“We are being really, really positive. Everything is going to go perfectly smoothly.” Nicola’s tone suggests this is unlikely. An insurance broker from Morecambe, she is flying to Cyprus with her husband, Pat, and two teenage daughters, Elena and Eloise. Their lockdowns were stressful (Pat manufactures PPE and spent most of the time working) and this will be their first time away as a family since the pandemic struck. Her hopes of a relaxing break were hanging in the balance this week. Though they applied for new passports in April, her daughter only got hers a few days ago.
“The service was absolutely horrendous,” she says. “The government told everyone to renew their passports so, in May, they had a million applications. They hadn’t tooled up the passport office to cope with it. You were being stuck on hold for two-and-a-half, three hours. It’s taken the shine off it. I haven’t been able to get excited.” She grins suddenly and gestures to her suitcase. “I’ll be all right when I get rid of this. When I’m sat in there, with my beer, I’ll be A-OK.”
Top: Liverpool, unlike larger airports, is free from queues and delays. Above: Seth, Lewin and Jack en route to Bulgaria
At least she doesn’t have to contend with the chaos that has beset Manchester and Heathrow. Liverpool’s airport is preternaturally calm. There are no queues, no delays. Our photographer shows me a shot of the exterior; it’s so quiet and clean, it looks more like a photorealistic render than a real building. Inside, the concourse fills up then empties out, according to the schedule. People sit around pecking at their phones or drift outside to smoke. A hen party from Ireland waves us away with pleas they’re hung over and look awful (they don’t). The staff, if they’re here, are invisible. It’s like the castle in Beauty and the Beast: immaculate, but apparently unmanned.
This, people keep telling me, is the advantage of a small airport. Liverpool runs a lean, efficient service. It doesn’t offer as many routes as Manchester, but it goes to places the bigger airport doesn’t serve. Seth, Lewin and Jack are heading to Sofia. They’ve come from Huddersfield, bypassing Manchester because they wanted a direct flight. “My dad lived in Bulgaria for a couple of years, so we’ve got a little house in the countryside,” Seth says. “You can get property really cheap. I think we paid £3,000.”
Top: a passenger’s hat and suitcase. Above: a young boy with a travel pillow
The school friends look faintly horrified when I ask if they’ll be visiting Sunny Beach (the Black Sea’s answer to Magaluf, with cheaper alcohol). Their itinerary is rather more wholesome than that: walking, fishing and working at the local dog sanctuary. “There are a lot of disabled dogs out there,” Jack explains. “People dump them; they’re seen as a pest. There’s an English couple who have a sanctuary in the village we’re staying in. We met them last time and helped out a bit.”
In the far corner, past the check-in desks, Raymond Howell has set up store. A former cleaner at the airport, he is retired now and collecting for a cancer charity. It’s a good place from which to observe the action. You see the occasional celebrity come through, and Hollyoaks has filmed here before. He says Ricky Tomlinson used to fly from Liverpool a lot, and always made time to speak to everyone. Once, he sat at Howell’s stall for half an hour, talking about his time on the picket line in the 1970s. “He told me that before they went on strike, there was no protection. You could fall off a building and your pay would stop the moment you hit the ground. It was a horrible thing.”
Top: travellers Elena, Nicola, Pat and Elouise from Morecambe. Above left: passengers John Christophe and Amina. Above right: a woman touches up her makeup
Even as the country gears up for a summer of discontent, you’ll struggle to find anyone here complaining about strikes. Liverpool approves of collective action, just as it chafes against authority, especially when that authority flows from a Tory government. The overriding sentiment I hear today is relief; that borders are opening up again, and people are free, at last, to fly. The city’s vexed relationship with rules has as much to do with geography as history. Liverpool is a port and looks out towards the ocean. It has its back to England, and so generally disdains what the rest of the country is doing. You’ll rarely see England flags here, even during a World Cup, though you sometimes see banners at football games that read, “Scouse not English”. Liverpudlians occupy an ideological fiefdom, a semi-autonomous state that has more in common with Ireland than anywhere else. There are long ties between the two places. When a person is said to “look Scouse” it basically means they look Irish. Over the course of the day, we hear more Irish accents than any other.
“The Irish are just fantastic,” Howell says. “They give to charity. Some people are generous, some will just ignore you. You get the angry heads, but you get them everywhere. Ninety-nine per cent of people are happy. They should be, shouldn’t they? They’re going on holiday!”
Top: a woman arrives at the airport. Centre left: a couple kissing. Centre right: Raymond collecting for charity. Above: heading for the departure lounge