A couple of days ago I took a friend to Gatwick Airport for her flight back to Scotland. As I drove into the Short Stay car park I got a ticket to retain until it was time to leave. You know: you feed the thing into a payment machine, fiddle around with your credit card details, and then you get it back in a state ready for the exit barrier - assuming you can find your car in time!
Well, I went through the usual procedure, and happened to glance at the exit-enabled ticket. I was amazed to see this:
As you can see, Fiona's registration mark - SC10 CUR - was printed on the ticket! How was that possible? How did they know it was Fiona (and therefore probably me), and not just any anonymous car? Creepy.
There was no time for speculation. One hour had cost me £5.60 - it was worse than parking in Brighton - and having photographed the ticket for later pondering, I set off for where I thought I'd left my car. I'd made a careful note: Blue car park, level 1, row K. But how to actually get there was like finding your way into a Klein bottle.
For part of the way, the young man who had paid on the adjacent machine was with me, and while we experimented with a lift to another level, I asked him how Fiona's registration might get printed on the ticket. He thought there was a security camera facing each car that stopped at the entrance barrier, and that an automated link between this and the printer might be the answer. This certainly sounded plausible, although very Big Brotherish if true! (That's Big Brother in the Orwellian sense)
I did eventually find Fiona, and I wasn't sorry to get away from Gatwick Airport as rapidly as possible. It had seemed an overlarge, unfriendly place, in which it was easy to get disorientated and lost. A factory for processing travellers. It wasn't always like this. Back in 1971 and 1972, when going to Mallorca in a family party, the place had seemed intimate and comprehensible. Guernsey Airport in 2010 had the same pleasant feel, despite its modernity: it wasn't too big, you could park close by, you could see the planes, and you actually walked to them over the tarmac and climbed stairs to get inside! And there was no oppressive security to make you vaguely fearful. Guernsey Airport still had about it some of the old excitement of flying. Not like trekking through the echoing halls and corridors of a much larger place, then down a tube into a crowded capsule.
The largest airport I've seen so far was the one at Hong Kong. It was an architectural triumph: its vast roof and open-plan design gave it a spacious feel. But each part looked very much the same.
I was there in 2007, coming home from New Zealand with M---. While awaiting our flight back to London Heathrow, she wandered off for some exercise and lost her way. She didn't have her mobile phone. We both had an anxious time before she finally made it back, with ten minutes to spare, to where I'd stayed put with our hand luggage. That was scary, but it wouldn't put me off going to Hong Kong again - a colourful and fascinating place.
The worst impression left by any airport I've been to was by LAX, Los Angeles International, on the way out to New Zealand in 2007. The waiting areas were grey and dirty and prison-like. And the suspicious officials were surly and rude. Or at least the one I encountered was.
This was also the place where I twice had to undergo a hands-on security search of my person. It made me convinced, later on, especially when body scans were announced, that international flights were a complete no-no until I'd had my surgery, and had secured all the proper documents that might conceivably be asked for if my gender were in doubt. Otherwise argument and humiliation were going to result - especially at airports like LAX.