I spent this morning people watching at Belfast airport. Even if they don’t know they are doing it, surely every traveller at an airport is blowing little story bubbles about those around them – writing a book in their head. Sitting beside me in ‘Fed & Watered’ was a young Polish man speaking on the phone. No point in eavesdropping, I couldn’t understand a word of what he said. He sounded caring though, maybe flying home to see his girlfriend? I decided he’d been earning money to buy an engagement ring and was now flying home to propose. On my other side was a pair of construction workers, wearing branded fleeces, debating off-shore wind farms, then moving onto Catalan independence. Seemed one was for and one against. The conversation was getting heated but the free Irish Daily Mail saved the day when they moved to the story about Billy Joel becoming a father again at the age of 68. A group of middle-aged women were sipping lattes and splitting one croissant. Wednesday – surely it’s a bit early to be heading off for a long weekend? I looked at the screen. Iceland? Barcelona? Malaga? This particular group looked half-hearted about their excursion, wherever it was to. Maybe they were sisters, on family business, visiting an ageing relative. The Bristol gate was called and they all rose in sombre unison. Unhappy business, whatever it was.
When did hopping across oceans become so easy? This morning my jump was just 35-minutes across the Irish Sea, but much longer trips across the Atlantic or the Mediterranean for long weekends are commonplace. It’s not so long since Irish students, setting off to university in England, did so by ferry and then National Express. Cheap, cheerful, and awfully tiresome. How many of us remember winter crossings to Stranraer, or Liverpool, floored with seasickness? Then scraping yourself together to scramble onto a coach trundling down the spine of England or over the Pennines or up through Scotland’s central belt. Not fun. Air travel was simply unaffordable back then, so we did what we had to. It’s an altogether good thing that flying is cheaper now: for fun, to see the world, widen our horizons, and – most importantly – to stay connected with family. Gone are the days of the Irish wake when a move to America was the last you might have seen of a family member for life.
Paradoxically, there is always a higher price to pay when the price drops. Flying is now a DIY service: check yourself in, print your own ticket, tag your own bag, bring your own sandwiches, download your own movies, undress and dress again before boarding. It’s certainly not glamorous. And that’s before we count the cost to the environment. (A subject I am going to dodge, for now). Canada’s budget airline is called Air Canada Rouge. My Canadian relatives who flew with them recently described the cramped seats and paltry food; we’ve re-named it Air Canada Scrooge. You get what you pay for – so goes the old saying – and this seems to be more and more apparent with every flight. In the case of Ryanair, sometimes you don’t even get what you pay for!
I spent some time in Ontario this summer where I had the pleasure of sitting on a veranda watching a tiny, delicate, wisp of a hummingbird feed at a hibiscus. Somehow, the hummingbirds will, by now, have migrated a seemingly impossible 500 miles a day to the Gulf of Mexico. So even if all of the buttons and bows and frills of travel have been removed, I’m glad that we can be like hummingbirds and fly great and small distances to stay connected with each other.