With several months elapsing since my last flight I’d almost forgotten how much I detest air travel, particularly the security checks. Today (Wednesday) I got the whole treatment. First, a metal detector which stubbornly kept going off regardless of how much stuff I removed from about my person. This resulted in a pat-down and hand-held metal detector check, but to no avail (I have metal in a leg from an accident which I’m sure has been the cause of most of my airport misery for years). It was clear from the official’s face I didn't fit the correc profile and he was quite sure I wasn't going to slip through the net on his watch, so I was packed off to one of those newly-installed full-body scanners we’ve heard so much about. Whatever they tell you, it’s pretty humiliating. And don’t believe those news clips eulogising their high-tech nature or claiming the operator is in “another part of the airport”. I ushered into a room filled with a big box which I had to stand in front of and give it a twirl with my arms raised high (I just hope they haven't kept the image and superimposed a pink tutu over it). The official accompanying me then thumped loudly on the box with his fist and shouted, “Does it look OK?” At first I thought he had gone quite mad, until a muffled voice from within the box responded, “Yeah, I think so”. Behold, the vanguard of England’s high-tech security, protecting our citizens and air carriers from dangerous terrorists . I suppose you could just make a case for the airport operator being located “in another part of the airport”, though not a particularly distant part of the airport, it must be said.
Deciding I hadn’t been humiliated enough, I was then accosted by two more officials asking a myriad of fool, indeed impertinent, questions. It was getting as bad as El Al (although they even asked me to lower my trousers, that nuisance metal in the leg again). Finally, at the gate were yet more random searches, though thankfully this time I was spared. Attention was instead directed towards several elderly, immobile and somewhat bewildered-looking married couples who had clearly been radicalised and were probably at that very moment carrying bombs on board the flight in their socks. But don’t worry, the officials were on the case, making these elderly suspected terrorists remove their coats, sweaters, jackets and shoes, regardless of how difficult this proved without the aid of a chair or table to place their personal belongings (no such items of furniture, of course, were available). They were then patted down before a gawping queue of fellow passengers. Call me cynical, unpatriotic, or an ostrich with his head in the sand when it comes to security issues, but frankly, I’m afraid I’m not terribly convinced any of this is particularly effective.
Neither do I think this particular London airport is the best advert for Britain. If it was my first glimpse of our wonderful country I’d be quite worried. It goes some way to explaining, I suppose, why many non-Brits boarding the flight exhibited the same look of relief I’ve seen on passengers' faces fleeing civil war-torn Guatemala, Mugabe’s goons at the old Harare airport, or a military dictatorship. In short, the airport is pretty bad. I heard one American passenger talking of his breakfast experience with disbelief (he said it took half an hour to make an egg bap, which was then served stone cold and cost him a king's ransom... I also had a breakfast bap and can confirm his testimony has a ring of truth about it). Even the loos at the airport haven’t escaped the madness. The sinks have automatic taps, and beneath each is a warning sign with an image of billowing steam and the words, “Attention. Very hot water”. But there is no way of adjusting the temperature! Perhaps, then, this is simply more nonsensical ‘elf and safety? Or a rather novel way of saving water as a precious resource? Or maybe it is typical British politeness, kindly informing you beforehand you are about to scald yourself. If you work at the airport and know which of these is the correct reason, answers on a postcard please. In the meantime, to the travellers of the world I say, Britain is a great place to visit, once you get beyond the airport, that is.