An Irishman's Diary
The British airline Virgin Atlantic has ordered half-a-dozen models of the Airbus A380, which is so big it could probably house the population of a couple of schools, plus their parents in their cars outside. Richard Branson, the Virgin boss, has promised that his A380s, which are over 50 yards long and several storeys high, will have gyms and bars and suites with double beds for a touch of cinquemillennial conjugation, and, who knows, maybe a chapel with evensong, and maybe a spot of cricket of a summer evening, codgers sipping their pints in the twilight as the clunk of willow hitting leather echoes over the close.
This is the sort of rubbish airline chiefs utter early in the life of an airliner. Much the same was said 30 years ago about the upper deck of the Boeing 747, which was going to be a large recreational area where passengers could relax, play deck quoits and have the morning constitutional. But that didn't last long. Airlines worked out how many revenue-raising seats they could put on that space, and bang went the playground.
The same commercial realities will probably dictate that the real Virgin A380s, rather than the Bransonesque flying lidos, will be configured to maximum payload. Each new Airbus will be able to carry up to nearly a thousand passengers, which exceeds the number of survivors from the Titanic.
So airliners have now reached the point where they rival ships in their carrying capacity, but exceed them vastly in their population density. Moreover, aside from all the obvious dissimilarities between the two modes of transport, there is a profound difference in the places where they sleep. Seaports are pleasant places which we associate with relaxation, briny odours and dead mackerel staring from baskets with indignant fixed eyes. They might be cross, but we enjoy their sea-y smell.
For we like the sea. We are reassured by it. We cruise on it. We holiday beside it, and buy second homes there if we can. The sea soothes, and its ports are places of carnival. Napoli! Capri! Bari! Ringsend!
Airports are not carnival. Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Dublin Airport. These are the devils's anus. The filth, the stupidity, the confusion, overwhelm you. Nothing quite works, least of all you. This is where you spend forty minutes in the wrong queue before you discover the plane you should have caught has just gone, with you having paid a super-double apex fare on Aer Jihad, which, if you miss your flight, causes you to forfeit your first-born male to serve a Taliban suicide unit, and your first-born girl to circumcision and junior wifedom in Sudan.
And then this: in almost every passenger's subconscious there's the thought of death in all its most interesting varieties, long and lingeringly as the plane topples, nose over tail, 50,000 feet to its leisurely, screaming doom, or briefly and savagely in a crash and fire on take-off - plus of course, all the charming permutations in between. The fingernail within the sarcophagus: tap, tap, tap.
This aside, airliners are horrible things anyway. They promise cramps, boredom and bondage, probably beside a drunkenly flatulent, loquaciously monoglot Russian, for hours on end, with no possibility of stretching your limbs. (Though there was the single gallant exception of the Sikorski airliner of 1914, which had a promenade deck on its upper wing: passengers were advised to wear scarves.)
Escaping from the Russian passenger to the explore the recreational possibilities of one's bodily evacuations is purposeless, for the aircraft companies recycle wardrobes as airliner WCs. It would take a Joan Collins to esconce herself confidently on a lavatory without worrying where to put her feet.
So of course airline passengers are tense; and whereas travellers take their time at a seaport, they certainly don't at an airport. The glorious new A380, a winged ferry, promises invasion parties of nearly a thousand people, charging to the luggage carousel, elbowing each other aside as they seek taxis, buses, trains and waiting loved ones in confined spaces full of strangers' heated armpits. You can call this an airport, or you can call it hell, but it comes to pretty much the same thing.
So we might ponder the fate of the Boeing 747 flying from Australia to London some years ago. The in-flight food was infected in preparation, and every single passenger, plus in-flight attendants, got severe diarrhoea. The queues for the lavatories lengthened until, finally, retentive powers were overwhelmed. A moment's pause, please, while our hearts go out to the first person to whom this happened standing beside a locked door while a hitherto heroic sphincter surrendered.
His or her loneliness did not last long. Soon, with the lavatories hopelessly blocked, the same fate befell everyone, as several hundred people found themselves sitting in warm pools of their own creation. The plane couldn't land for hours, at first because it was over the Indian Ocean, which is rather short of runways, and later, probably, because some airports - very rightly - repelled it with antiaircraft fire. The faces of the ground crew on opening the doors at Heathrow - I am told - were a study, as were the passengers themselves as they crept, crawled and waddled to the baggage carousel to seek fresh clothing. The airline towed the plane to a distant corner of the airport and set fire to it.
In the 1930s, there was a plane called the Handley Page Calcutta. I trust Aerospatiale will revive the name of that splendid Indian city for the A380.