Simon Calder: Squawks, scales, skirts: airport secrets on screen

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.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

FootballGerman sparks three goals in four minutes at favourite No 10 role
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Radamel Falcao was forced to withdraw from the World Cup after undergoing surgery
premier leagueExclusive: Reds have agreement with Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Life and Style
Children at the Leytonstone branch of the Homeless Children's Aid and Adoption Society tuck into their harvest festival gifts, in October 1936
food + drinkThe harvest festival is back, but forget cans of tuna and packets of instant mash
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
New Articles
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam