Few journeys are so exasperating as going to an airport and then failing to consummate the travel transaction by flying somewhere more alluring. Possible causes include strikes, bad weather, or because you have a job there. When I worked at Gatwick, daily disappointment was an occupational hazard: I cleaned aircraft and frisked passengers without a hope that I might one day be on the receiving end of the travel transaction. My meagre wage was supposed to assuage discontent.

But one morning while cleaning out a newly arrived Laker Skytrain, I calculated that even if I devoted every penny of my pay to the task it would take me three months to earn enough for a trip to New York and back. Today, at the current national minimum wage of £5.73, a low-season transatlantic return can be earned in a single 40-hour week; try Kuwait Airways in October.

The democratisation of air travel has depended on buildings that can take in a disparate bunch of people and their possessions, then efficiently process them into globetrotters (and, with luck, dispatch their baggage to the same corner of the planet). These structures are the subject of a fascinating documentary trilogy, The Secret Life of the Airport, whose first episode will be shown on BBC4 on Monday.

The programme intertwines the gestation of the 21st-century airport with rare archive footage and access to airports' hidden corners. But don't expect endless confrontations between angry passengers and supercilious airport staff, as shown in the Airline series; the makers have found more interesting characters.

Anthony Clarke, for example, is Wildlife Control Coordinator at Manchester airport. He patrols the perimeter in a van equipped with loudspeakers, broadcasting recordings of distress cries of a variety of birds. He aims to instil a fear of flying objects to keep them safely away from aircraft engines. His starling squawk sounds disconcertingly like the fanfare played on Ryanair flights when they arrive ahead of time.

"Ahead of their time" sums up some of the practices in the early days of civil aviation. In 1938 passengers were weighed along with their luggage, an idea that airlines are considering again.

In many respects, Britain lagged well behind the rest of the aviation world. I found it somehow comforting that the UK was making do with barely adequate infrastructure even in the 1930s; over pictures of Templehof in Berlin rising halfway to the heavens, a breathless newsreel announcer indignantly points out "Paris has just opened her new airport at Le Bourget, and New York has just laid the foundation for hers. Britain still sticks to Croydon, a quarter the size of any of these. What is Britain doing about it?"

Exactly the same question can be posed a lifetime later, with the same answer: "Er, not much."

The UK even lagged behind in the signposting. An official interviewed in the 1960s about Britain's reluctance to use pictograms at airports sought, preposterously, to blame the questionable moral character of foreigners: "The thought of a lady in skirts of being an indication of a ladies' lavatory has not been widely accepted. A lady in skirts may attract a Middle Eastern or a Far Eastern gentleman into misinterpreting what the actual room is for."

Incidentally, the programme reveals that the dismal combination of black on yellow used on airport signs is because this comprises the most eye-catching combination of colours.

Even the abstract business of naming air navigation waypoints – used by pilots to find their way around the skies – is more fun than you might imagine. Each carries a unique five-letter name. Just off the coast of Anglesey you fly over "Ginis" en route to Dublin. "Lesta" and "Pigot" are located near East Midlands airport. I investigated further to find that even potentially confusing names such as "North", "Cloud", "India" and "Prang" are used.

Airports are no longer gateways to an exclusive world, but 21st-century industrial complexes where you surrender individuality and dignity in return for a promise of re-location. The programme celebrates mobility as it traces the destruction of glamour. "There's a fantastic magnet at the other end," says Brian Henderson, architect of Gatwick. "You want to be sitting in that aeroplane, with a Bloody Mary in your hand, waiting for take-off." My last Ryanair flight wasn't quite like that.

Last word to the philosopher Alain de Botton, who believes an airport transforms perceptions: "It showed people who thought that their city was the limit, the horizon of all known possibilities, that actually it's just a tiny bit of a much, much larger sphere... The world is bigger, and so more diverse, and more exciting, and more possible."

'The Secret Life of the Airport' is on BBC4 at 9pm on Monday

Travel guides brought to book

Choice and competition: that's why British travellers enjoy the widest range of air links and the keenest fares in the world. We also benefit from ferocious rivalry between guidebook publishers: home-grown Footprint against the Australian giant, Lonely Planet; Bradt in a bitter turf war with Trailblazer over obscure parts of the world. But now one of the UK's biggest book retailers, WHSmith, has decided we are spoiled for choice. So it is clearing all but a narrow selection of travel guides from the shelves of airport stores. Only those published by Penguin, whose main imprints are Rough Guides and Dorling Kindersley, will remain on display.

An affront to customers' good judgement, you might conclude, and a threat to the survival of smaller publishers. But the firm says it is merely making life easier for airport buyers who "are often pressed for time".

A Smith's spokeswoman tells me travellers prefer "a straightforward range of travel guides to choose from". Such thoughtfulness can prove lucrative; for each copy of the Rough Guide to Costa Rica (price £14.99), WHSmith will pay only £5.