The unexpected pleasure of not being late for a flight

You can never trust any piece of writing that begins with the words “There are two kinds of people”. Obviously there are many different kinds of people, especially in airports, but for the purposes of this column I am going to make the false claim that in airports there are two kinds of people: the ones who intended to arrive early, and the ones who intended to arrive just perfectly on time.

This is already a slanted sort of statement, which betrays which of the two kinds I am, because for the likes of us, what does “on time” mean? Does it mean arriving three hours before departure for international flights, two hours before domestic flights, as airports request and advise? Please. Those are instructions intended for society’s gentle-hearted herbivores, the slow of foot and thought who bring down the average, the ones who find “Caution: hot coffee” and “Smoking is bad health for your health” and “Do not attempt to open this door during flight” to be useful information.

No, I’ve always thought of myself as one of the other kind, the wiseacres and tough guys and urban daredevils who consider every minute spent in the airport before boarding to be a failure of our worldliness – not merely time stolen from our lives but a kind of public badge of shame: I am sitting here on this plastic bucket seat beside the gate with this vacant expression on my face because I don’t know how better to navigate the world. I deserve whatever lack of legroom I’m about to get.

I do not say that I’m as dedicated to this philosophy as some in the world. A survey of domestic travellers in New York’s JFK International recently confirmed a growing sub-group of typically younger air travellers who do not consider their arrival at the airport to be on time unless it involves running down the corridors to make the gate before it closes. For them, flying is an adrenaline sport, a way of testing themselves against the universe, of peering into the abyss with their toes over the edge. It’s like autoerotic asphyxiation, I guess, or that little twerp who climbed El Capitan all on his own without using ropes. They do it on purpose, pushing the envelope containing their boarding pass a little further, and then a little further still, finally taking their seats all flushed and juiced like Philippe Petit on his tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, defying death one more time.

Those extremes are not for me – I sincerely hope that for the next fifty or so years I never have to run again – but my group-identity as a just-on-timer has been the source of much domestic tension in the past. “Can we go now?” my partner would be saying. “Shouldn’t we go now? We may as well go now.”

And I would be strolling around the house or the hotel room, ostentatiously brushing my teeth, making a show of looking at the clock and saying, “No, no, plenty of time still.”

But I’m not quite sure what the rewards are for this behaviour. How much of a triumph is it really to finally clear customs and arrive at the boarding queue and turn to the person beside you, who has been suffering the unnecessary agonies of the anxious for the last hour and say airily, “See? I told you.” This, I can tell you from past experience, is not the ideal start to a shared journey.

And even when traveling alone, I’ve realized it’s a hollow victory. Not only is there the actual chance of something going wrong with traffic (London to Dublin, 2003) or the train to the airport (Amsterdam to Vienna, 2002) or the service in the airport bar (Cape Town to Johannesburg, 1997) or some damn-fool airport guy who points you in the wrong direction (Tokyo to Malaga, 2019), resulting in a missed flight and lots of unanticipated time sitting around on a plastic bucket seat with a vacant expression on your face, but actually, it’s not that much fun eking out the time before you depart, keeping one eye on the time, running the numbers through your head again. That’s not a high quality of lived experience.

How did people like me decide that airports are so much less desirable to spend an hour than anywhere else? It may seem self-evident but it’s no less a decision for that, and I realise now that it’s based on one of the worst of modern assumptions: that quality of life is about where we are, rather than how we live it.

I’ve been at the airport for a while now, and I’ve barely checked the time. I’ve taken a leisurely stroll and sampled some perfumes in duty-free. I’ve seen a teenager crying on the phone with someone she’s leaving behind, and an elderly couple holding hands while ordering a croissant, and a pair of dudes playing chess. I’ve thought about some work I have to do and I’ve done some work and I’ve had some ideas about work I don’t have to do. By being here I haven’t wasted the time I would normally waste, waiting to come here.

I think from now on I’ll decide that I like being in airports, that I enjoy being here early. I will decide that I can focus better there, that I can pay better quality of attention, that I’m using my time well. I will sit here and watch people come hurrying by to their gates and think, You are doing that because you don’t know how better to navigate the world.

The Times, 4 July 2019