Heathrow: The gate is CLOSING

What time is it? 6am. Yes. That is your alarm going off.

Where am I? Heathrow.

Where am I supposed to be? Getting on a plane.

If I had applied for my job, no-one would have ever given it to me. “Must be confident with travel” is one of the top items in the “skills and attributes” section. I am not confident with travel. My ideal method for catching an early-morning train is to camp out at the station the night before, just to be sure. If I am driving somewhere beyond a radius of 50 miles, my preferred strategy is to allot three days for being stuck on motorways, requisition a thermos flask for traffic-jams, and secure a small shovel for digging out the car from any sudden and precipitous July snowfall.

My determination not to be late, not to miss the train, the flight or the appointment, is why I have seen rather more of airport hotels than I originally anticipated in my life. I live in Brighton, not — more conveniently perhaps — on the Heathrow perimeter road, so I always have to approach that airport from the Magic Roundabout: the M25, London’s orbital motorway. Which, as we know, is not always without its delays. Once, faced with solid lanes and red lights ahead of us, I was only saved from complete psychic breakdown by the fact that the person who was driving me did actually live not too far from the perimeter road. “Look, there’s my house,” he proudly pointed out as we hurtled by in darkness on his Alternative Route via B roads to Terminal 3.

So yes, when it is an early morning flight from Heathrow, I do actually sleep there the night before.

When I arrive at the airport, I am equally bad. I hover round departure boards, nervously eyeing the updates, then yell: “Look, look! The gate is OPEN. The gate is OPEN, let’s go!” When I travel business class, which I have on occasion been lucky enough to do, they call you so much later than everyone else that the screen is likely to be showing “Gate closing” before the staff in the lounge invite you to attempt the half-marathon that is the distance between the lounge and the gate, so I scramble down various halls, corridors and travelators, bumping my carry-on against people’s shins as I go. “The gate is CLOSING. It is CLOSING, let me through!”

Airport departure board showing flight as closing

The flight is CLOSING. But at least it isn’t cancelled.

By the time I reach the person to whom I have to present my boarding card, I am pink-faced, dishevelled, and look nothing like the picture in the passport they are checking. The checking-person is unperturbed. She has seen many of us before, several just today. “This way, madam. Door A.”

Invariably, as I approach Door A, a few remaining unfortunate passengers who are scheduled to board through Door B are still having their hand-luggage searched. I allow myself to breathe as I realise our chances of taking off in the next few nanoseconds are negligible. I could not only have walked from the lounge and the flight would still have taken off with me, and on time, I could have sauntered. I could have sashayed. I could have hopped to the gate on crutches.

Do I remember this wisdom for the next time? No. I don’t. I can’t reach the mindset of: “My luggage is on that plane so they’re not taking off without me.” However, I can reach the mindset of “The gate is CLOSING. It is CLOSING!” within 0 to 15 seconds without any conscious effort at all.

Of course, when I do get on board — I am ON the plane, stop bothering now, I lecture myself — the relief in both myself and my fellow passengers is palpable.

Summary: There are fewer words more pleasing in the English language than “Champagne?” with the proper inflection. (If there are, I would like you to tell me about them.)

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