Howard Davies' rusty chat-up lines fail to impress

The MT Diary: Howard Davies on the pitfalls in plane speaking, and being bowled out by the passport fiasco.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 10 Jul 2014

I don't often talk to my neighbours on planes. In part, that's because even in club class to New York during the day most people are either asleep or watching violent movies. But it's also fair to say that I am a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to idle exchanges with bond salesmen, and my chat-up lines, honed in Manchester discos in the late 1960s, don't seem fit for purpose in seat 17K in 2014.

But I made an exception on a Manchester/JFK flight the other Sunday. On an American Airlines 757, you aren't cocooned in your pod as you are on a BA 747, and my other half in a two-seater was a friendly looking woman with a nice smile. She spent most of the trip hard at work making Christmas gnomes out of cardboard, the sort of thing you might see on an expensive Christmas card, which offered an entry point even to the rustiest old bloke.

She was astonishingly productive. A set of plastic bags with different cut-out shapes was laid out, and she had a well-thought-through system of gluing two or three parts together, then leaving them to dry before painting them red and silver and adding other components. Watching this performance from the corner of my eye quite put me off my board papers.

So, somewhere around Newfoundland, I plucked up my courage, complimented her on her productivity, and asked if she was in the greeting cards or arts and crafts business. Not at all, she said, looking a bit offended.

It turned out that she was a nuclear engineer by training, now working as an enriched uranium buyer supplying British nuclear power stations with their fuel. She just liked to get ahead with the Christmas decorations for her children.

Oh dear. I blushed. Clearly, it was a mistake to come out of retirement without more preparation. I think it will be some time before I try my luck again.

--

New York was hot. Nothing interesting happened. So I came home and flew to Inverness, where I discovered that 7% of the population is now Polish. You have to wonder if there are any Poles left in Wroclaw.

Not that the Highlanders seemed at all concerned, and in Aberdeen, my next port of call, they need all the spare pairs of hands they can find. It is boom time in the granite city, where the offshore oil industry is powering ahead. I thought we were running out of North Sea oil, and it seems we are, but what is left takes more effort to extract, so in employment terms things have never been better. But it was a flying visit, to discuss airports.

The Aberdonians are very keen to maintain their Heathrow link and they made that point firmly, gave me a curry and a glass of red, and packed me off to catch the last plane.

I believe I have said before that the well-organised traveller occasionally misses a flight. If you catch every one you are spending too much time in airport lounges. But my advice is not to choose Aberdeen to test the theory. Having missed the check-in deadline for reasons I will not bore you with, my colleague and I decided to check into an airport hotel and pick up the dawn bird.

Not so fast. Seven phone calls later, we found that all the airport hotels were completely full. Indeed, their response to a request for rooms reminded me of calling the Ivy restaurant in London a few years back. They just laughed if you asked for a table next Friday night.

So we began to trawl through the suburban hotels of Aberdeen, with which, oddly, I am not as familiar as I should be. At the fifth time of asking, we struck lucky in a place that was last refurbished when Alex Salmond was a wee bairn.

We emerged from the terminal in a euphoric mood to find that, (a) it was raining, and (b) there was a 70-strong queue for a taxi, with not a car in sight. Luckily, a bus stopped at the other end of the terminal, prompting a version of the Powderhall Sprint from the taxi queue.

Luckily, my cricketing experience means I can still move fast over 50 yards, and we got on the bus before people were turned away. It didn't go to the hotel, but it did stop not too far away, so we made it into our devolved beds just after midnight, ready for a 4.30am cab back to the airport.

--

I am beginning to think that an excessive concentration on airports is getting me down. A week later, I was at Luton on a Sunday morning, returning from a long weekend in Corfu and hoping to get to west London in time to play in a cricket match.

The flight was more or less on time, but the passport queue was ridiculous. I chose the e-gates line, which turned out to be a strategic error. About 50% of Luton arrivals do not understand the meaning of 'face down', and even when this complex problem is resolved, the technology is highly imperfect and bizarrely slow. How does it take so long to read a bar code, when even a Morrisons checkout machine can do it instantly?

The government, never lacking in ideas, has hit on a good long-term solution to the problem: stop issuing any passports. That should certainly work. But, in the interim, it ought to think about the personal problems they cause.

By the time I got to the pitch, we were seven down, and I went in at number 11, itself a blow to one's self-esteem, and after one aggressive boundary, I missed a straight one. Which I blamed directly on the Home Office, for putting me out of sorts. Theresa May will be hearing more about this. I will be asking Michael Gove, in whose offices the Airports Commission sits, how best to handle her.

- Howard Davies is the chairman of the Airports Commission. Follow him on Twitter at @howardjdavies.

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