Stuck in the airport that the world forgot
The post-volcanic chaos was a reminder of how much poorer life would be without manmade flight.
I know how the millions of stranded air passengers who have missed important meetings, well-deserved holidays and longed-for reunions with friends and family because of the volcanic eruption must feel. I’m one of them. Having missed an important family occasion that had been planned for the past year, the long wait and uncertainty since last Thursday have been frustrating.
But what really made me erupt like Eyjafjallajökull was the nerve of those suggesting that this is all a cause for celebration, as it signifies a reduction in carbon emissions and a respite from ‘noise pollution’. Environmentalist campaigners are treating the natural disaster, which has ruined the plans of people across the world and has left some businesses crushed, as a joyous occasion.
On Thursday at London Luton – the airport the world forgot, it seems, judging from the lack of journalists reporting from it during the travel meltdown – there was a sense of anxious calm as announcement after announcement declared flight cancellations to destinations far and wide: Paris, Palma de Mallorca, Tel Aviv, Turin. While airline staff offered no more than ‘it’s an act of God’ as an explanation for why we were experiencing the first-ever total shutdown of UK airspace, at least no one at Luton was suggesting we should take this opportunity to gaze at the plane-free skies and listen to the birds.
However, over at the Guardian, editors opened an online discussion thread titled ‘Icelandic volcano: Are you enjoying the clear skies?’ What a slap in the face to the hundreds of thousands who had already by then suffered the crushing disappointment of missing out on hen dos, weddings, birthday parties and funerals across the world.
At Luton on Thursday morning people were already trying desperately to find alternative means of getting back home or reaching their holiday destinations. I met a Dutch businessman who decided to head back to central London by train and then catch a boat to Holland. Others simply decided to make use of the airport’s 24-hour-drinking den, blissfully unaware at that point that their flight delay would turn into a days-long, all-out flying ban.
I spoke to a young Frenchman who works at a nightclub in London and who was planning to go back to Cannes to work there for the festival season. Having already spent the night at the airport, he was settling in for another one, after being told his flight would not depart for another 20 hours. He did not have the means to put himself up in a hotel in London. For all I know, he could still be at Luton Airport, where the internet points, charging £3 for 10 minutes of surfing, are the most exciting source of entertainment.
But one man’s pain is another man’s gain, or at least that’s the message Guardian’s editors seemed to want to get across: ‘Holiday plans may be in ashes with thousands of confused passengers grounded at airports, but, for many, the lack of air travel has meant a brief respite from the daily aircraft noise. Have you noticed the calm since flights were grounded?’
Readers were invited to send in their stories to the open discussion thread. It was hooked off an article on the BBC, which sent a reporter out to Hatton near London Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport, to record what locals were making of their surprise day of silence.
Since the airspace ban was enforced on Thursday residents living within earshot of the runways of London airports and under flight pathways have been pulled in for quirky good news stories, telling reporters how they spent the unusually quiet days pottering about in their gardens, listening to bird song, and keeping their triple glazing windows open for the first time in yonks.
Hosts of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme ended Friday’s show by reading out an email from a listener in south-west London who was celebrating ‘another day of quiet bliss’. Having lived under a flight path for years, she felt the volcano eruption was a ‘revelation, a historical event and a joy’ for the ‘millions’ living and working in her part of the city. Since she moved into the area, such quietness has been but ‘a blissful and unattainable childhood memory’. On this day, however, there was ‘not a plane to be heard’.
So some Londoners were making the best of the days of plane-free, sunny skies. Good for them. But shame on those suggesting that this minority of Londoners’ temporary respite from airplane noise means a volcano eruption grounding flights across the world is good news. If the volcanic ash cloud won’t make you choke, the smugness of the anti-flying brigade and their media friends certainly will.
This outpouring of Schadenfreude is not just a bit of quirky, alternative-news-with-a-positive-spin fun – it’s an insult to the millions of would-be passengers who wasted plenty of time, money and energy last week. People unlucky enough to live near airports are always dragged in to anti-flying campaigns as stage victims, purportedly being violently uprooted from their communities by evil big business airport expansionists. With the volcanic ash cloud hovering over Europe, the media have now been dragging them out in front of cameras – smiling, gardening, basking in the sun – to show that there is a silver lining to the ash cloud. The rest of us are expected to think ‘ah, bless, don’t they deserve the peace and quiet?’
But both disaffected greens and residents living under flight paths who want to ‘bring the aviation industry down to Earth’ are minorities, putting, respectively, the ‘interests’ of Nature and their narrow immediate needs before everything else. And while they have won over much of the media, they have gained little sympathy from the general public.
Judging by the millions of people who fly every day, the anti-plane brigade has not been able to convince many of us that the road to hell is paved with aircraft. So now some are, opportunistically, using a freak act of nature to try to win the war on flying. After all, the volcanic activity has achieved what is a wet dream of any self-respecting anti-airport expansionist: clearing the skies of planes. The truth is, however, that the vast majority of us want, and need, to use planes in order to conduct business abroad, to see the world, to spend time with distant friends and family members or simply to enjoy a weekend of getting pissed and sunbathing.
After a six-hour wait at Luton Airport on Thursday – the airline I was flying with was the only one staying optimistic, insisting our plane would take off later that evening – I gave up and headed home. For me, and many others I’m sure, the flying ban has brought home just how much poorer in material and experiential terms we would be without the freedom of flight – and how isolated Britain would become. No quick delivery of international post, no exotic food in our supermarkets, no easy way of seeing the world and the people you love. Internet technology might have many benefits, but, trust me, it’s just not the same participating in family gatherings via webcam.
So, finally, let’s send a message to the anti-plane greens – and let’s hope they hear it loud and clear: Get the hell off our flight pathways!
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.
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