In a few days I will proceed to Virginia on a family visit. This will take me through four airports in 17 hours, with boring layovers, overpriced food, and hordes of germ-laden yahoos. You know the drill. I love my family, so these are costs that must be borne.
I also love airplanes—anything but the Boeing 700 series and most commercial airliners. They embody the very definition of a hostile environment: uncomfortable constricted seating, bad food, and hordes of germ-laden yahoos. Close to 200 people in an aluminum tube breathe recirculated air and line up for maybe two bathrooms.
I’m old enough to have experienced the joys of flight differently. In my early teens a friend and I would ride our bikes out to the local small airport and cadge rides in single-engine Pipers and Cessnas. At 15, a friend of my dad’s let me fly (momentarily) his Ercoupe. To get to college, I commuted in Constellations, DC-3s, and the Boston & Maine Railroad.
These were experiences in which transportation inevitably became a personal adventure, not a mass movement. Your senses were engaged, not dulled.
In the mid-2000s I did communications work for the Navy at NAVAIR, its major aircraft test and developmental center in Maryland. It was up-close work with engineering feats like the Osprey and the F-35, the so-called Joint Strike Fighter. I got no rides, but working on these projects was a revelation in discovering aircraft design and complexity.
The Navy is a highly controlled environment. Commercial flying today is anything but. For over a year Covid kept us pretty much masked, depressed, and at home. We’re all being let out of our cages this summer. The Wall Street Journal reports that passenger volumes are way up, and they predict “a very bumpy summer.”
Fares are rising, middle seats are no longer empty and everything from parking lots to security lines is getting more congested. Meanwhile, some airports are understaffed to handle demand, many airport restaurants are still closed or at limited capacity, some terminal seating remains blocked for social distancing, and passengers scuffle with airline staff over not wearing masks.
So the travel environment becomes ever more alien and different from the explorable, enticing world it used to be. Last night I watched a wonderful film, My Octopus Teacher, the story of an intrepid filmmaker who penetrates a forbidding habitat to form a friendship with an octopus and understand its underwater world.
I’m reminded that flying used to be like that—a discovery and a journey into the potentially hostile world of the upper air. Like too much of what we encounter today, flying has become robotic and routinized. It has lost its soul.