Supermarkets and Airports

Today I took part in the almost masochistic ritual of a supermarket lunch hastily grabbed in a few moments’ brief departure from the office.  Without any real thought I grabbed the components of that standardised deal we’ve all suffered through – a thoroughly unsatisfying sandwich, an average packet of crisps and a bottle of something fizzy that will probably kill me before the cigarettes do.  The only thing that could lift my mood was the impending prospect of the self checkout machine.

I love self checkouts.  I suspect they appeal so strongly to people like me for the same reason we’ve embraced technological advancements like Uber and Just-Eat.  Any change that means I have to interact with fewer strangers in my day to day life is a thing of great beauty to my mind.  To naturally grumpy and ill tempered frown-people such as myself the self checkout was a gift from the corporate Gods above.  It removes the horrific, awkward exchange involved in having to pretend to care about some cashier you’ve never met when, honestly, if they were brutally murdered on their way home that evening my biggest concern would be that the shop would be temporarily short staffed and I’d have to queue for longer until they hired a replacement.

I love self checkouts but I hate the other people that use them.  Or at least a sizeable enough chunk of them to turn any simple supermarket visit into a potentially rage-filled endurance task as I stand clutching my shopping and seething at the steady flow of morons in front of me.  The kind of people who wait their turn to use this machine, that has literally been designed to be utilised by the most halfwitted, brain-dead morons to stalk the aisles of Tesco, and then fail to do so.  If you can’t operate something that foolproof then maybe life isn’t for you.  Maybe it’s time to just go home, turn the gas on the oven on (which I accept might take you about 45 minutes to figure out how to do) and just end it all for everyone’s benefit.  Don’t leave a note.  Just scribble an apology on a bag for life and we’ll all understand it was the only way to escape from your checkout shame.

But people don’t display any shame.  They’re as happy as anything to admit that they don’t know what they’re doing.  You see them all the time, approaching the self checkout, nervously looking around as if they expect someone to come and explain the instructions that are literally on the screen in front of them.  They struggle to comprehend what a barcode is.  They press buttons they don’t understand and look confused at the results.  Today, one of them just looked wistfully at a banana for about twenty seconds.  And they take approximately seventeen hours to complete a three item purchase while the rest of us stand in a queue imagining the ways that we’d disembowel them with their own clubcard if we could.

If I had my way you would only have to say the words “Oh, the machine’s broken” for the store to be legally entitled to remove you from the premises immediately, freeing the machine up for someone who actually knows how to use it.  The machine isn’t broken, you are.  If it were a second offence I’d expect some dead-eyed corporate supermarket employee to be paid to kick you in the back of the legs on your way out.  This would serve as a painful reminder that you were too stupid to use a machine that most eleven year olds have not only figured out, but have outsmarted enough to buy expensive shit for pennies after school most days.

As I was standing there contemplating just how deep and unrelenting my fury was with the group of slack-jawed simpletons ahead of me, conspiring to delay me in whatever way they could, I realised that something much worse lay in my near future; the airport.

Before I continue it should have become very sharply obvious to anyone reading this that I might be the grumpiest, most bitter and hate-filled man on the planet.  I accept this.  More than that I revel in my inherent grouchiness.  It’s not just unjustified irritability, I believe my cantankerous nature is less a personality trait and more a logical reaction.  The world, and the people within it ARE almost entirely shit and depressing (myself included) and I don’t understand anyone who doesn’t react with the same poisonous instinct, somewhere between cranky and vitriolic.  With that in mind, here is how I experience the airport:

I am convinced that air travel was designed with one singular mission in mind – to create as many opportunities as humanly possible for some jabbering ignoramus to completely fuck up my mood and plans with their own incompetence.  Let me explain – much like a supermarket self check out, an airport is designed to work pretty well if you begin from the assumption that the people using it will have some base level of intelligence and at least a passing comprehension of how to behave in public.  If we all met these minimum requirements there would barely be any waiting around at all but, of course, that’s too much to ask.  And while the supermarket only offers one bottleneck for this lack of basic skills to mess with other people’s day, air travel is full of them.

