As an unaccompanied minor shuttling between my parents in Sydney and London during the 1980s, the stops in Don Mueang, Changi or Kai Tak offered a few brief, thrilling moments amid trips that were both tedious and emotionally freighted. The chance to moon at the latest high-tech gadget (how I wanted that yellow, waterproof Sony Walkman Sports) in a richly carpeted no-man’s-land between the two legs of a marathon journey was my juvenile equivalent of shore leave.
Today I more often travel between London, Milan and Paris. The trips are less poignant, but I still relish spending time in airports. As ever, watching my fellow passengers raises questions about life, most of them lower-tech ones than those of my youth. Why, for example, would you ever buy a suitcase once you’ve checked in and are through security? Why is it only in airports that people drink champagne and eat smoked salmon in the middle of a public concourse? And how can people who fail to put back their security trays after recovering their hand luggage not see what monsters they are?
But I still love the shopping. Airports now make most of their money from retailing and car parks (that’s one reason we’re urged to turn up so early for flights). To maximise the exposure of this temporarily captive audience, the shop-lined trail to departure gates has become as meandering as a drunkard’s totter.
One sport I play at airports is spotting terrible deals dressed up as absolute bargains. At Heathrow last week I dallied by a display of heavily promoted “Travel Exclusive” boxes of shortbread. Buy one 320-gram box of Edinburgh Castle biscuits for £15, and another is thrown in “free”. Yet online it costs £10.49 for a pack of two. What was being dressed up as a 50% saving was in fact a near 50% premium. Airports are full of these rip-offs: food (a curse on your airport price-hikes, Pret a Manger), drink, medicine and nearly all high-margin goods such as perfume and alcohol cost more.
There is a plus in the upside-down world of airport desire: luxury goods are sometimes (relatively) reasonable. A recent session of Heathrow sleuthing revealed that only Louis Vuitton, Rolex, Cartier and Chanel seem to care if you’re travelling out of the European Union (and so entitled to the 20% reduction in VAT). Other fashion stores were happy to give me that same discount even though I was staying in the EU.
And, courtesy of a friendly manager at Rolling Luggage in Terminal 5 with whom I discussed a tempting £450 aluminium Samsonite spinner (yes, 20% cheaper than the lowest price available online), I even learned the answer to my most troubling airport question: people buy suitcases at airports to pack everything else they’ve bought.
A little bit like Las Vegas, airports are fiendishly clever, insulated simulcra of the world outside in which the normal rules do not apply. Airport retail is a game in which the only way to win is never to let the thrill – or tedium – of being in transit distract you from checking the price charged beyond the terminal. Because, just as with the international journeys of my childhood, the brief diversions of the alternative universe of airport-life are soon replaced by reality at the other end.•