Posts tagged “Airports

Checking in to come home, Russian style


I stood, motionless, in the middle of the crowded space. People came and went around me. Some queued, others waited patiently next to piles of luggage, still more hugged relatives in emotional goodbyes. For all the world, it looked like a regular airport, going about regular airport business. I reckon I’ve been to thousands of airports in my time, striding confidently across halls, dealing with airport officials, polite on the outside even if seething on the inside at petty officiousness and stupid rules. I’m no fan of airports, you understand, but they are a necessary evil to get me to somewhere exotic and exciting.

But this one had me stumped. For the first time, I couldn’t find check-in.

How do you lose check-in? How is it possible not to see row upon row of impersonal white desks and grubby baggage belts, with their maze of retractable queue barriers that make you pace this way and that like a caged lion? How do you lose the planeloads of people that must have got to the airport before you as your flight is going out late afternoon?

Like a detective, I scoured the room for clues. The space was devoid of signage, even in Russian. I couldn’t see anyone holding a boarding card and most people still had large suitcases. Was I in arrivals, I wondered? I headed back outside. The sign read “Departures”.

Back inside, I started to ask fellow passengers but drew only blank looks. Pointing at my suitcase and shrugging my shoulders in a kind of a “what do I do with this?” mime wasn’t working. Pointing at the airport page in my phrase book and again at my suitcase wasn’t working. I glanced at my watch. At this rate I’d miss my plane.

Half an hour before, I’d been so relaxed. Russia, so daunting at first, had lost its ability to intimidate. My vocabulary was still limited to a dozen words (and only then if “Big Mac Meal” counts) but I’d learnt to match the Cyrillic alphabet to their Latin translation which was enough to make a quiz game out of most days’ activities. The people I’d met on the numerous trains and buses that had transported me 3500 miles across the Russian steppe to Ulan-Ude had, without exception, been helpful and charming. For three days, Aleksandr, the Russian Army officer headed for Chita, had fed me omul for breakfast on the slow train to Irkutsk, asking nothing in return save for a compliment about his red-haired wife in the photo album he carried in his kit bag. That same smoked fish hung in the market in Listvyanka, a tumbledown village on the shores of Lake Baikal. An elderly woman, head covered with a colourful babushka, pointed out the sights from the bus and used my phrase book to explain she was off to buy crystals.

I thought about her, in the airport terminal, and cursed my phrase book. What editor would include the word for crystal but not check-in? It was hot in the hall, and I wiped my brow with the back of my hand. I was starting to panic. The voice inside my head told me to calm down. I still had twenty minutes before check-in closed. There was a queue forming at the far side of the room and I joined the end of it. My question about whether this was the check-in queue leapfrogged up the queue like a Chinese whisper. Back came the answer – no.

No? No?!!!

I turned away from the queue and the mutterings of its occupants. I was running out of ideas. Now I started to mentally re-plan my journey home. If I couldn’t fly back to Moscow, I’d have to take the train, a four or five day trip. I’d miss my Moscow connection and have to pay for a new flight. More than that, I’d have to suffer the humiliation of telling friends and family the reason I’d missed my flight and suffer months of good natured ridicule.

Indignant, I thought to myself that no airport was going to beat me. I scanned the hall again. Along one side, there was a blank white wall. It looked like a recently-erected partition, free of scuffs and scratches, though I couldn’t be sure. I wheeled my case over for a closer look. On inspection, there appeared to be a concealed doorway. I knocked and waited. A businessman in a hurry pushed his way past me and through the door. I looked through, of course, to find out what was behind it.

There before me stood row upon row of impersonal white desks and grubby baggage belts. I made check-in with five minutes to spare.

It’s almost time to go to the airport


Dennis Potter’s famous quote sums it up perfectly:

“I did not fully understand the dread term “terminal illness” until I saw Heathrow for myself.”

Another trip is looming and with it, the love-hate feelings that come with beginning that trip at an airport. A necessary evil, of course, if you’re intending to go long haul and back without taking a six-month sabbatical or trading in a regular job for work on a cruise ship. This time it’s Gatwick. I’m not thrilled about the place, though I don’t feel the same loathing for it as I do for Heathrow.

The immigration hall at Heathrow is the worldly embodiment of hell. But at least I don’t have to face it for a while. I’m OK with Gatwick. Baggage reclaim there is a whole other matter but I must stay strong and limit myself to carry on.

But to return, I first have to leave.

If only I could time it right so I could sweep through the airport and onto the plane in one elegant motion, like cabin crew or Kim Kardashian or something. The reality, alas, is more like the Tom Hanks film The Terminal, where instead I feel like I’ve moved in. My stress level rockets unless I’m at the airport at least three hours before my flight leaves. I usually end up pacing up and down the concourse wandering aimlessly in and out of various retail outlets browsing at things I have no need for and certainly no intention of buying. At least Gatwick has normal shops. I like the kind of shops that can help me out with the essentials I’ve just realised I’ve forgotten to pack: toothpaste and hair bands and excessively large chocolate bars, not stuff like caviar and silk ties and other crap that only rich tourists will be impressed with.

If I’m not de-stocking Boots, I’m buying expensive coffee to ensure I need the bathroom just as the monitor flashes up my flight’s final call. Is there ever a stage between wait in lounge and final call? Even as I tell myself it can’t possibly be a final call as my flight isn’t scheduled to leave for another hour I feel a deep seated panic and race off to the gate to find no boarding is happening whatsoever. With all the travelling I do, I should know better. I really should.

Perhaps the call goes out early so there’s plenty of time to get lost. Douglas Adams, in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, wryly observed that airport planners seek:

“wherever possible to expose the plumbing on the grounds that it is functional, and conceal the location of the departure gates, presumably on the grounds that they are not.”

But at least our British airports don’t conceal the check in desks behind a plain white wall, as the Russians did in Ulan Ude when I visited it. Now that really was a challenge. It takes a really special kind of planner to design an airport like that. I can only assume the sign writer charged such exorbitant prices that the budget wouldn’t stretch that far. For once I was glad I’d rocked up three hours early. It took almost all of that time to find out where to drop my bag.