A Week at the Airport

Just past Dudley’s workstation, off a corridor leading to the security zone, there was a multi-faith room, a cream coloured space holding an ill-matched assortment of furniture and a bookshelf of the sacred texts.

I watched a family from southern India coming to pay their respects to Ganesh, the Hindu god in charge of the fortunes of travellers, before going on to board the 1.00 p.m. BA035 flight to Chennai.  The deity was presented with some cupcakes and a rose-scented candle, which airport regulations prevented the family from actually lighting.

In the old days, when aircraft routinely fell out of the sky because large and obvious components failed – the fuel pumps gave out or the engines exploded – it felt sensible to cast aside the claims of organised religions in favour of a trust in science.  Rather than praying, the urgent task was to study the root causes of malfunctions and stamp out error through reason.  But as aviation has become ever more subject to scrutiny, as every part has been hedged by backup systems, so, too, have reasons for becoming superstitious paradoxically increased.

The sheer remoteness of a catastrophic event occurring invites us to forgo scientific assurances in favour of a more humble stance towards the dangers which our feeble minds struggle to contain.  While never going so far as to ignore maintenance schedules, we may nevertheless judge it far from unreasonable to take a few moments before a journey to fall to our knees and pray to the mysterious forces of fate to which all aircraft remain subject and which we might as well call Isis, God, Fortuna or Ganesh – before going on to buy cigarettes and Chanel No. 5 in the World Duty Free emporium on the other side of security.

At the end of one of my first meetings at my new job at London Heathrow Airport, one of the other participants slid a small book across the table toward me.  “Have you seen this?” he asked, “I think you might enjoy it”.

It was a copy of Alain de Botton’s book, A Week at the Airport – A Heathrow Diary.  In 2009 de Botton was invited to be Heathrow’s first writer in residence, spending a full week exploring the day-to-day rhythms of the airport.  The resulting reflections, including the one above, are delightful.  As one of his commentators says, “I doubt if de Botton has ever written a dull sentence in his life.”

It was only after several days of frequenting the shops that I started to understand what those who objected to the dominance of consumerism at the airport might have been complaining about.  The issue seemed to centre on an incongruity between shopping and flying, connected in some sense to the desire to maintain dignity in the face of death.

Despite the many achievements of aeronautical engineers over the last few decades, the period before boarding an aircraft is still statistically more likely to be the prelude to a catastrophe than a quiet day in front of the television at home.  It therefore tends to raise questions about how we might best spend the last moments before our disintegration, in what frame of mind we might wish to fall back down to earth – and the extent to which we would like to meet eternity surrounded by an array of duty-free bags.

Those who attacked the presence of the shops might in essence have been nudging us to prepare ourselves for the end….  

Despite its seeming mundanity, the ritual of flying remains indelibly linked, even in secular times, to the momentous themes of existence – and their refractions in the stories of the world’s religions.  We have heard about too many ascensions, too many voices from heaven, too many airborne angels and saints to ever be able to regard the business of flight from an entirely pedestrian perspective, as we might, say, the act of travelling by train.

Notions of the divine, the eternal and the significant accompany us covertly on to our craft, haunting the reading aloud of the safety instructions, the weather announcements made by our captains and, most particularly, our lofty views of the gentle curvature of the earth.

And so, in my own first week at Heathrow, as I established my morning routine of riding the U1 to Uxbridge and then the A10 to Heathrow’s Central Bus Terminal, and the reverse in the afternoon, I was accompanied by de Botton’s witty and perceptive insights into the world which was now my workplace.

It seemed appropriate that I should bump into two clergymen just outside a perfume outlet, which released the gentle, commingled smell of some eight thousand varieties of scent.  The older of the pair, the Reverend Sturdy, wore a high-visibility jacket with the words ‘Airport Priest’ printed on the back…

…I asked the two men to tell me how a traveller might most productively spend his or her last minutes before boarding for take-off.  The Reverend was adamant: the task, he said, was to turn one’s thought intently to God.

‘But what if one can’t believe in him?’ I pursued.

The Reverend fell silent and looked away, as though this were not a polite question to ask a priest.  Happily, his colleague, weaned on a more liberal theology, delivered an equally succinct but more inclusive reply, to which my thoughts often returned in the days to come as I watched planes taxiing out to the runways: ‘The thought of death should usher us towards whatever happens to matter most to us; it should lend us the courage to pursue the way of life we value in our hearts.”

The names have been changed, no doubt, but as I read this account I became immensely proud of the airport chaplains I have been called to serve, thankful that in such a place men and women of diverse faiths can be found to aid those travellers who are considering weightier issues than boarding passes, duty-free shops, and where-is-the-toilet.

The notion of the journey as a harbinger of resolution was once an essential element of the religious pilgrimage, defined as an excursion through the outer world undertaken in an effort to promote and reinforce an inner evolution.  Christian theorists were not in the least troubled by the dangers, discomforts or expense posed by pilgrimages, for they regarded these and other apparent disadvantages as mechanisms whereby the underlying spiritual intent of the trip could be rendered more vivid.  Snowbound passes in the Alps, storms off the coast of Italy, brigands in Malta, corrupt Ottoman guards – all such trials merely helped to ensure that a trip would not be easily forgotten.

Whatever the benefits of prolific and convenient air travel, we may curse it for its smooth subversion of our attempts to use journeys to make lasting changes in our lives.

What a rich and wonderful way to spend my commute in my own First Week at the Airport.

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