The Big Chill

Germany apparently has a train called the Intercity Express, aptly named ICE. Like most forms of transport in northern Europe, it’s on a go-slow.

European TV is full of drama, holiday-makers stranded in Frankfurt, London, and Paris, Brussels running out of de-icing fluid for planes, angry travelers complaining they’ve been stuck for three days in the same clothes, or queuing for three hours.

I just missed it all a couple of weeks back, slipped between the cracks, from Scotland to England to Portugal in the blink of an eye. Napoleon had one key condition for his commanders: generals must be lucky. In London during that trip I heard that all the Saturday soccer fixtures had been cancelled in Scotland. Except one, but they had to paint the lines blue. The Scots used to paint themselves with woad, a blue plant pigment, and attack the English. When I was up there, with three feet of snow, I could easily imagine the English troops running for their lives in the freezing cold, being chased and slaughtered by a bunch of mad blue guys in skirts.

People in the Midwest and Canada look upon all this chill-challenge with some perplexity. Even DC is prone to stopping, the beltway crunching to a halt when there’s a little snow. President Obama, used to the rigors of Chicago, was apparently amazed by this paralysis of the nation’s capital. One of the guys who was up at Stirling with me hails from Vancouver. I caught him gazing at the machines deployed to clear the road and muttering “You guys call that a snow plow?”

Undoubtedly this freak weather is going to spoil a good many Christmas festivities, and it must be particularly hard for families who have smaller children traveling alone. The key problem lies of course with the airports, but the blame is placed squarely on the airlines. In a globalized world, all these things are difficult to deal with. In order to allow everyone (i.e. Americans, Europeans, a sub-set of Asians, and almost no Africans) to travel, prices have shot to the bottom. You fly for five dollars and pay fifty bucks in airport tax. A bit like the subprime mess, no one likes to do the math. If it costs 1500 bucks to fly a plane for three hours with three hundred people inside, then how come time-sharing a corporate jet costs ten thousand dollars per hour?

So really, when you fly, you pay for the airport, not for the flight. And airports themselves have been globalized. BAA, one of the choice scapegoats for all this mess, is Spanish, owned by a company called Ferrovial. Since the Spanish word for railway is ferrovia, I suspect it started life with chu-chu trains. Now it has 100,000 employees, owns six airports in the UK, one in Chile, and one in Italy.

When I think back to all the forms of transport of my childhood, air travel is the only one that has got worse. Much worse. Trains, boats, and cars are all far better nowadays. From the privilege of a lucky few, air travel became a birthright of many. The cost is lack of confort, and a complete incapacity to deal with contigencies. The only way airports can deal with situations such as those of the past week is through investment.

In developing nations I have often paid an airport construction tax, usually saving a few dubious looking bank notes for the purpose, but in the west we don’t charge people to go into airports. So the only solution is to increase airfares, since the airlines pay for the airports. Which would reduce air travel and at least partly solve the congestion problem. Or we could make duty-free compulsory, like a nightclub admission ticket.

But in the middle of this big chill, we’re missing the most chilling situation. No, it’s not wikileaks with its banality of wide-eyed revelation, a sort of diplomats’ “Hello” magazine. Victuals for the vacant. After all, there’s only so much wiki one can take in a day.

A different kind of chaos: supporters of President Gbagbo resist change in the best African tradition (picture courtesy of the Público newspaper)

The elephant in the room as 2010 draws to a close is the human drama in the Ivory Coast. Slap bang in the middle of The India Road, the Côte d’Ivoire, once famous for elephant tusks and nowadays for cocoa, is heading toward Rwanda-style genocide. Extrajudicial executions, kidnapping, rape, and any other human rights violations that occur to you three days before Christmas are the flavor du jour.

Never mind wearing your clothes for three days, or standing in a queue for three hours. As di Caprio aptly puts it in Blood Diamond, TIA.

This Is Africa.


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