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A Magazine for Sheffield


There are certain phrases that no-one ever wants to hear. "We're making you redundant" is one. "It's terminal" - that's another. And: "Happy birthday! Here's your present - it's the new Bruno Mars album." But worse than any of these is the following: "I'm afraid your flight has been delayed by seven hours." Boom! It's like being winded by a prize-fighter's punch. Nothing kills a holidaymaker's initial enthusiasm like a delayed flight. You could have started the day by leaping out of bed with glee, or spent the entire taxi ride to the airport singing "I'm off on me jollies!" But when you reach the front of the check-in queue, passport in hand, and the lady behind the desk says: "There was a problem with the plane so they're bringing in a replacement...from Turkey", that happiness will vanish. She may as well have just burped in your face. Admittedly some delays are worse than others. A setback of a couple of hours isn't that bad, all things considered. It might even give you more time to relax before the flight. But anything above three hours and the whole travelling experience becomes a torturous one, like watching an entire episode of Alan Carr: Chatty Man. The main problem is airports themselves. Those of a romantic disposition may view them as portals of pleasure, wormholes which lead to new adventures in far-flung corners of the globe. In reality, they are cathedrals of tedium, palaces of dullness, temples of Zzzzz. There are only so many times you can read the blurbs of books in WH Smith before putting them back and not buying them; only so many ways in which you can feign interest as your girlfriend swoons at the shoes in Kurt Geiger; only so many games of air hockey you can play until you want to chew off your own kneecap with boredom. Then there's the food. With longer delays, tour operators are obliged to offer you meal vouchers as compensation for the inconvenience caused. So it's great when the check-in lady - wearing neckerchief and rouge, both applied in an equally haphazard fashion - hands over coupons worth £16. "Wow!" you think. "Imagine all the grub I'll be able to buy! I'll have a feast, Henry VIII style!" This enthusiasm disappears when you realise the only things you can eat in an airport at 4am are a questionable croquemonsieur and what the Americans might call "Blueberry muffin, hold the blueberries." (Also: why can't you get normal food from McDonald's before 9am? A Big Mac meal would make an impeccable breakfast; instead they offer the Sausage and Egg McMuffin - truly Ronald's most repulsive creation. Besides, only selling certain things at certain times of the day is stupid. It's like walking into Tiffany & Co only to be told "Sorry, you can't buy any diamonds before noon, or until Phil gets back from his fag break.") For young travellers, delays are inconvenient to say the least. But a thought should be spared for families with children who find themselves in the same position. It's easy to spot parents whose flights have been postponed. They're the ones stumbling around in a sweating, feverish haze, arms filled with offspring, trying in vain to battle against shitting, pissing, farting, vomiting, hunger, thirst and unexpected nosebleeds. At times their plight is almost biblical: Dad-as-Moses, struggling to free the Jews, or at least find them some clean nappies. Eventually the boarding gate opens. The word 'gate' in this context is completely misplaced. 'Holding pen' would be more appropriate. Or 'Guantanamo exercise yard'. An airport gate is a tiny grey box of a room, about as comfortable as a bed of nails. Fill it with delayed passengers, their patience stretched beyond breaking point, and it becomes a humid human zoo. The herd are rounded up and shoved towards the plane, while the staff - who have long since abandoned any notion of professionalism - ignore any complaints that come their way. In less polite countries, passengers no doubt vent their annoyance with raised voices and waving fists. In Britain, they just tut a lot. A seven-hour delay can stir many emotions in a person: frustration that a chunk of your holiday has already been wasted; anger at the aggressive toilet washbasins that splashed your new sand-coloured chinos; confusion as to whether the twitch in your cheek is due to tiredness or the 15 coffees you've drunk. More than anything though, a seven-hour delay can make you wonder why anyone would ever want to go on holiday in the first place. And as you slide into your cramped seat, and rest your weary feet on the sticky floor, and try to block out the sound of the toddler wailing behind you, you close your eyes, click your heels together and say to yourself: "There's no place like home, there's no place like home..." )

Next article in issue 41


Mike Trace is chair of the International Drug Policy Consortium and advised the Global Commission on Drug Policy with its recent report…

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