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News & Advice

Stephen Bayley: Prison, hospital ... airport: surrender your dignity now

Something to Declare

Air travel? To paraphrase Dr Johnson, it is being in prison with the added disadvantage of the possibility of crashing. But that's not really so. Most of us are soothed by aviation's impressive safety statistics. The horror lies elsewhere. Do you have a looming sense of dread, a barely stifled urge to panic, the feeling of being a mute and useless walk-on in a play written by Kafka on a bad day? You must be thinking about an airport.

With me, it's not so much a fear of flying as a fear of airports. Up in the air, you are in the hands of superb professionals who have a very obvious vested interest in doing their job properly and landing safely. Up in the air is relaxing. It's on the ground that it gets nasty.

Since people do not, generally speaking, opt for prison or hospital, an airport is the sole occasion when we voluntarily submit to a brutalising system whose purposes tend, with absolute consistency, to rob us of privacy, dignity and free will.

The recent queues at Heathrow's passport control may have made the news, but at every stage in the airport process you are vulnerable to someone in an excellent position to ruin your day. Decide to drive yourself there? The day will come when the long-term car park really is full. The check-in clerk furrows her brow as your details are tapped in. Sir, we have no record of your reservation. Security! Belts, shoes. Why did I bother to get dressed in the first place? A 30-minute walk to the gate. Ground-handlers. They have lost the jetway. Air traffic control. Missed our slot. Weather. Baggage reclaim. The process would create distress even in Zen monks. Think about the destination board that says "Delayed until 23:15". It is only 18:25. How you yearn to hear that the captain has turned off the seat-belt sign.

Autonomy is checked in as soon as you go through an airport's glass doors. On the way home recently, I was driven to the airport by a relaxed driver in a comfortable car. An indulgent luxury? Of course, but one available to anyone prepared to pay. This, I purred to myself, is the way to go. And then, elegantly deposited kerbside at a secondary Italian airport, you exit a private world and enter a squalid public frenzy. It's a bit like walking along a sunny street and falling into a fetid sewer. Neither money nor force can get you out of this mess. You are no longer an individual client, you are a harrowed victim. Airports force-feed you junk travel.

Of course, access to airline lounges mitigates the nastiness to a degree, as does access to pink champagne, but whoever wrote the rule that airports must be disgusting? BA's lounges in Heathrow T5 are impressive, but only in the grotesque value system of the airport do you need lofty "executive" status to secure humane peace and calm.

With this in mind, I have just cancelled a trip involving Stansted. In 1991, I went to the opening party of the airport: the architect, Norman Foster, was explaining his elegant conceit of transparency and easy access. Then someone had a meeting with Sock Shop and the "architect's impression" of beauty and light became a glaring catastrophe of sordid mercantilism.

Since I know of no airport that is not actually deteriorating, the question is: at exactly what point will we decide that the horrors of airports outweigh the miracle of flight? In my case, I think really quite soon.