Air Head

  • 2016-03-21
  • The New Yorker

I fly an average of twice a month these days, usually for work, and although I spent much of my life afraid of airplanes, I now chase them with an addict’s need. If it has been a while since I have been aloft, I’m restless, peevish, mindless, tired—useless as a human being. The start of a flight heralds a game afoot. The rush is skittish and improbable. A freighted mass of metal rattling down the runway gains a sudden burst of speed and, in a small, miraculous gasp, loses its weight, rises, and soars, enacting careful turns and radio coördinations that accrue toward effortlessness. On the ground, on landing, it’s again a metal hulk; the metamorphosis reverses itself. A part of me is sure I’ll die at every takeoff, yet I need to feel that panic and lift or I’m hopeless. Flight is the best metaphor for writing that I know.

The sublimity of the act is heightened by the earthly mess around it. On arriving at the airport, you push your way through snarled security lines—the shoes, the belt, the laptop, the canopic bag of fluids—and purchase a day-old ciabatta sandwich. You sit and read, glancing at a suspended screen that seems to play only disaster news and weather reports from the Midwest. You hear your boarding announcement: more queues and lost elderly people with enormous bags. The airplane seems to hail from the same era as your old dishwasher, which conked out last year. The guy beside you has a wide stance and an overmedicated gaze that suggests he will drool during his sleep. It has been three hours since you left home, and you are still waiting.

Why do we board planes? Flying relies on an old, delay-mired technology, scarcely updated since the advent of the jumbo jet, and the sorts of people who can pay for tickets usually have better options for getting what they need. Once, if you had to make a presentation to your Tokyo office, you would fly there. These days, you can tap a few buttons on your phone or your computer and start beaming your PowerPoint deck onto a remote screen. If you’d like a bespoke lopapeysa, you don’t need to go to Iceland; you can order it online. The global promises of air travel—the wrinkles in time that allow the jet-setter to have breakfast in Boston and a lunch meeting in L.A., or to spend Friday seeing what’s new in Phnom Penh and still be at work on Monday—are today realized with much less trauma using screens. Sure, you still buy tickets back to Minnesota for your parents’ Christmas dinner, or to Tulum for a beach week. As a standard of global connection and fast access, though, air travel is now largely obsolete.