ANNABEL CRABB April 16, 2012
Annabel Crabb. Photo: James Brickwood
It's official – Sydney Airport is now so rubbish that Barry O'Farrell wants to borrow Canberra's.
You can see his point; apart from half of it not being there yet, Canberra Airport is distinctly preferable to its equivalents in either Sydney or Melbourne, whose shortcomings and tendencies toward avarice and gouging are sombrely catalogued every year by the ACCC, to little or no effect.
Why do people put up with rubbish airports?
My theory is that the entire experience of air travel is a conspiracy of petty humiliations, designed subtly to erode the self-esteem of its human clients, who might otherwise rise up as a mob and burn the airport down, or at least point-blank refuse to stow their tray tables appropriately.
From the moment you arrive at the airport, the airport wants you to know exactly what it thinks of you. Its character assessment is utterly brutal. Here's what it is, in essence: "Hello, loser. You're a LOSER. You know what? I think you are such a sucker that you will pay me $23 to park in this shed for an hour and a half. Or maybe stay until tomorrow! That'll be $112. Loser."
Inside, the parade of petty indignities continues. At the check-in kiosk, for instance, where the two available answers to the crucial question: "Are you carrying explosives?" are chosen via touchpad buttons so hilariously close together that a single moment's inattention converts a fat-fingered non-combatant into an inexplicably frank suicide bomber. (If you are a bomber, it's serious. You have to report to the service desk immediately.)
Or at the baggage self-check-in, where you will be obliged to position your suitcase to the exact satisfaction of an extremely fussy and disembodied machine.
At every opportunity, the airport remorselessly reinforces its assessment of you.
Perhaps you are sufficiently delayed to warrant the purchase of a toasted sandwich? And what a sandwich it will be! Two board-stiff slices of last week's bread, on or at least near which two chunks of tomato – one razor-thin, one vaguely pyramidal in shape – have been juxtaposed with a slice of processed cheese. Upon request, one side of the arrangement will be irreparably scorched, the other left raw, and the whole affair slipped defiantly into a bag. That'll be eight fifty, thanks! ("Loser", the airport breathily intones, as you stumble away, wreathed in inexplicable shame.)
Or visit the bathroom, with its Soviet queues and its awkward traffic-jam of equally-humiliated travellers attempting to shepherd wheelie bags into cubicles designed (by whichever sadist was appointed to this particular task) to be just that tiny bit too small to accommodate one person and one wheelie bag.
Having executed your 23-point turn with your wheelie bag, and wedged the bag against the door in order to compensate for the broken lock, you are free to scan the in-cubicle advertisements for earplugs – or the anti-diarrhoea medication ones, whose eminently sensible advice appears to have come tragically too late for the cubicle's most recent previous occupant.
None of this is an accident. As your abasement mounts, so is your will to protest commensurately weakened.
The subtle campaign continues upon boarding the aircraft, where you will be judged – by a uniformed team of people better-looking and much, much better-groomed than you – on your ability to perform certain tasks whose ground-rules are kept deliberately unclear.
The perfect score-card – an ecstatic Nirvana of correctly-stowed baggage, sensitively-positioned tray table and recliner seat, adequately-cinched seatbelt and electronic devices first programmed to flight mode and then switched off in a satisfactorily timely fashion – is unattainable.
No matter how well you think you've done, you will have blown it in some way. There is no escape from the gently frowning rebuke administered by whichever member of the hostie super-race is undertaking final checks: "Just your bag a little further under the seat, please", or "Just your seat returned to the upright position, Madam".
And then there is the finely-calibrated humiliation of inflight refreshments.
Teams of Swiss watchmakers and Bangladeshi child beaders have stress-tested the little capsules of milk to confirm that they cannot – no matter what your personal degree of manual dexterity – be opened without spitting milk all over your front.
Those foil sachets of pretzels? They contain just few enough pretzels to ensure that even if you do succeed in opening one, the overall pretzel gain cannot defray the opportunity cost of being forced to use one's teeth as a tool in public, and getting covered in pretzel dust.
A visit to the bathroom delivers a mute reminder of how hideously you've aged since your last flight.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is why we put up with it.
Because after a full cycle of air travel, we no longer believe we deserve anything better.