Wednesday, March 22, 2006
The new Gatwick gamble
I was flying out of Gatwick yesterday when I came across an interesting new torture for travellers. You have to admire these people: it is fiendish in its simplicity yet generates amazingly high levels of stress and anxiety. Here's how it works. At North terminal departures there were four or five long and tedious lines for security but there was one very short line at the right hand end. I started walking towards the short line. As I got closer, I could see that there was a sign and a guy standing there, but couldn't quite read it. Closer still, and I realised that it said that you could only use the line if you had one piece of hand-baggage only (women excluded, of course, as gigantic sleeping-bag-alike handbags do not appear to count under this rule) and, and here is the diabolical twist, it weighed less than 8Kg. Who the hell knows whether their bag weighs more or less than 8Kg? Like most true born Englishmen, I don't know a kilogram from a hole in the ground so I was stopped in my tracks. Mentally regressing to the last time I had to think in S.I. units, my reasoning went like this... I know that a kilogram is 2.2 pounds. But what does 2.2 pounds feel like? I know the standard measure is a bag of sugar, which I remember from Weightwatchers. OK, does my bag feel like it weighs more than a bag of sugar? Definitely. More than four bags? No, I don't think so. Wait. I know that my laptop weighs 5 pounds. Or does it? Why do I think that? Did I read it somewhere? OK, suppose it weighs 4.4 pounds, that would be 2Kg. There's no way that the rest of my bag weighs three times as much as my laptop. Yet my bag does feel quite heavy, because I've got the power adapter, plus my book which is a hardback ("The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" (Mark Haddon)) and quite a thick folder of documents that I need for my meeting later on. No, that couldn't take up 6Kg could it? I mean, my phone and iPod don't add up to much. What do car keys weigh? I've got a lot of keys on my key ring. After a few minutes of this I hadn't moved. Eventually my nerve failed and I joined the long line, paralysed by the fundamental English middle-class nightmare: I might have felt embarassed had I gone in the short line and been turned back. Then I noticed that guard on the line did actually have some electronic scales by the door. OK, should I risk it now? Being turned back by an inanimate object -- the scales -- is fine in my twisted calculus of Englishness. I doesn't bother me at all. Hold on though, I had to get up early this morning and I didn't sleep very well last night. Perhaps I'm not thinking clearly through lack of sleep. Better stay in the long line. A woman who was three or four places ahead of me in the long line decided to go for it. Perhaps she was American or something. Anyway, she stepped out of the barely-moving long line and walked (rather brazenly) over to the short line. The guard directed her to put her bag on the scale. I could see the quivering red LEDs of doom from where I was standing: 8.65Kg. She was 650g over the limit, a measly one and a bit punnets of minced beef from Waitrose. (I'd remembered that they were 500g by now, as trying to figure out whether The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night weighed about the same as a punnet of mince or not). The defeated traveller started to trudge disconsolately baack to the long line. But oh no: she had transgressed the unwritten rule of emergent behaviour in English people. She had got out of the line. Now she wanted to come back. We were all cringing inside for the poor woman but, as the imp on my shoulder reminded me, I was one person closer to getting through security. Phew! I've decided to call this interesting variant on the prisoners' dilemma the travellers' dilemma. In the prisoners' dilemma, there are two people. Prisoner A and B have to decide whether to co-operate or not. In the travellers' dilemma, there are N people and N-1 of them have to decide whether to co-operate or not (they are not allowed to speak to each other, only to exchange odd glances of sympathy) with the Nth. We decided not to. She went to the back. Well done Gatwick: maximum humiliation for minimum effort.