Simon Calder: Off to the departure gates of hell

Some dawdler in duty-free could cause the flight to miss its slot, and jeopardise your onward connection

Tuesday 21 December 2010 01:00 GMT

Airport stress, and for that matter jet lag, is never an issue with flight LOG328. When I checked in for the flight in the summer, there was no queue for security, because there was no security search point.

Seat allocation was handled by the captain himself, who shrewdly decided that the prize seat – next to him on the flight deck – should go to the youngest traveller. The inflight entertainment comprised glorious views of some of the world's finest maritime scenery. And the catering? Well, as I stepped from the aircraft, the captain handed me my bag, posed for a photograph and then presented me with a miniature of Scotch.

The gift reveals the location. This was no odd little corner of the developing world, but Scotland. The Loganair flight in question connects Kirkwall, capital of the Orkneys, with the islands of Papa Westray and Westray – and the flight between the last two happens to be the shortest in the world, taking all of two minutes, which is why you get a souvenir thrown in with your £35 fare. That, for eight lucky passengers a time, is 21st-century aviation at its best; for all the rest, air travel involves stress way beyond that created by other forms of transport.

Being stuck on the M6 for 12 hours last Friday night was an awful experience, but at least those motorists were (mostly) safe and warm within their automotive cocoons. Amid the crowds at London St Pancras station yesterday seeking trains to Paris and Brussels, there was something of the Dunkirk spirit (albeit geographically reversed). But air travel has evolved to engender anxiety of a breadth and depth unmatched elsewhere.

Even in normal times, the word "confirmed" on a ticket conveys an unwarranted degree of assurance about the traveller's prospects. Because aviation is far more complex than relatively closed systems (such as the M6 or the railway to Paris), the potential causes of disruption are as wide as the sky. "Will depart 15.30" should carry an asterisk that translates as "We'll aim for 3.30pm, but not if an unhelpful Icelandic volcano erupts, Spanish air-traffic controllers walk out or what would pass as a light afternoon snow flurry in Moscow or Montreal settles on Heathrow".

The uncertainties multiply as you approach the airport. How much time should you allow for traffic or trains? Will the "Fast Bag Drop" live up to its adjective this time? And how horrendous will the queue for security be?

Airline security, as augmented following a series of actual and attempted terrorist attacks, bristles with all kinds of stress-inducing possibilities. Shoes on or off? Laptop in or out? Above or below 100ml? Any remaining sense of self-esteem is likely to be removed by the realisation that you (and, if you happen to have some, your children) are assumed to be international terrorists intent on mass murder until you jump through the necessary hoops.

Then the airport and airlines connive to raise the stress levels with signage. They exaggerate the walking distance to the gate, and warn that the flight is "closing" when boarding has not, as you discover when you get there, even begun.

Having made it to the gate, your problems are only just beginning. Some dawdler in duty-free could cause the flight to miss its slot, and jeopardise your onward connection; your bags may be heading for LOS (Lagos) while your boarding pass reads LAS (Las Vegas); and that's even before the occasionally cruel and unusual punishment that United States immigration involves.

Happily, there is one outcome you need not stress about, because it is so rare: a crash. But you may still feel you need a whisky to steady your nerves.

Simon Calder is The Independent's Senior Travel Editor

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