Does Airline Travel Show Us Who We Are?
Snaking lines of listless people waiting in queues. Scattered rushes of anxious passengers racing toward gates.
Airports are strange places. They are places between places. I haven’t set foot in an airport in almost two years and remember them as ungrounded, untethered spaces that put us on edge.
I’ve seen seemingly mild-mannered business professionals approach ticket counters, hear some undesired news, and morph into John McEnroe at his most apoplectic.
“What do you mean you can’t get me on a flight out tonight? This is ridiculous! I hope the f***ing airline goes under, and you lose your job!”
I’ve witnessed adults jostle for overhead bins like preschoolers fighting over cubbies. The closest I’ve ever come to violence against anyone has been to the inconsiderate jerks who recline their chairs all the way back. I’ve imagined the satisfaction I’d feel after kicking their seats.
Many of us feel unsettled and vulnerable during air travel. We’re nervous about making connecting flights and powerless to the unpredictability of flight schedules threatening to upend our best-laid plans. In-flight, suspended between places, with too many people crammed in too small an area, we’re even more on edge. Our nerves are frayed, our interpersonal interactions fraught.
That’s not to say things are all bad. I’ve also enjoyed acts of kindness. Once I left my cellphone at a hotel and returned to the airport 20 minutes before my flight. My fellow travelers saw the distress in my eyes and let me cut to the front of the security line.
“She’s going to miss her flight! Let her through!”
Another time, my husband and I were flying with our four-month-old daughter, and we couldn’t book seats next to each other. The passenger next to me gave up his seat and took my husband’s cramped middle one in the back of the plane so we could all be together.
In August 2011 on a flight to Pittsburgh, I had one of the most profound conversations of my life. I’m not much of a talker and was reeling from a recent break-up. Yet, the passenger next to me was so friendly we wound up chatting the entire flight. I didn’t want the conversation to end.
He consoled me and declared, “You’re ready for the love of your life. Mark my words, you’ll meet your future husband before the end of the year.” I met my husband that November. I still remember his kindness, and I wish I could tell him he was right.
I’ve found air travel brings out the best and the worst in us. As Don DeLillo says, “Air travel reminds us who we are.”
The process removes us from the world and sets us apart from each other. We wander in the ambient noise, checking one more time for the flight coupon, the boarding pass, the visa. The process convinces us that at any moment we may have to submit to… the unknown authority behind it …. This vast terminal has been erected to examine souls. — Don DeLillo, American novelist, short story writer, playwright, screenwriter and essayist
The set apart, in-between world unveils extremes in human behavior and, some would argue, reveals our true colors.
Lately, I’ve been feeling nostalgic about air travel and reflecting on my own experiences.
In the mid-2010s, I worked as a program associate for a nonprofit that sent me all over the world. I spent 50% of the year away from home, and my frequent flyer status earned me perks like business class seats.
A 2014 episode sticks out in my mind — a cross-country flight through Canada. I recall the piercing thrum of the plane’s engines and the stale, sanitized air as I boarded the plane.
I took my seat in the first row by the window. I shifted my weight to relieve the bolts of nerve pain shooting through my body. During my work trip, I had developed shingles. Exposed pustules covered my stomach. I braced in agony with the slightest brush of my waistline against the pustules.
Boarding seemed to be taking longer than usual. We passengers sat in silence, save for a bawdy party of skiers seated near the middle of the plane.
After several moments, a flight attendant intoned on the intercom, “The plane is too heavy with all the ski equipment. We’ll need three passengers to disembark the plane.” There was no offer of vouchers. It was not a request; it was a demand.
The attendant approached my row.
“You, sir. We’ll have to ask you to leave.” She directed her request to the Very Important White Man sitting beside me in the aisle seat.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me! No way I’m getting off. Why don’t you take her?” He pointed to me — the brown, rotten apple in a sea of crisp, white fruit.
My stomach dropped. All I wanted was to get home and recover.
The flight attendant sized me up. Young, small, Brown, I imagined her thinking.
She reached towards me as if to grab me by the hand. I recoiled. I was barely maintaining my composure with the searing pain radiating from my midsection.
Then, I heard a voice I did not know I possessed. “I have a medical condition. You do not want to kick me off this flight.” I locked eyes with her, and she backed away.
She tried recruiting one or two other passengers before a full-on passenger revolt erupted.
“This isn’t right! Why don’t the skiers get off the plane? It’s their equipment.”
“You can’t make us leave!”
“I’m never flying United again!”
As the protests crescendoed, three people from the ski party reluctantly volunteered to disembark the plane.
What I’ve seen in my travels seems insignificant compared to the stories of Claudia Rankine and Isabel Wilkerson.
In Claudia Rankine’s outstanding book Just Us: An American Conversation, she examines everyday white supremacy and shares her encounters as a Black woman and academic. She calls airports “liminal spaces” — transitional areas where our polite public personas clash with our prejudiced private lives. She describes how white men cut in front of her in line during boarding for first-class passengers. She talks about her struggles to engage them in conversation in-flight and connect across white privilege. She asks, “What is this ‘stuckness’ inside racial hierarchies that refuses the neutrality of the skies?” Clearly, air travel is not neutral.
Isabel Wilkerson uses similar language about liminal spaces in Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents. Like Rankine, Wilkerson is a Black woman and academic who travels first-class. She recounts a flight attendant questioning her first-class status, a white passenger crushing his body against hers while retrieving his luggage and cites an incident where a white passenger slaps a Black baby for crying too much.
For Rankine and Wilkerson, air travel indeed exposes who people really are.
If air travel shows us who we are, I wonder who we are in 2021. I think about the 2017 incident of an Asian American doctor who was forcibly removed from a United plane in Chicago and the repercussions that followed, the George Floyd protests of 2020, and the continuing global pandemic. With a possibly wonderful summer ahead of us in the US and the potential for regular domestic air travel to recommence, how will we react to each other when we’re trapped in airport purgatory or mid-flight hell? Given the events of the last several years, have we evolved?
Will we view each other with shared humanity born from the common hardships we’ve experienced? Will we have a greater appreciation for the opportunity to travel after more than a year of COVID-19 safety precautions and travel restrictions? Will overhead bin space, seat preference, and flight status seem insignificant in light of all we’ve endured? Or will the stress of air travel reduce us to our baser instincts? Who knows, and we’ll see. I suspect how we treat one another during our future travels will give us some answers.