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Flight change

The rate at which cities change, in particular their airports, is enough to inspire nostalgia in a frequent flier, writes Stuart White


Airports are my second home. From the mini-cities of Schiphol and Changi to the one tent and windsock of a Tanzanian dirt airstrip, I’ve checked in my bags at a hell of an assortment over the years. In fact, when delayed at one once – Hanoi I think it was – I whimsically started to jot down a list of all the airports I could remember ever having flown from or touched down at in four continents since the early 60s.

The memory bank ran out when I was up around the 220 mark. No kidding. And if you think I’m exaggerating, and you’ve put a few air miles in yourself, just try it.

Start like I did with the UK ones: Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, Manchester, Liverpool, East Midlands, Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen… and what about Teesside? Almost forgot that one. And there’s Newcastle, oh and Torquay. Yes, Fawlty Towers field as I called it. It was served from Heathrow by a prop-plane as I recall, and presumably insulted the passengers and didn’t serve hot food after 9pm because the chef had finished. Jersey and Guernsey, Manston and Lydd; the latter two international airports. Well once, anyway, because I flew to Beauvais and Le Touquet from them.

Then move on to Ireland: Belfast, Dublin, Cork, Shannon. See? That’s 22 already and we haven’t even left the British Isles.

So me and airports, we go together like Laurel and Hardy, or bacon and eggs − been there, done that, got the boarding cards. But last month I got a rude awakening. I’d not been to Athens in a while, and after landing from London I needed to get down to the harbour at Piraeus. I remembered the short hop well from my days of youthful backpacking down in the Aegean. Five minutes? Ten max?

About €70 later, as we sped down a vast motorway, I’d lost all sense of direction.

Where the hell were we going? And why was Athens so enormous?

Then I cast my mind back to the airport I’d just breezed through. Seemed a lot bigger and more glamorous than I… hang on, Athens airport was a notorious dump. What the..? Yes. This was Athens’ new airport, built for the Olympics of 2004 and at least a 35-minute, traffic-jams-permitting, drive from Piraeus. At some point we passed the former Athens International, now a derelict and graffiti-daubed relic.

And the moral of it sank in – things change. Everywhere is evolving and growing so rapidly that the familiar becomes baffling. I first went to Istanbul in 1971 and loved it. Cute little city. Went back in 1991 and it was frighteningly larger, but manageable. Went back in November… horrendous. Worse traffic than Bangkok or Cairo and choc-a-bloc with people who all seemed under the age of 20.And it’s getting that way the world over. Nothing remains the same. Hong Kong I knew well, but you only need stay away three months and it’s altered. New buildings up, old landmarks ruthlessly demolished. I remember going back after an absence of three years in the early 80s and – abracadabra – the old Hong Kong-Canton railway station and famous clock tower had vanished from their location a few paces from the Star Ferry.

I didn’t exactly bemoan the loss of Kaitak Airport and that hair-raising approach so near to the rooftops you could almost grab the washing. But it was picturesque and when I grabbed a cab I could be in Kowloon in ten minutes. Not now. The new airport is great – but it’s a very long way out.

The airport serving Medellin, Colombia was just a few miles from the city until they built a new one 25 miles away. That meant either a tortuous taxi ride through the mountains or a hairy Apocalypse Now trip in a Vietnam-era Huey chopper with the side door open.

Veteran travellers I knew when I was younger used to bemoan how different the world was becoming, then. If they saw it now it would break their hearts.

More and more cities are becoming identikit, high-rise, overpopulated hellholes. And as fast as they build a new airport it becomes obsolete or overcrowded within a decade. What you recognised last year is obliterated today.

This is less a business travel grouse and more a howl of pain, but it is straight from the heart. To paraphrase and contradict an American writer praising the Soviet system in the 1930s: “I have seen the travel future – and it doesn’t work.”

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