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First class or economy? Airports hold a mirror to an unequal world

How airports have become the territory of the capitalist elite.

I have always loved airports: the muddle and classlessness of them, the anonymity and freedom. I like how people are out of their comfort zones, shuffling around in non-places, uncertain of what time of day it is. I like airport chapels, soulless and empty, their little vases of flowers serving only to make them more depressing. I'm fond of airport hotels, the nowhereness of them, and I am particularly keen on transit lounges in small, hot nations, humid and dirty, where you're not quite sure which country you're in - or not quite in.

You can tell a lot about a country from its airports: the style of the waiting lounges, the attitude of the immigration officials and even the loos. "Please do not flush toilet with your foot," I once read in a lavatory in Latin America, sparkling with pride and gently chiding the fastidious European and American travellers. "These toilets are cleaned daily."

Another time, at Gatwick, I was standing in a queue with some horrified Americans outside a vomit-strewn, blood-soiled Ladies. I found myself apologising and saying to them that Britain wasn't normally like this. It is always a depressing experience to fly back to Gatwick or Heathrow and see what happens when you sell a national asset to international, profit-motivated corporates. Yes, I love all airports, except ours.

Lounge lovers

I have, however, just read a book that shatters the fantasy of drifting happily around foreign airport lounges and supping a last drink at the bar near the departure gate. Tim Cresswell is a geographer who specialises in mobility. His book On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World includes an analysis of how people move around Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, a major international hub. For sociologists and geographers, mobility is not a fantasy. It is something that differentiates classes of people, a mode of inequality: I drift around airports; you, a refugee, get arrested in them. It's obvious once you think about it, but most of us, too busy with our schedules or dreams, do not.

How quickly you move through an airport denotes international status. The business traveller, branded "upper class", "connoisseur" or "elite", moves from complimentary limousine through fast-track services to special lounge and early boarding. The iris-scanning system that business travellers can pay for to speed the journey further at Schiphol is called Privium, a name laden with connotations of exclusivity and privilege. It is open only to those from inside the European Economic Area. These travellers are capitalism made flesh, what the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman once called a "nomadic and extraterritorial elite": "Capital can travel fast and travel light and its lightness and motility have turned into the paramount source of uncertainty for all the rest."

Families with cheap tickets struggle slowly through economy check-in and along immigration queues, weighed down by pushchairs and clutter. The illegal immigrant and asylum-seeker face arrest.

I have written before about the young Bangladeshi men I met in central America, whose three-day route to the US had taken them via India, Dubai, Brazil, Panama, Peru, Honduras and Belize - and they still hadn't made it into the US. "Some glide through the fast lane and have complimentary massages in the business lounge," Cresswell notes. "Some bodies are found frozen in undercarriage wells."

The homeless favour airports for their warmth and shelter, the theatre they offer and because the more privileged travellers discard food and reading materials as they drift along. The homeless can fit in here, a kinetic underclass amid the kinetic elite. Momentarily, at least, everybody is sleeping on plastic seats - but we are choosing to do so and they are not.

Candid camera

Not so classless, then. And free? Even for those of us with golden passports from the US or UK, travelling through airports is a tightly controlled and pre-planned process. "Critical path analysis" programmes are used to engineer the efficiency of passenger movement at modern airports. A sophisticated system makes use of yellow and black "primary process" and "secondary process" signs, as well as colour-coded emergency and commercial signposts.

The process signs are set at right angles to the flow of passengers to grab attention. The commercial signs are darker, set lower down and in parallel to us. We are not drifting; we are being managed unconsciously. Even the building materials have codes built into them. The floor of the entrance plaza to Schiphol, for instance, is a neutral-coloured grid that indicates two directions for movement - one to the airport entrance, the other to the rail terminal. You won't notice it but it is directing you.

So much for freedom. And the anonymity? When I travel to the US this month, I will be pre-screened, screened, searched, watched, profiled, scanned, turned into a computer code and processed. As this is the US, I'll be fingerprinted and iris-scanned, too. In the Star Centre at Heathrow, an anonymous-looking building near Terminal One, there is a windowless office with a circle of desks facing outwards to banks of computer screens. No fewer than 26 CCTV screens show the entire airport, from the roads to the check-in areas and security queues.

Even the grass is regimented. It is cut to between eight and 12 inches long: any shorter and birds will sit in it, because they can see what's around them; any longer and they can hide in it. Yellow trucks with loudspeakers drive around Heathrow all day, playing distress signals to ward off flocks.
Cresswell has shattered the illusion of happy freedom at airports - but it is reassuring that, even though they might have us under control, they struggle to manage the birds.

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the far right