HAVE you ever spent a night in an airport? I feel as if I have. Whenever an airline delay crisis is in the news, my husband’s eyes light up as he recalls the time he was stranded in a snowstorm in Boston.

Elvis Presley was playing on a loop above his head, and the revolving door near where he was lying opened and closed all night long, letting in the wind and snow. When finally he reached London, too late for his homeward flight, he was impressed by its superior facilities: a 24-hour coffee shop, and long empty corridors where one could walk in the wee small hours, to ward off an embolism or a tantrum. However, when his plane to Edinburgh the next morning was also delayed, he finally cracked. Approaching an official at the British Airways inquiries desk, he asked for a brick to throw through a window. As he later remarked, airports don’t need chapels, but they should have padded cells where passengers can go bananas.

That story has been dusted down again recently, as BA’s computer collapse has left 100,000 and more passengers stranded, and pictures of their plight filled our screens. For many of us in the west, this sort of situation is the closest we’ll ever come to feeling like refugees. With their belongings lying around them in a sea of flotsam, these lost souls clutch their hand-luggage and free bottles of water, exhausted, hungry and all but defeated. For some, the disruption to a family break is a disappointment, but not the end of the world. For others, such as the bride who had to postpone her wedding, her long-hatched plans are ruined, as are those of holiday-makers bound for “a trip of a lifetime”, costing a small fortune. The stories and woes to be found in the check-in halls and departure lounges at Heathrow, Gatwick and all the airports from which BA flights to London are scheduled, would keep a soap opera scriptwriter busy until retirement.

The word misery is often glibly applied to minor travel delays, but in this instance it is all too just. Many are now trapped, like lobsters in a creel, unsure whether to endure their never-ending ordeal in the hope of finally being able to fly to their destination, or to pack it in and go home. It’s even worse for those caught up in the problem abroad, who are unable to reach home.

None of us can remember a crisis as severe as this, and even though it is “only” a technological fault, and nobody has been physically harmed, the damage it has done to BA’s credibility is incalculable.

Had it offered at least some level of explanation, anger would have been defused and worries, if not allayed, then understood. But, by refusing to be interviewed until yesterday, BA’s senior staff have compounded the problem, showing the company to be uncaring as well as inept.

No amount of financial compensation can make up for the stress this system failure has caused its customers. As one who has on several occasions had to wrangle with airlines and insurers for refunds, I know too well that the original torment is made worse by regulations as fiendish to fathom as a 3D cryptic crossword.

The severity of the BA debacle is unprecedented, yet who among us heads to the airport without mentally adopting the brace position for delays or cancellations or worse? To the possibility of late departures is added the almost universally appalling level of communication in the event of any hiccup, the terrible food in airport eateries, the pig pens in which we are herded for boarding, the cramped steel tube that awaits, and, as you buckle yourself in, the always present knowledge that once under way you might be blown to smithereens.

Purchasing an airline ticket is a lottery, and some are unlucky. A friend was returning from Nice to Edinburgh at the weekend. There was a young man onboard who, perhaps having lived in a space shuttle these past 15 years, was foolish enough to be wearing a t-shirt bearing the word Bomb. Nerves were possibly further stretched by the fact he was of middle-eastern or Asian appearance. As passengers began to remonstrate with him, he was led off the flight and interrogated by police, before being allowed to return. The pilot reassured the anxious, but allowed them to disembark if they still felt uneasy. None did, but the incident cost them two and a half hours’ delay.

You can call the protestors’ response racist or neurotic, but the fact remains that these days everyone is jumpy. And while, as some pointed out, it was unlikely that a bomber would alert the authorities by having the word emblazoned on his chest, who could be entirely sure it was not a double-bluff?

The real issue behind the BA nightmare is not security or terrorist threat, so far as we know, but the malaise that underlies all international air travel. When something goes wrong, the knock-on effect is like a line of dominoes stretching over continents as they collapse and fall. Something as local and short-lived as morning fog in Florence can throw thousands of people’s plans into disarray, reaching, as I found recently when bussed to Bologna for a much later flight, from Seattle to Cape Town.

The chaos that ensues, whether the result of weather or computer shutdown, is a symptom of a world in perpetual motion. Every beached traveller is a broken cog in the infinitely complicated timetabling and organisational machine behind each air-bound journey, a network of processes and procedures that we blithely take for granted. Usually those cogs are well-enough oiled, but when even one grinds to a halt, it is alarming to realise how utterly helpless we are.

That sense of impotence is at the heart of travellers’ frustration and fury. It says much for their priorities that those in charge of BA, and other airlines, seem unable to appreciate this. When helplines ring out, or staff at desks have no information, or tannoys relay only muzak, it is no wonder that tempers fray. Silence might be golden, but not in an airport.

BA profits will doubtless plummet following this commercial and PR disaster. On the other hand, sales of caravans on the banks of the Tweed and rail tickets to the Highlands are set to soar.