Airporting

April 7, 2022

So old am I that I can remember being excited that I was getting on a plane. Yes, that old.

I had to cancel a visit to Toronto in January because of the Omicron variant, and I re-scheduled it for early April. By that point in the pandemic, airlines were actually letting people have a credit for cancelled flights, so I didn’t lose out too badly.

But we no longer just fly anywhere. First, we airport. (If there is no verb derived from the noun ‘airport,’ I hereby inaugurate it.). An airport is no longer a nexus between countries, but a Kafkaesque experience happening in a strange, anxious, liminal state, without access to fresh air while we’re legally constrained from the outer world behind misleadingly transparent glass.

An interior shot of Terminal Two in Mexico City’s Benito Juarez Airport, featuring misleadingly transparent glass.

Before flying, we Canadians prepare our ArriveCan document, spending 20 minutes online updating the data. Then we find that while we can enter Canada without a Covid test, the airline insists on one, so nothing’s changed that way. We pay more for a seat than we have in years, and we know there won’t be a meal served. We expect a micro-bag of pretzels instead. Hah! Naive cattle, to anticipate such generosity! Not on your two-hour flight, gullible peasants!

At the airport itself, we prepare ourselves to be treated as criminals under interrogation: “You have a bottle of water in your bag, and your glasses are in your shirt pocket, not in the tray. Feel shame, dog!” 

On this trip, I had the misfortune to encounter a polite dragon-lady at the check-in counter in Mexico City’s Benito Juarez airport. Because of my re-scheduling, I had ended up staying three days over the term of my visa. Usually, in Mexico three days is something that’s winked at. She was not, however, a woman who winked. She made me go to down to the Immigration office to pay the usual C$40 penalty for being bad, refusing to issue my boarding pass till I returned with the receipt. I had the time, and the amount was not crippling, but I know from experience that someone younger would have ignored the date on my card, assuming it was less than a couple of weeks out of date.

Duly chastened, but finally possessing the pass I needed, I went for a restorative hit of caffeine. Now I have, I confess, been reading only the main news stories about the invasion of Ukraine, and not all the pundits’ analyses any more. But I decided the world might actually might be close to its end when I was charged C$9.00 for my cappuccino in Terminal One. True, I’d accepted the waiter’s crafty suggestion of a shot of Bailey’s in it, but it was a micro-capp, half the size of what I pay $2.25 for, back home in Tepoztlan.

Mexican prices used to be around 35 percent of those in Canada. No longer, obviously. Yes, airports charge insanely, but this was still Mexico … I thought.

Finally, I was airborne and away, and the pretzel-less flight reached George Bush International Airport in Houston – named for the elder Bush, not Dubya. For reasons no-one can explain, in some US airports there is no way for international travellers simply to transfer from their arrival gate to the one where an ongoing flight departs. It’s necessary to line up for perhaps 45 minutes (supposedly socially distanced, but you can imagine how that goes with 300 anxious people) to be photographed, checked by an immigration official for known terrorist affiliations, then told to have a nice flight. Or, be grilled for 10 minutes, as was one man in front of me, to the consternation of those of us lined up behind him. You then enter the US, and head to your ongoing flight at a terminal 400 yards away on a little airport train.

I had three hours to spend in Houston, and after finally finding from which terminal my flight to Toronto left (those big boards announcing departures seem to fading from use), and deciding the cappuccino and the apple juice had not offered much sustenance, I headed for one of the eateries. I remembered the maxim for eating in an airport: expect a high bill, and don’t cry when you get it. Put it on the Visa card, and instead cry when you check your account next day.

I once had an argument with a manager at a Toronto airport restaurant over the fact the touchscreen I had to use to order food showed no prices. I posted something snarky on the airport’s Facebook page the week after, which received plaudits from other annoyed people, but it was soon deleted. But digital menus in airports remain one of my pet mega-peeves. 

Anyway, I found what looked like an okay place in the George Bush International Airport – El Premio (‘The Prize’). Then I realised there were no waiters, only touchscreens. Very well, I sighed to myself, this is post-Covid flying: inflated prices and non-existent service. So I ordered a shrimp and avocado salad (price, naturally, not listed), then a Pinot Grigio to make it a little more exciting.

Alas, I’d clicked on the icon for a bottle, not a glass, of wine. “$83,” the screen told me cheerlessly when it finally chose to divulge its secrets. 

Huh…? 

I tried to back up, and cancel the bottle. I thought I’d done so, and ordered a single glass. But now, my tally was at $121 – US of course, not Canadian. The beast had tallied the food, the bottle and the glass of wine. How, I wondered, does one glass of an everyday Italian white cost $38? Even in an airport? I tried to cancel the order, but there was no way to do this apart from trashing the screen. There was no Cancel button. I decided I’d rather make my ongoing flight than be arrested by airport security for screen-bashing, though I needed to reason it through for a minute or two. (“Satisfaction – or $2,000 fine…? Hmmm….”) I finally left, the smug figures on the screen no doubt mocking my glowering self as I left.

Fie, I thought, fie!  I’ll try the eatery opposite.

Which I did. The meal I ordered was not exactly wonderful, but helped by sufficient ketchup and a cheap white wine (which normally clash), it was palatable. I downed the food, and wrote this snarky piece as my dessert.

Flying scares a lot of people (not me, really), but there’s no question airporting today is an exhausting and upsetting business. Passengers are essentially treated as criminals-cum-cash-cows, remaining under suspicion until we pay for something overpriced. Airlines tacitly resent the unhappy, demanding human meat they transport, and the airports just want ever more revenue. 

I don’t own a car these days. But I’m seriously pondering somehow driving to and from Mexico in future. That way, I can enjoy bad food at tolerable prices. And pretzels (which I don’t actually like much) will be optional.

Meanwhile, I am having dreams involving touchscreens and baseball bats.

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