Sunday 2 July 2017


If you’re lucky enough to be flying away on holiday this year, I suggest you prepare yourself mentally for the airport. 

Between accidentally pulled plugs crashing computer systems, cabin staff working to rule and doubtless, that age old Pythonesque perennial - the French Air Traffic Controllers going on strike - you might have to spend a fair bit of time in the aptly-named Terminal.

Breathe out and rid yourself of all your expectations and desires. Give yourself up to the airport. They own you now and there is nothing you can do. 

Do not join a queue to board a plane that has not yet arrived. Do not sit and stare hour upon hour at the Departures/Arrivals screens. 
Do not believe that your gate will be announced at 16:05.

Most probably your journey will pass without a hitch, but should it go wrong, hopefully you’ll find comfort in knowing that however bad things seem, I had it worse in 1985.

Back then airports displayed flight information on ladders of plastic slats. When a plane left or landed, those slats flew around going:

kashunka - kashunka - kashunka - kashunka

The whole effect was quite trippy and hypnotic, as the destination names and flight numbers appeared to flow upwards, like the waters of a river, as the sign updated itself.

32 years ago I was perched eagerly on the edge of a seat in Auckland airport, watching just such a sign. After sleeping in the airport to save money, I was waiting for my cheap flight to Sydney with an airline called UTA, the less well-known Pacific branch of Air France.

UTA insisted you fly to Australia via Noumea, or New Caledonia, as the imperialists called it. Despite the fact that the French treated the airline with the same contempt, neglect and disregard for health that they showed the indigenous people of their Pacific colonies, all the Polynesians and young travellers flew UTA in those days.

The locals joked that UTA stood for ‘Unknown Time of Arrival’, with flights invariably delayed, overbooked or cancelled. But boy, were they cheap! 

My flight to Noumea had already been delayed a few hours, because the plane hadn’t yet arrived, but the board now said it was due to leave in an hour, so I shuffled off to the bathroom to wash; make myself feel human. 

It had been a long wait, but that was okay. I can stare into space for æons. I’ll do all the waiting that’s out there, but I was feeling unusually twitchy about this trip to Noumea. 

There was a civil war going on there, especially notable as a triangular conflict. There were the colonial Caldoches, the native Kanaks and the French, all fighting over an island rich in nickel.

There’s always a natural resource in the mix somewhere. 
War follows natural resources as poopers follow peepers.

Having splashed off the detritus of a rough night’s sleep, I threw my blue bag over my shoulder and walked with a spring in my step towards the check-in desk. As I passed the Departures board, I threw it a cursory glance, and off it went, as if propelled by my eyes:

kashunka - kashunka - kashunka - kashunka

The ripple of movement arrived at the plastic slat with my flight on it, and whoooshhhh! It was off, moving around, who knew if up or down?

kashunka - kashunka - kashunka - kashunka

My feet were frozen mid-stride as I waited for the plastic flow to settle.

And there it was:

UTA flight to Noumea: ‘Delayed Indefinitely.’

Wow! What the hell did that mean? I have seen all manner of delays to flights, but ultimately, they’re either ‘Cancelled’ or ‘Estimated at...’.

Only UTA could come up with ‘Delayed Indefinitely.’

No. No no no. I was here all bloody night and everything was okay until I went to brush my teeth and then there was the bad 

kashunka - kashunka - kashunka - kashunka 

and now what? 

Some kind of existential holding pattern?

Delayed indefinitely? 

Am I meant to sit here for the rest of my life?

Has the plane even left L.A.? If not, when is it going to, and if it has, how is it delayed indefinitely?

Unable to fight my way into crammed UTA office, I heard from several over-excited youthful types that our plane had come down on Vanuatu; had been hijacked in Tahiti; had crash landed into the ocean; had an engine on fire and had to turn back...

To this day I still don’t know what happened to that plane. 

With no Kiwi dollars left, I simply resigned myself to fate and waited another three days in that airport, trying to learn from the experience.

Bring on the æons.

Still, the delay meant that I had only three days on Noumea instead of six, and then I would be in Australia, reunited with dear friends at last. 

Three days on a tropical island? 

How bad could that possibly be, compared to being ‘Delayed Indefinitely’ in an airport?

Well, quite bad, as it turned out. 

The Scouse lad that sat next to me on the hotel shuttle bus from Noumea Airport decided it would be a “crackin’ idea” to use his huge camera to take lots of photos of all the military planes and tanks lined up in the fields outside.

After he was promptly arrested and yanked off the bus, never to be seen again, I was suspected of being his companion, and placed under house arrest.

One minute I’m delayed indefinitely, freed from everything but progress for all eternity.

The next I’m imprisoned, stuck for a finite time into a tiny space.

Life’s wee tricks, eh?

Now sit back, relax and enjoy your flight. 

©Charlie Adley

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