Air travel a series of ritualistic behaviours

By Terry Sarten

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The trip back to New Zealand provided another opportunity to observe and participate in the rituals that, like the carry-on luggage allowance, are set by some mysterious and unseen force.

Check-in (chicken time as pronounced with a Kiwi twang) is three hours prior to departure and, on a flight to New Zealand, this means more time in the airport than in the air. I must admit the logic of this eludes me.

You buy your ticket. You know what time boarding commences so you would think if you cannot get your act together to be there to get on the plane, then you miss it.

Instead it is decreed you need to be there three hours before you actually leave. There is no other form of travel that expects you do that other than into space where you need to have spent a number of years training before you get to be blasted into the void on what is essentially a bomb with comfy seats.

I mention the seats as they are probably better than those on a commercial airliner. I am not very tall but even I do a kind of origami body-folding to find a comfortable way to sit.

The food is usually quite edible but is encased in an impenetrable container that requires great care to open in order to avoid tipping the lot into your lap. The flight attendants do their best to make you disregard the slightly uneasy feeling that goes with enjoying a meal while hurdling through the sky at 500 miles an hour, but it only takes a glance out the window to see that the truth is out there.

Airports are another whole dimension in time and space. To enter one is to enter them all, as they are essentially the same no matter what country you are in.

All have rows of uncomfortable seats that defy any wish to sleep away the time zone shifts. There are places where you can purchase food and coffee at outlandish prices, and you will find yourself standing with other huddled masses all squinting and attempting to interpret the cryptic code of departure gates, times and flight numbers.

The final and most dangerous part of flying is getting through the duty free unscathed. These are laid out in a maze and, as you navigate through the stands selling perfume, digital cameras, watches, alcohol and designer labels, you can begin to imagine how a lab rat feels as it hunts for the cheese.

For the traveller, the cheese is the correct departure gate. Often the hope of boarding becomes a mirage - the closer you get to it the more the actual event recedes until the planned departure time is nothing but a distant memory.

On arrival the other day at Wellington airport, I noted two heavily-armed policemen standing at Customs. Did they think they would need to start shooting at someone as hundreds of people, including families, moved through Customs?

There are those who might see in this some sort of conspiracy in the making.

My daughter reminded me the other day that despite the mutterings of conspiracy theorists who think everything is a government plot, it is important to keep perspective. In most government departments, the left hand rarely knows what the right hand is doing and organising a coherent conspiracy is probably way beyond their capabilities.

Terry Sarten is a Wanganui writer, musician and social worker currently living and working in Sydney. Feedback: or

- Wanganui Chronicle

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