I love flying and always have. Yet, even in my 24 years, I’ve seen changes to the air travel experience – in security, cost, frequency, comfort, style and most notably, entertainment. A few years ago, there was a spate of articles and nostalgic photo galleries celebrating the ‘golden age’ of airlines (namely the 50s, 60s and 70s) when passengers dressed to the nines, chateaubriand was carted through wide aisles, and brightly patterned seats were arranged spaciously. As an appreciator of all things retro, I find these glamourous images drool-worthy. However, that is not the main reason I lament modern flying. These pictures of travellers of old all involve Kodachrome smiling, chatting, passengers sharing a drink or a joke, or instead reading the paper. People are interacting or lost in thought because there aren’t screens in the backs of their seats or headphones in their ears.
Packing a carry-on bag is exciting, and I tend to go overboard, stuffing a backpack full of enough supplies for a transatlantic trip by sea, not by air: knitting (surprisingly okayed by TSA), magazines, books, writing, specially selected playlists, even nail polish once (I chickened out for fear of offending other passengers’ noses), and my favourite teddy bear, probably for a little longer than it was appropriate. Even on a long-haul flight, I’d rarely get to everything, striking up a conversation with a row mate or tuning in to the re-run film displayed on communal monitors with borrowed headphones. Now that the personal entertainment systems are becoming more and more elaborate however, I sometimes barely dip into my carry-on except for a snack or two. On two fairly recent flights I’ve been able to resist the urge to watch, but the temptation is strong. But why am I acting like such a neo-Luddite? Virgin Atlantic stocks some worthwhile documentaries and nature programmes. Indeed, I first saw my very favourite film on a tiny, pixelated seat screen. I think it is because it seems like tuning in and dropping out is a waste of the truly surreal situation that is mass air transport.
I almost always cry when flying alone, even if I’m not particularly sad to be leaving a place. Something about being thrust thousands of feet into the air, vulnerable in a rocketing tin can full of strangers makes one feel fragile and anonymous. I waffle on about ‘liminal spaces’ a lot – the place in between two states or locations; that exact point of transition. The airplane is one liminal vehicle. Moving from place to place, country to country, dependence to independence, life changes as quickly as cabin pressure. From the vantage point of the troposphere, flying affords excellent perspective, literally. So, whiling away this opportunity for reflection or creativity can feel almost irreverent. And don’t get me started on the growing trend of on-board wifi… Or, as Virgin now offer, headline news stories as they break. In our hyper-connected society we aren’t as ‘alone’ as we used to be, even when we’re alone. Now, I for one am usually grateful for this. However, on a plane there is no choice, no option but to sit back and enjoy, experience the edifying disconnect, the weightlessness of being unreachable for several hours – until now. Free in-flight wifi! Connect now!
Or, if you’re not in to being alone, talk to the person next to you. Find out where they are going, where they came from. Mean it when you collect your luggage and say ‘Have a good life!’ This is a form of getting perspective too, but an interactive one.
Budget airlines like Easyjet and Ryanair don’t offer complimentary peanuts, let alone screens. But what they lack in legroom they make up for in quietude. Luckily, we’ll always have the window seat…