. . . or why getting away from it all can become hell-on-earth when you reach your half-century

I have identified a new age divide. I call it a 21st-century MOAT - or Measurement of Airport Tolerance. When you are young - in your teens and twenties - airports are exciting places because they are a portal to exciting foreign destinations, because they are full of pretty girls and handsome dudes (depending on your sex and/or orientation), and because they have burger joints and bars.

But that is about as good as it gets.

If you think airports are okay because you can hunt down some duty-free shopping bargains to while away the time - it is just a shame about the journey to get there, the parking, the two-hour check-in - then you are probably a thirty-something.

If you think airports are full of noisy, selfish kids, shops you don't need because you have already done your holiday shopping, and expensive eateries with long queues, but you put up with them because you still get a buzz out of seeing new lands and cultures, you must be at least 40.

If you think they are hellholes that you endure to get a bit of sun on the old bones for a week or two, you are 50-going-on-plenty.

I have vivid memories of my first airport experience - well, the first part of it.

It was Luton Airport and my main worry was flying - or dying, to be more precise.

We checked in for 8.30am, and I was in the bar by 8.31am, trying to obliterate my fears, or dull my senses at least.

It must have worked because I slept most of the way to Ibiza and was never again afraid of flying.

Many years later - well, last year - Mrs R and I had our ultimate airport experience at Gatwick. We explored every nook and most of the crannies of that Place Of Illusions, visited many of its shops, ate at most of its restaurants, tried two of its bars.

We had little option. I won't go into the grisly details - it is still too painful - but let's just say our airline let us down. We had a 33-hour delay! That's right, a day and a half of our lives wasted at Gatwick.

Oh - and at Heathrow, too.

All the Gatwick hotels used by errant tour operators were full so they bussed us to the nearest one available - yes, at Heathrow! By which time we were more than halfway back to Oxford.

As a result we vowed not to use airports again for quite a while (at least until the pain has subsided to an occasional tic). We already have a cottage booked for this year in glorious Dorset, and are also looking forward to seeing the splendour of Scotland in the autumn.

But I didn't reckon with fate, as usual. Last month I was commissioned to do a job in Waterford in Ireland - giving me the choice of flying from Luton or Birmingham. I had never been to the latter, and it seemed a simple journey up the M40, so I opted for the new experience.

I am glad I did. Straightforward journey, easy parking, quick transfer to terminal, smooth check-in. Then it became interesting.

The plane was one of those with the wings seemingly welded over the top (as opposed to coming out of the sides of the fuselage), just 80 or so seats, and so small that the steps to get into it were no higher than Beldray kitchen steps, only slightly wider. And it had propellers!

But somehow it seemed right, this return to a quaint bygone age. You could hear every word the two stewards said, even if you couldn't follow all the Irish brogue, and the pilot had a cosy little chat with us over the intercom.

The wind was high and I was expecting quite a buffeting, but the little plane slipped serenely through it; a bit like Irish people slip through life.

But the best bit was Waterford Airport. I didn't see much of it on the way out, so efficient was the small single baggage carousel, but got the full flavour on my return.

The terminal is basically one room, with two check-in desks, a refreshment counter, and adverts for a flying school. The departure lounge airside is a similar-sized room with a similar-sized refreshment counter.

But security between the two is as brisk and up-to-date as you get anywhere in the UK.

The really good news for travellers is that Waterford city is no picture postcard - its only attraction is the visitor centre at the renowned but ailing Waterford Crystal factory - so the airport will stay small and unspoiled.

I spent some time the other day extolling its virtues to my brother. He smiled wistfully. "Progress, eh?" he said, shaking his head.

He knows what he's talking about. He spent almost a day extracting himself from the baggage-delays-cancellations debacle at the opening of the so-called state-of-the-art Heathrow Terminal 5. State of the art?

Funny old life. So it is.

Frank Rawlins