. They find themselves in a strange environment that is full of hidden traps - from choosing the wrong terminal, to leaving forgetfully a pair of nail scissors in hand luggage and having them confiscated.

The second group is easy to recognise. They're the tired, confused passengers who have just stepped off a plane to be confronted by an ocean of problems. For example, new arrivals at Gatwick who merely wish to buy a one-way train ride to London's Victoria Station must choose between 19 possible rail tickets.

By comparison, the third contingent are unfazed by the complexity of a modern airport. While not exactly elated by the prospect of another day battling to get Britain away on holiday, at least these people are being paid. They are, of course, the airport workers. As Gatwick, the UK's main holiday springboard, prepares for its busiest summer ever, their numbers have just increased by 30.

The new recruits comprise a group of "Welcome Hosts", all wearing yellow T-shirts reading "Here to help", and collectively looking like a field of buttercups. I joined them as they were taken on a guided tour by Merete Young, manager of terminal operations at Gatwick.

"You'll have a list of who flies from where. With all BA flights, it's North Terminal."

Despite having worked in a variety of jobs at the Sussex airport over the years, I learnt plenty as we marched around the South Terminal: "This is one of our very busy concourses: Virgin checking in there, Britannia checking in there. First thing in the morning, you have easyJet over there, then they move over here, then later they move back there. Britannia stay where they are." Confused? You might be. The reason the easyJet check-in area shifts twice during the course of the dayis to maximise the use of available space; easyJet is busiest in the early morning and early evening, complementing Virgin Atlantic's peaks in the middle of the day, so a "floating" check-in makes sense.

Nobody, though, could explain why the flight-information screens showed a phantom easyJet flight at 5.40am from Gatwick to Luton. Still, aviation is full of inexplicable events, such as why a Boeing B52 bomber should cross the Atlantic for a fly-past at the Farnborough Air Show and, well, fly past the wrong airfield. In comparison, it's a wonder that the complex choreography of people and planes at Gatwick works as well as it does.

The threatened strikes by airport check-in staff and baggage handlers have been averted, but even when everything is working normally, the Gatwick experience can be stressful. Today, 40,000 passengers, each with a complex series of transactions to conduct, will converge on the South Terminal. If you happen to be one of them, look for the yellow angels - such as Michelle Harman, aged 20, who in real life is studying business administration at Bath University. She sees the job - which pays £6 an hour - as valuable experience: "It's all about increasing my communication skills."

Michelle's new colleague, Paul Howie, is 17 and saving for his gap-year journey. Now, when I was his age, I worked at Gatwick but certainly wasn't allowed anywhere near real passengers. But Paul is outgoing, enthusiastic and has some language skills: "I speak a bit of pidgin French and Spanish, and the odd word of Nepali." Sadly, Royal Nepal Airways Corporation has now abandoned its link from the Sussex airport.

Sydney, Calgary and some other airports employ retired people to offer advice and assistance to travellers; at Auckland airport, senior citizens even dispense free coffee to sleepy new arrivals. But Caroline Nicholls of BAA Gatwick says that her company has its eye on the future: "This gives them a chance to try customer service, and hopefully they'll get the airport bug that many people that work here have, and think about a career here in the future."

Back on the three-dimensional frontline between passengers, airlines and acts of God - everything from bad weather, via air-traffic control shutdowns to striking Spanish baggage handlers - Merete Young is reassuring the new recruits that they will soon be confident enough to ease the worries of passengers. It's easy when you know how, apparently: "Trolleys, litter, knowing where the phones are. The rest of it is second nature after a few days."

THANK GOODNESS THE ANARCHISTS HAD TASTE

"When I first reached Barcelona I had thought it a town where class distinctions and great differences of wealth hardly existed." George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia remains one the 20th century's most powerful books. This honourable man's account of the Spanish Civil War chronicles a tortuous decline from idealism to despair with a compelling blend of war reportage, travel writing and self-destruction.

Orwell travelled to Spain to join the International Brigade in its futile struggle to defend the Republican government against Franco's Nationalists. Barcelona in 1936 was a cauldron of ideologies, with anarchists and communists clashing in a bloody diversion from the fascist threat.

At first, Orwell was enthused: "Nobody cringed or took tips, waiters and flower-women and boot-blacks looked you in the eye and called you 'comrade'."

Within weeks his ardour turned to horror. "No one who was in Barcelona then, or for months later, will forget the horrible atmosphere produced by fear, suspicion, hatred, censored newspapers, crammed jails, enormous food queues, and prowling gangs of armed men." It makes Gatwick sound civilised. Still, Orwell's writing inspired my first visit to Barcelona, by thumb, the summer after Franco died.

Today, you can choose from a dozen departures on BA and easyJet from Gatwick alone, typically for £80 return - which is what I paid when I went back last month to survey "one of the most hideous buildings in the world" (according to Orwell), on behalf of BBC1's Heaven and Earth Show (Sunday, 10am). Orwell may have been a brilliant observer of the failings of man, but he was wrong to include the Sagrada Familia (left) among them. Use Homage to Catalonia as a guide and you would give it a wide berth: "It has four crenellated spires exactly the shape of hock bottles," said Orwell. Odd: the towers remind me of asparagus. Many churches in Barcelona were desecrated during the revolution, but the Sagrada Familia was spared for its artistic value.

Orwell lamented: "The anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up." Happily, the anarchists' good taste allowed Gaudi's magnificent work-in-progress to become one of Europe's most uplifting sights - a testament to one man's beautiful madness, melting in the Spanish sun.

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