Mark Steel: Why can't we stop flying when it's such torture?

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The Independent Online

Of all the complex scientific questions raised by that climate-change conference in Bali, the most difficult of all is this why can't we stop people flying when they're only going a short distance, even though it entails the tortuous woeful arena of abject malignant misery that is the modern airport? It's as if scientists discovered that toxic gases were released into the atmosphere whenever electrodes were attached to genitals but most people said "I don't care, I'm going to carry on zapping mine every day because it's convenient."

I was reading about the conference while being processed through a typical airport, shuffled from one queue to another, until you get to the front, get stared at for a minute, waved on to another, get to the front, spread your arms, have a beepy machine brushed around you, until you no longer care what the purpose of the queue is, you just blankly follow, and wouldn't object if you showed your boarding pass and someone squirted cat sick into your ear before waving you on to the next queue.

An airport should represent the pinnacle of human achievement and imagination, where masses of people anticipate a journey across terrain and cultures available to only the tiniest fragment of humanity until a few years ago. Instead, it conveys the atmosphere of a vast warehouse, with most people displaying no more expression than if they were a pallet being wheeled about on a fork-lift truck.

Because these places are the epitome of the soulless dispiriting franchised sprawl that's devouring the surface of the earth. This is why they're likely to get even tighter on checking your bag for bombs. They're not so bothered about safety, but the airport will have a deal that hijackers can't take on board home-made devices, they'll have to use one of the new range of "Explodaphones" only available from Dixons.

And they seem proud of this layout that makes every airport in the world seem identical, as if the point of travel is to arrive 3,000 miles away and think "Oh how exhilarating Nairobi has a Next as well." So they give these creations names such as "Gatwick Village", although there can be no spot on the planet, including Las Vegas or the North Pole, that less resembles a village. Or perhaps I'm wrong and every Sunday ramblers pass through with Ordnance Survey maps, saying, "There should be a footpath here that takes us past Fly-be, where we'll get a lovely view of the Wetherspoons, then we can cross the stile to the Travelex currency centre, and stop for refreshments at Garfunkels where they do a delightful pre-wrapped mystifyingly chilled ciabbata plankton and lettuce sandwich."

So somehow travel, the most romantic of human pursuits, involves shunting through the most functional unromantic venue possible. If Casablanca was made now, it would end with Ingrid Bergman waving off Humphrey Bogart, then sitting on her bags at the back of a 40-minute queue at check-in while Paul Henreid waited 25 minutes for two lattes at Costa Coffee.

This endeavour may be worth tolerating if you're going to New York or Brazil, but why do people put themselves through it to go from London to Paris or Manchester? The airlines boast how "Edinburgh is only one hour from London," which is true, as long as you ignore the several hours of queuing. You might as well say the quickest way to cross the road is by jet-ski, as long as you ignore the time it takes to buy the jet-ski and flood the road.

The answer must be that trains are so extraordinarily expensive they've become a luxury. This is especially true now, because normally expensive tickets are only valid between 10 in the morning and three in the afternoon, otherwise you need a hilariously expensive ticket, such as the one from London to Liverpool that costs 220 quid. They must send their staff on special courses to teach them how to ask for this amount while keeping a straight face, perhaps in a newsagents where they tell people a Kit-Kat is 43 because it's peak snack time. Then the rail company's PR people issue statements such as "We do offer very cheap fares as long as customers are prepared to travel at times when we don't run any trains."

The result is that most people have no choice but cheap, planet-endangering misery. And instead of the great accounts of travel in the past, the Marco Polo of the future will write, "As the dawn awoke, my companions and I did happen upon the most unnerving sight; a store in which the inhabitants offered packets of smoked salmon and teddy bears. Yet to our dismay we had to flee, for the departure gate was many leagues distant and one of our number was lost, having foraged for 35 minutes in a queue for a baguette at Upper Crust."

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