We start at the baggage check where, having probably already waited behind some loud, entitled fuckstick to deposit your checked baggage, you’re already a little annoyed.  They were probably being extra obnoxious, too, insisting that the scales were wrong and they weren’t over the weight allowance or demanding an upgrade because they’d seen that happen in a film once.

Having got through that and to the mundane security checks that finally allow you airside you’re suddenly confronted by a group of hypocrites who literally don’t understand how time works.  Look for them the next time you’re there.  They’re in the queue for the X-Ray machines tutting and sighing and complaining about how long they have to wait because they want to get through as quickly as possible and buy something awful that they don’t actually want from duty free.  They crane their neck around the person in front of them and sigh again as they try to see where the queue begins.  Now, time-wasting idiots are never confined to a single demographic but these offenders tend to be younger.  Often they appear to be off on some form of group holiday.  Sometimes one of them has hit a tanning salon a bit too hard in preparation and glows a dull orange from underneath their tracksuit bottoms.  Don’t be fooled into hunting for exclusively for a stereotype, though.  All kinds of people are capable of this particular form of idiocy but the young holiday group are especially prone to it.  Normally one of the group, in the midst of the whining about how long they have to wait, will say something asinine like “It’s cos of all that nine eleven stuff, isn’t it?” and you’ll want to punch them and, if the world were fair, you’d be allowed to.

Then they get to the front.  It’s their turn.  They can deposit their bags on the conveyor belt to the X- ray machine and walk through the metal detector arch and be on their way.  But that would be too easy for these walking sacks of doziness.  Because in all their whinging and shuffling and looks of concern did they think to prepare for this moment?  Of course they didn’t.  No, they didn’t do a fucking thing and now they’re stood at the front of the queue staring at the situation like a toddler presented with an exam paper on advanced astrophysics

“Do I have to take my shoes off?”

“What’s this about a laptop?”

“I’ve got shampoo, am I allowed shampoo”.

And then, inevitably, they set the metal detector off causing further delays while some long suffering border force guard has to examine them with a wand and explain, upon discovery of their full pockets, that in actual fact their keys ARE made out of metal and it would have been better to leave them out.  Sometimes they’ll at least have the decency to look ashamed but mostly it’s the same wide eyed, mouth-breathing expression of pure confusion they wear through 99% of the rest of their lives.  All this happens despite them having the entire time they were queuing to sort out precisely these kinds of issues.  To take off belts and hats and get things out of bags and empty pockets.  Now, you might think it harsh to penalise someone for not quite having the forethought to use this time appropriately so that everyone could get through faster.  But there are literally posters and videos explaining that precise concept clearly displayed through the entire process.  And when they finally do get through there isn’t a hint of understanding as they look back at the line of people they’ve just held up.  The concept of having been previously annoyed at the wait and of now being responsible for other people’s delays literally never link up in these people’s pea sized, empty brains.

Much like the Tesco leg-kicking opportunity I would like to see a more proactive rejection of this behaviour.  One day, in the world I dream about, a young man will get to the front of an airport security line and be approached by a small, well presented airport employee in a suit and have the following conversation:

“Excuse me sir, I can’t help noticing you haven’t removed your belt or placed your liquids in a clear plastic bag.”

“Oh am I supposed to do that?  I didn’t know.”

“You didn’t know, sir?  That’s a shame.  Did you not notice any of the fifteen informative posters you’ve walked past in the last twenty minutes explaining this?  Or perhaps the video screens that have been highlighting the process as you waited?  Is it possible you didn’t hear my colleague at the front clearly and repeatedly asking people to do these things in advance of their check?”

“Aah, right, no, I didn’t know.  I’ll do it just now then, shall I?”

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible.  You see all these people behind you have waited patiently and are actually able to follow very basic instructions so we’re going to give them priority.  I’m afraid we can’t let you board your flight today, sir. Beyond that, I’ve registered your details so that if this mistake is made on any future journeys we will insist on taking you out back and letting some of the baggage handlers practice by throwing you around like a cheap holdall.”

Then, of course, comes the horrendous process of boarding.  Generally I don’t mind the actual act of getting on the plane.  There always seems to be a queue of people long in advance of the flight actually opening and a rush to join the queue when it does.  Comforted by the fact that on any real airline I have a reserved seat number and on any budget airline I don’t care what seat I get because the journey is short and they’re all awful options, I tend to take this opportunity to chill out.  I like to watch the scrum while allowing a sense of superiority and condescension to flow over me as I watch the agitated masses jockey to be the earliest to be allowed to get on the aircraft and sit in tedious boredom until take off.

