I am not a raving sadist, and so I didn’t experience a secret thrill at seeing queues of stressed-out holidaymakers snaking out of UK airport terminals this week, desperate to embark on long-awaited Easter holidays.
I might, however, have noticed a whisper of relief wash over me as I saw one recruitment expert warn that these chaotic scenes at Britain’s aviation hubs might not subside for a full year. That’s how long it could take to address airports’ chronic staff shortage in the wake of the pandemic.
Why should I feel anything at all, you might ask? Well, in brief, because I won’t be getting on a plane myself this summer – nor for the rest of the year.
I am quite possibly the only travel editor in the country who has pledged to go flight-free since 2020.
My reasons for staying grounded are firmly environmental – having spoken to myriad climate scientists, experts and campaigners for my upcoming book on the topic, Zero Altitude (out 26 May), I’m convinced we need to reassess our toxic relationship with flying and learn to travel by greener means wherever possible. Not to be a clanging eco-bore, but the unassailable fact is that the aviation industry is responsible for 860 million metric tonnes of carbon emissions annually; there’s a reason scientists say the quickest way to dramatically slash your carbon footprint is to fly less.
But even before the recent turbulence (pun intended) at airports across the land, which even saw unlucky passengers miss flights because they were stuck in hours-long security queues, I couldn’t help but feel a little smug about my choice every time a friend told me about a disastrous flight delay or a nightmare case of lost luggage (OK, OK, maybe I am a raving sadist).
Let’s face it: even when things are going smoothly – an occurrence that feels increasingly rare – more often than not, the airport experience has more in common with an undiscovered Circle of Hell than the breezy, aspirational affair Heathrow marketing materials would have you believe.
Sure, it’s a quick (and usually cheap) way of getting somewhere. But only in terms of the actual flight time. Factor in getting to the airport (depending on where you live, usually an hour or more); the queue to check your bag; the wait for security (along with the indignity of removing your shoes, belt and jewellery and shoving your worldly toiletries into a clear plastic bag for all to see); the two or so hours you spend waiting around airside in what amounts to a giant, charmless shopping mall along with thousands of increasingly irate fellow travellers... and it doesn’t feel quite so swift after all. And that’s without the endless wait for luggage at the other end, plus the journey onwards – often another hour added on besides.
The longer I go without flying, in fact, the more I wonder how I ever tolerated it in the first place. Like a curmudgeonly old woman, I sneer from afar, grumbling under my breath about how unbearable I find Stansted and that it’s “inexplicable” that Luton Airport Parkway train station is not actually at the airport (and requires a separate bus transfer. Why? WHY??).
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In comparison, my travels by train and ferry in the last three years have mainly filled me with unbridled joy. Jump on a sleeper train, for example, to Scotland or Cornwall, and you get to make your journey ensconced in a little travelling hotel room and wake up somewhere new, all without the hassle of passport control.
Hop aboard the Eurostar, and you can take as many liquids as you like, plastic bag be damned. Stroll onto a ferry bound for northern Spain, and the journey may be lengthy – but there are restaurants serving three-course meals, plush lounges with a separate bar, and the majesty of the sea beckons at every turn. I may have started out pledging to go flight-free in response to the climate crisis; I reckon I’ll continue to do it thanks to the sheer delight that slow travel brings.
So, if you’re worried about getting caught up in more travel chaos at UK airports this summer, my expert “hack” is simple but effective: ditch the flights entirely, and embrace a different pace of travel.
Helen Coffey is The Independent’s travel editor and author of Zero Altitude: How I Learned to Fly Less and Travel More (Flint, £16.99), available to pre-order now.
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