The worst thing about air travel

It starts happening the moment you step into the airport. The moment you look around for the right check-in queue, and see that it's already snaking around the corner, out of sight. It has begun.

It happens again at the security queue. It happens at customs and immigration. It happens at the gate, on the tarmac, in the aircraft and at your destination. And it's unavoidable.

I think I've figured out the worst thing about air travel. It's not the crappy food or the waiting in lines or even the people who insist on reclining their seats during meal times. It's the feeling of total and utter powerlessness.

Think about it: for anywhere up to about 24 hours, pretty much every part of your life when you travel by air is decided by someone else, and there's nothing you can do about it. You can't complain about it. You can't try to change it. You just have to put up with it.

I should admit right here I think air travel is amazing. It's still a mind-boggling miracle to me that you can step into a metal tube and walk out a few hours later somewhere completely foreign and exciting. I love it. But still, it can be the most frustrating thing in the world.

Every time I go through airport security there seems to be a new rule or a different interpretation of an old one. Take your aerosol cans out of your bag. Don't take your aerosol cans out of your bag. Empty everything out of your pockets. Put your cash back in your pocket. Take off your jumper. Leave that coat on.

You want to grab someone and protest that this is ridiculous, that you were told something completely different only a week ago. But who's going to listen? Who cares?

Your flight is delayed due to the "late arrival of your aircraft". Ah, that's not a reason. That's a consequence. But what can you do? Grab your stuff and go home?

Then you get loaded onto a bus because your aircraft hasn't been given a proper gate, and the bus stops in the middle of the tarmac and just waits there forever for no apparent reason. There's no one to ask what's happening. No one to tell that it probably would have been better to have everyone wait in the airport than load us onto the bus if the plane wasn't ready.

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Then you actually have to go through the flight, the ultimate in powerlessness. Where are you flying to? What's going on up the front? You'll never know. You surrender to the will of the two or three people in the cockpit.

You have to ask someone just to get a drink of water. You have to plead for another beer. Your dinner is a choice of two probably pretty horrible options. It's like being at boarding school. (Although the beer thing would have made boarding school more interesting.)

And then you get to your destination and surrender yourself to the will of a customs and immigration official. How's he or she feeling today? Will you get in to the country? And if you do, will your baggage arrive?

And then quarantine, and the will of other officials to search you or knock you back or confiscate your possessions. No arguing allowed.

I can't think of any other experience that strips people of all power and freedom and responsibility for such a long period of time (aside from going to work, I guess, depending on what your job is). And the hilarious thing is we pay for this experience, we shell out good money for it.

This feeling of powerlessness causes different reactions. For some people it's rage; it causes fights and arguments. You see people getting aggressive on planes, far more than they would on the ground, and that's driven at least in part by the knowledge that nothing they're saying or doing is going to make any difference to their situation whatsoever. It can be supremely frustrating.

This powerlessness can cause some people to get nervous, or afraid. Some just get extremely drunk. Others still will simply fall into a state of miserable acceptance. And some might even enjoy not having to make any decisions.

Most of us will probably feel a whole range of those things. Sometimes it will be annoying. Sometimes, when turbulence hits your plane and there's no way to know how much danger you're in, it will scare you. Sometimes you'll be able to ignore it and just cruise on through.

But it will be a relief for everyone to exit the airport at the other end.

b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

See also: 13 signs you're too old to be a backpacker

See also: The worst ever day of my travelling life

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