Among an amassing list of bourgeois problems I am ashamed to call my own is a complete dislike of airline travel. It has to be, for me, regardless of cabin class, the most unpleasant experience one can pay for, surpassing digital rectal exams and root canals. At the risk of over-sharing, I’ve never experienced the poke of the dreaded DRE. But despite that, I am confident I would gleefully subject myself to the procedure if it meant I would be instantly teleported to the far-off destinations I love to visit while forgoing the agony of the airline experience.
You see, there’s the rub. It’s easy, hearing me whine, to say, don’t fly then, you brat. It’s an ingenious, instant solution. But then you’ll have to read my whining about how I love to visit far away places but can’t. Oh, how I wish someone would invent a way to travel great distances quickly, I’d say, inducing you to spasm.
It’s not fear of catastrophe at 38,000 feet that makes me hate the airline experience. I’ve seen enough episodes of Air Crash Investigations (I watch it obsessively) to know that flying in most countries is actually pretty safe. Thanks to the show, I now know that new planes/technology, airlines in financial crisis, kids flying the plane (yes, really), overworked air traffic controllers, avoidable weather conditions and human error contribute to most crashes. I also know that individually, these factors do not usually result in harm. It’s the surprisingly rare occasion when one or more of them combine that results in fatalities.
Also, morbidly, the show’s given me heart that each crash that I have the fortune of not being in makes flying safer for me. Yeah, don’t say it. I know.
So far, I’ve been calling this thing I loathe the airline experience. Using that phrase, as opposed to flying, is intentional because I suspect it is not the actual flying I hate. I think that I, as Gus Silber does, still find magic in climbing into an iron bird that races down the runway and, at incredible speed, blasts off into the stratosphere. Okay, maybe not ‘blasts off’, per se. But saying ‘climbs at a comfortable rate of ascent’ kind of dulls the wonder of seeing – as I think I once heard described in a movie – that moment when a 747 Jumbo first takes to the air and hangs there as all the forces acting on it hold it in place, infinitesimally, before its sheer awesomeness propels it skyward. Each take off, for me, is fist-bump to human ingenuity. Each is a nod to our dogged determination to overcome the seemingly impossible in pursuit of simple (and not so simple) dreams.
So it smarts even more then that not only is the airline experience unpleasant within itself, it also kills, for me, the magic of flying.
The biggest gripe (there are many) I have with the airline experience is the standardisation. Most of it, admittedly, is driven by safety. As evidenced by several air disasters, not following established protocol often has catastrophic results. So to counter this, the airline industry has standardised procedure, starting first in the cockpit with checklist upon checklist, and rippling down through the cabin, from upper class all the way back to that last row of seats where you have the privilege of overhearing how your cabin crew are like a real-life episode of InterSEXions.
But this standardisation comes at a price: a loss of a chunk of the magic, the humanness, the art that is so intricately interwoven into flying. I didn’t realise this until after reading Brian Christian’s ‘The Most Human Human‘, but the part of me that so actively loathes the airline experience is the part of me that realises that along with checking in our bags, when we fly, we check in most things that makes us human. The airline experience tags and stows it in the cargo hold until we land.
Except for the first time where, perhaps, we are still struck with wonderment, the airline experience makes flying robotic. Christian, in the book, talks about site-specificity as something unique to human conversation – and, I extrapolate, the human experience. The bits in life when we are most human are when we break away from routine and the tried-and-tested by reacting to each situation, each circumstance, each conversation in a way specific to it. And, conversely, the bits when we are least human and most robotic are when we rely on the reams of standard responses and actions we’ve stored up along the way.
The phrase “mindless robot” can often describe how many of us undergo the airline experience. We show our tags at the door, find our seats, shut off our electronic equipment, choose chicken over beef…we do all of this without one iota of the qualities that allowed us to defy gravity, friction and all the other forces that once prevented us from taking to the air.
And it is not just us passengers. Nothing sounds as stripped of anything human as the safety announcements made by the cabin crew during the airline experience. The captain’s announcements, too, are equally if not more banal. And, just like other examples of things stripped of their humanness – call centres, chess and Jeopardy are the examples Christian gives – these safety announcements are now being done by robots. In most modern airliners, they are pre-recorded or pre-animated, and delivered to a seat-back monitor near you. The next step in the airline experience, I suppose, is to replace cabin crew with automated trollies that dispense food, and clear aisles and tray tables.
I laughed to myself the other day when I realised how resplendent the airline experience’s attempt to turn us into mindless robots is. Upon landing in Cape Town, an hour behind schedule (and I’d later learn, sans my checked luggage – thanks SAA), the robotic voice over the PA system said: “We trust you have enjoyed your experience with us.” I actually hadn’t, but that didn’t matter. The airline experience, forever stateless, leaves no room for varied experiences, only this so-called enjoyment of the experience.
Some airlines have tried to break the monotony and routine. Kulula is one example. But the roboticness always comes back, like the kipple in ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep‘. Kulula’s “unlike SAA, we sell coke in cans, not in grams” joke was hysterical the first time. The fifth time, not at all. If it will be retold, it is probably more efficient to record all the skits on CD and play them over the PA system. The challenge, I guess, for any airline aspiring to be the most human airline is to somehow find that (I suspect constantly shifting) middle ground where being safe in the air and being human are not mutually exclusive.
But until that day, however, I will try my damnedest to have the airlines allow me, at the very least, my humanity as hand luggage. And I will also continue to live in hope of that sphincter-activated teleporter*.
* If you are inventing a teleporter, this isn’t a challenge. Trust me, you’ll have more commercial success if your teleportation device isn’t butt-hole activated.