When it is finally time to board, though, the rage returns.  Getting onto an aeroplane is quite a simple task.  Here’s what you have to do:  You walk on, you put your bag in the overhead rack (or keep it with you if it’s small) and you sit the fuck down in your seat.  That’s it.  That’s literally all you have to do and if everyone did that you’d be able to board the biggest commercial jets in minutes.  But people don’t do that because they’re illogical, backwards imbeciles who refuse to acknowledge that the reality of stuffing a tonne of people into a tiny metal tube impacts upon anyone but themselves.  So they wander the aisles like a lost puppy dog, failing to find the seat that a flight attendant has already pointed them to as they stepped foot on board.  They faff around endlessly with their hand luggage.  It’s only then, when they stop in the aisle next to their seat and hold up literally every other passenger, that they take the time to debate with themselves over what they want to put in their hand luggage and what they want to keep with them.  They remove and put on items of clothing.  They struggle to lift their own bag above their head.  They get confused about which seat they’re supposed to be sitting in.  Then they wait until the entire aisle is blocked with people to decide they want to get up and go to the bathroom.  Or get something from their bag.  Or something else that messes up everyone else getting to their seat for as long as possible.

It’s often the ones with babies too, which is infuriating because for absolutely no good reason whatsoever they were allowed to board way before anyone else.  And yet by the time the last few passengers are getting settled they’re still up and about, getting in people’s way and expecting their anti-social bullshit to somehow be justified by the fact they’ve bought a tiny nearly-person with them whose constant noisy crying is almost certainly going to ruin the flight of the closest 5 seating rows in both directions.  And while we’re on the topic let’s just all admit it – babies shouldn’t be allowed to fly.  Ever.  What benefit is there to babies flying?  They’re not going to remember the journey.  Parents – just stick them in the kennel or whatever you do and go without your little screaming bundles of nuisance.

But it’s not over yet.  Not anymore.  Because now, especially within the EU, we have the genuine joy of e-passport gates.  Of course I’m not criticising these technological wonders.  They’re right up there with self check outs machines in completely removing another human being that I would have had to otherwise interact with from my life.  I love them.  I don’t have to talk to anyone, I don’t have to smile at them, I don’t have to consciously stop myself snatching my passport back off them and giving them the finger every time they stop in the middle of what they’re doing to chat to their colleague.  Brilliant inventions.  But yet another opportunity for people to piss me off.  For human beings to take something that should make everything more efficient so long as we’re willing to exhibit just the smallest iota of competence and to absolutely, steadfastly refuse to do just that.

Much like the security check, the e-passport gate is an equal opportunities fuck up hot spot.  People from all walks of life will go out of their way to inconvenience everyone behind them.  But unlike before, where it makes sense to keep an eye out for the young holidaymakers, at this juncture you want to be wary of the older passengers.  If allowed to choose which machine to queue for at an airport I will base my decision entirely on a rough assessment of the median age of those already in line for it.  It’s a very simple machine that requires the user to do little more than place their passport down and look at the camera.  Just in case that’s too difficult, the airport again bombards you with a series of instructional videos as you wait.  Everything is colour coded, the rules are clear and I remain reasonably convinced that almost any primate could be trained to successfully complete this task.

But no.  Howls of incomprehension.  False assertion of technological malfunction.  Shocked insistence that despite the forty two warnings to remove headwear and eyeglasses some old dear in the third machine along thought that didn’t apply to her because her spectacles are a special prescription.  And behind it all, just as at every stage of this aviation journey, is me.  Just as I was in the supermarket.  A jittery, seething ball of hatred and contempt for the ridiculous cretins that will take any chance they can find to get something wrong.


Published by: chubbywordsmith

32 year old nerd. Areas of nerdery: Global Development, International Relations (especially MENA, South and South east Asia), Political Economy/Macroeconomics. Lived/Worked in Palestine, Libya amongst other places. Works for an INGO focussing on peacebuilding and conflict issues. Loves Manchester United more than is healthy. @anarchasm

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