Knack of plane failing

4th August 2006 at 01:00
You may think this is a moment of eccentricity. Just bear with me before you scoff. Here goes: there's much to be said in favour of Heathrow airport.

The scholar's life is a wandering life. My revisionist position was finally tipped in favour of Heathrow by arriving in Canada at Ottawa airport.

Ottawa is a delight. It avoids the inexpressible tedium of that other confected capital, Canberra. It has none of Washington's pomposity. It is infinitely cleaner, safer, more civilised, than almost any other serious metropolis you care to name. And where else could the residents point to the local canal with pride, saying that it freezes so hard in the winter that you can skate to work?

But the airport is a disappointment. In scale it is close to LeedsBradford. Nothing wrong with that. It's a fine spot to embark for Southampton. The problem at Ottawa starts when you get to Customs. Having filled in a lengthy form and being the sort of middle-aged, respectable geezer who usually brings a sigh of relief to hard-pressed customs officers, at Ottawa I get the third degree. Who am I? Where am I going? Why am I carrying a bottle of single malt as a gift for a friend? It's all very dull.

It reminds me of the bad old days. The worst of these was at a ferry terminal; the kind of experience that set in motion the decline of sea travel as a means of getting from place to place, as distinct from a way of wandering about surrounded by aromatherapists and a Palm Court orchestra.

My wife was arriving to begin a new life in Ireland via Dublin docks. It was 6am. The car was packed to the gunwales with all those little things the removal men forgot, on top of which was perched a very disgruntled border collie. I am standing, beaming, at the last barrier, waiting to clamber into the car beside the collie.

"You'll have to pay duty importing the car," says Customs. I produce a bundle of passes, permissions, exemptions, amended regulations and dispensations. An hour passes. Irritation begins to creep in. "Are you saying," I exclaim, "that the official permits I have given you, which came from your superiors, are meaningless?" The official draws in a deep breath and replies: "No. But dey're dere and oi'm here."

Nothing of quite this existential weirdness has ever happened to me at an airport.

It is true that I have landed at Baghdad - Saddam Hussein International - in the middle of a thunderstorm and been happy not to disembark. It is also true that I have landed at Jeddah in possession of a visa and been grumpily informed by spotty boys in frocks that this entitles me only to sleep perilously poised on a high-tech designer bench in the transit lounge.

On this occasion I am saved from the temptation of homicide by four delightful Lebanese guys who know the ropes.

They know how to stay calm under extreme provocation because their livelihood is flying between Jeddah and Zurich transit lounges, ferrying gold one way and cash the other. "You can only stand it six months but it is very profitable," they tell me.

True, too, that I have checked in early in Lisbon on Christmas Eve to find everything halted by fog. As it gradually clears, the airlines decide to pretend that everything is normal from that moment but everything that should have gone before is CANCELLED.

I escape the unpleasantness of check-in clerks being pulled from behind their desks by irate Frenchmen, through the beneficence of a Scot who has seen it all before. "Perhaps we should let Whyte Mackay take the strain,"

he says, pouring me a respectable slug at 9am.

Later that evening, British Airways sends us a brand new aeroplane, all Cellophane-wrapped and stocked up with even more free drinks, to take us home in time to be wobbly Santa.

But none, absolutely none of this, has ever happened to me at Heathrow. In 40 years it has never been without building work. The food is execrable. I am perpetually struck dumb by the frightening poise of the young women who confuse me with the abundant choice of perfumes. But no one has ever been discourteous.

No one at Heathrow has ever demanded that I should unpack my bags, displaying odorous undergarments to the gaze of passers-by. No one has ever asked me to take off my clothes, lest I be concealing contraband in every orifice. No one has stolen my mobile phone or lost my entire baggage, including that special present that took me ages to find and those familiar but priceless-to-me clothes that I think are worn in but my wife says are worn out.

That, dear friends, amounts to a serious endorsement of the British way of life. It says that, even in the most hideous environment of exposed service ducts, broken travelators and deserted check-in desks, civilised behaviour rules OK. It says: when I hit Heathrow, I'm home.

David Sherlock is chief inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate

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