Do you remember when it was fun to fly? I don’t. I’m not sure if this was before my time or if I was just too young to remember.
There have been memorable flights. Like the time our plane was delayed returning from the Dominican Republic. As we sat on the runway, I caught a commotion out of the corner of my eye. I looked out the window to see fuel spurting out of the wing. Moments later, a ground crew arrived with an economy pack of paper towel and a roll of duct tape the size of an airplane wheel. They patched the hole, refueled the plane, and cleared us for take-off. We taxied down the runway like Hansel and Gretel walking through the woods, leaving a trail of jet fuel behind us.
There have been memorable fellow passengers. Like the woman who sat next to me on a TACA airlines flight from Lima, Peru to San Salvador, El Salvador. Flights may be inexpensive, but you pay for the difference in price in other ways. In the case of my row mate, she had been trying to get home to Guatemala City for over 48 hours, and she was not pleased. A flight attendant interrupted her ranting to inform her that she would have to get off the plane. TACA had given her seat to somebody else, and rescheduled her on the next flight. The woman stared the stewardess in the eyes and declared through clenched teeth, “I am not getting off this plane.” Because there were no doors to slam, she loudly buckled her seat belt, grabbed her book out of the front seat pocket, thrust it into her lap, and began to read.
There have even been memorable meals. Like the time we were served baby prawn and corn sandwiches on the way from London to Paris. But I cannot recall an air travel experience that I would describe as enjoyable. Not even my senior year of high school, when 48 classmates and I chartered a flight to the Bahamas for Spring Break.
Legend has it that air travel used to be an event worthy of excitement and fine attire. This was in the 1960s, when the airlines were still regulated and flying was considered a luxury. The government controlled airfares and routes, keeping prices high to please investors and unions. Taking to the skies was symbolic of economic prowess, and promised those who could afford to fly a whole wide world of opportunities.
Then President Carter introduced deregulation in 1978, and airlines began to compete on quantity instead of quality. Costs were cut to woo travelers, and flying became available to the masses. Airlines and passengers began to take one another for granted. We all know that we are going to fly regardless of how poor the service or uncomfortable the plane, as long as we can afford it. Business suits and Sunday dresses were replaced by sweat pants and slip-on shoes, and in-flight meals went from fine-dining served on real china to for-purchase snack packs. As an economics major and budget traveler, I am thankful for open markets. But as a frequent flier, I long for the way things used to be.
In recent years, terrorism and paranoia have transformed flying from unpleasant to painful. There are the invasive questions: “Who packed your bags? Did anyone give you anything to carry on the plane? Where did you sleep last night? Did you sleep alone?” There are the multiple security checkpoints, just in case at some point you caused a diversion, ducked around the corner, and removed your glasses. It’s enough to make even the most innocent person act suspicious. Which could be problematic given that, according to “If Looks Could Kill,” an article appearing in the October 25, 2008 edition of The Economist, researchers are developing intelligent video surveillance systems that will use body language, gait, facial expressions, and “micro-expressions” to detect hostile intentions. Don’t let your fear of flying be mistaken for fear of getting caught.
As much as I love to travel, I have always hated the process of getting from point A to point B. But a recent flight to Chaco changed my perspective on air travel. Every year my friend invites me to spend the holidays with her and her family in Chaco, a province in Northern Argentina. Our flight was to leave from the Aeroparque Jorge Newberry at 9:40am. My friend promised to call me in the morning so as to synchronize our arrival at the airport. An hour before the flight was scheduled to depart, my phone rang. My friend was just now on her way to the airport.
I arrived at 9:00am. There were no lines and the only question I was asked at the Aerochaco check-in counter was, “Can I please see your passport?” The airport has been renovated to look like an upscale shopping mall (the food court even has a sushi bar), and we treated it that way. After waltzing through security just twenty minutes before our scheduled departure, we headed straight to the nearest clothing store. I waited as my friend purchased a Christmas gift for her friend’s baby, and tried on the same pair of jeans in two different sizes. We made it to the gate with five minutes to spare, where the gate attendant greeted us like we were school kids late coming in from recess.
We had the plane practically to ourselves. The flight attendants were nervous and gracious. Before take-off, I went to the bathroom, and one actually opened the door for me. After I was asked to stow my backpack in the overhead compartment, my friend joked that they were afraid I might have a bomb in my bag. That’s right, we joked about having an explosive on a plane. We arrived on time, and immediately descended from the plane by stairs to find my friend’s father waiting to pick us up. That’s when I realized that flying doesn’t have to be miserable. It can actually be carefree, easy, and dare I say it, fun.
The reality is that planes were never pleasant, not even during the golden age of flying. Aimée Bratt, a Pan Am stewardess in the mid-1960s, is quoted in the article “Up, Up, and Away,” which appeared in the January/February issue of the Atlantic, as having remarked, “how crowded it was on an airplane, no place to put anything, lines for the lavatories, no place to sit or stand … there was no choice of meals, and there were no extra amenities like headsets or hot towels.” If amenities are better since the days before deregulation, then it is our attitudes that have worsened. Flying went from novelty to necessity. Personally, I have been one a plane more than in a car this year, and I no longer bother to look out the window. Article author Virginia Postrel observes that, “Airline glamour was not about the actual experience of flying but about the idea of air travel—and the ideals and identity it represented.” Flights used to be a final destination, now they are just a mode of public transportation. And no one gets dressed up to ride the subway.
Sadly, we are desensitized to air travel, no longer recognizing it for the marvel it is. The truth is that no matter how accessible air travel has become, the fact that humans can fly at all is a privilege. Human flight is an incredible feat of engineering, and one of our greatest triumphs over nature. Air travel is perhaps one of the best examples of how to use technology to defy limits and expand our horizons. Flying permits us to see the world from a different perspective, to cross natural barriers, and to connect with peoples, cultures, and wonders previously out of reach. You board a plane in one continent, and after 13 hours you get off the plane in a different hemisphere, time zone, and culture, two days later. That’s not air travel, that’s time and space travel.
Perhaps this is the golden rule of air travel, to treat flying with the respect and admiration that it deserves. If airlines won’t provide me with glamour and romance, I’ll bring glamour and romance to the airlines. Maybe long lines, grumpy passengers, jaded flight crews, recycled air, bad movies, and bloating are unavoidable. But the next time I go to the airport, I’m going to put on my most flattering pair of pajama pants, buy a pair of white gloves, pin a pair of wings to my lapel, and take to the skies with the wide-eyed innocence of a child’s first visit to Disney World. After all, even if airports aren’t the happiest places on Earth, it is thanks to airplanes that it truly is a small world.