First thoughts are penned in the airy, informal departure gate at Hong Kong airport while I wait to re-board the plane for the long second leg to Auckland.
I’ve already been travelling for nineteen hours and there are about as many more still to go. I don’t feel jet-lagged yet, but I’ve just had breakfast on the plane and in an hour or so I’ll have an evening meal, and surely no good can come of that. A spring evening in Hong Kong looks pretty much like any daytime scene I’ve ever seen here – partly no doubt because I’ve never actually been outside in Hong Kong. The hours spent here must tot up to a day or two by now, but it’s always been inside a terminal building.
Outside the huge glazed wall you can see a sort of less frantic and more laid-back version of Heathrow. A colossal area of concrete apron carries the taxiing aircraft, between us and dim, vast utilitarian buildings literally a mile or more away on the other side, doubtless maintenance facilities and catering hubs. Between us and the runway, service vehicles of all shapes and sizes and duties scuttle and snake around in between parked aircraft and gantries and baggage trains and incidental detritus – barriers, movable stairways, pallets – seemingly abandoned whilst someone thinks what to do with them. Our big Boeing is immediately beyond and below the window, its starboard engine’s huge rotor trickling around on idle for a couple of hours as though to press home the point that we’re not really thinking about carbon footprints right not. There is another giant twinjet whooshing off the runway in the middle distance, and much nearer I can see the little Breughel-figures of a hundred unconcerned-looking uniformed operatives pulling at hoses, wrenching levers or – in one case – squatting on a metal flange apparently having a doze in the midst of sonic mayhem. A driver sits slumped in a pump-truck that looks like it is halfway through undergoing an autopsy – no bodywork, just pipes and tubes and struts in a state of emblazonment. By contrast it’s pretty calm inside the building, if I can shut my ears to the inane French-style café-accordion music which someone evidently thinks is all that stands between the exhausted passenger and despair – the very opposite of the truth, alas. The music emanates (I went over to check this) from a point apparently just inside the beginning of a travellator. Perhaps it’s meant to encourage you as you first tread on the moving plate; or to warn you; or anaesthetise you: who knows? What it actually does is enrage me, so let’s pass on.
From up here you can look out on the grimy, riveted, crudely-labelled exterior of the air-bridges down whose spotless gleaming carpeted interior you will in an hour’s time saunter to board your flight. Not so much the airport’s underbelly as its flaking epidermis. Or, better, we are looking out onto the back-stage area of the airport-theatre, but one that’s a hundred times more extensive than the auditorium itself. I’ve often taken the operation of an airport to be the pinnacle of organisational do-or-die: complex beyond imagining, constantly making ad hoc responses to changing circumstances in which a thousand familiar parts must continue to dovetail exactly, but in continually unexpected ways; a sort of milling machine for human traffic who are also an exhausted, perplexed easily-provoked audience. Like running the Death Star when Lord Vader’s away and there’s no actual The Force to make it all work. It makes the running of a university seem like child’s play by comparison; but perhaps we academics just like to over-complicate things. I simply cannot conceive how humankind evolved to the point where airports can be made to work, any more than I can conceive how one turns up in the morning as operational director of an airport and gets two hundred flights correctly laden and fuelled and provisioned and ticketed and embarked and in the air, before coffee.
Best not to think about it. I’m about to re-enter the milling machine as one of this airport’s director’s imminent quota of human cargo. I’m sure she or he knows what she or he is doing.