Saturday, 20 March 2021

The plane truth

Air travel has become a symbol of late twentieth century life, of the triumph of technology, and of the latter's democratisation.  We therefore have a vested interest in acquiescing in its romantic mythologies.  We affect to believe that in entering this smooth and gleaming skybound vessel we somehow partake of the pioneering spirit of the Wright brothers, Spitfire pilots and astronauts.  Unfortunately, the airlines know better.

They know that they are dealing with a ridiculous situation: hundreds of people trapped in a flimsy metal hull, surrounded by thousands of gallons of explosive air fuel.  They know that, like overcrowded rats, passengers would probably go mad and run amok if they were fully cognisant of their condition and of its unnaturalness.  They know that their main business is to take our minds off imminent destruction by unremitting distraction.

To do this, airlines employ as their model the principal paradigm of control and deceit: childhood.  Adults habitually adopt artful ploys to keep children quiet, to keep them obedient, to keep them happy.  To make mass air travel possible, the operating companies have engaged in a thoroughgoing campaign of passenger infantilisation, reducing all the jetsetting executives and package tour holidaymakers to a group of boys and girls out on an educational day-trip's jaunt.

The process begins with boarding.  You are trooped on to the aircraft by class and number like a bunch of unruly schoolkids, shepherded by men and women dressed in uniforms and acting the bossy monitor; you are told to sit down in neatly-ordered rows - all of which face the front - and are then strapped into your chair to stop you fidgeting.  Before the plane can leave, you must pay attention to the day's lesson: the voice of the unseen teacher on the intercom explains the usual incomprehensible things about lifejackets and oxygen masks - serious, adult matters that seem boring and irrelevant like so much education; meanwhile, snooty prefects mime woodenly by rote.  Just as at school, nobody really listens.

Shortly after take-off, you are brought a drink - drugged, usually, to make you complaisant - and then, a meal.  It appears instantaneously, hot and from nowhere: it is a well-known fact that the food of childhood never needs preparation.  The packaging in particular seems calculated to appeal to young minds: lots of fascinating wrappings to remove, your own personal cutlery, condiments, bread and butter - and, of course, an individual towelette to wipe your fingers and face with afterwards.  At least the stewardess does not try to do this for you, as your mother often did.

Thus all of your time on the plane is spent like a baby: in eating, sleeping, or being amused - or in going to the toilet.  One of the mysteries of air travel is how hundreds of passengers with little to look at or think about manage to ignore what exactly is going on in those small square cubicles placed so centrally and visibly.  When people rush for the toilets as soon as a meal has ended, and those embarrassingly obvious queues start to snake down the aisles, everyone acts as they would in the presence of a child on a potty, who becomes invisible.  The romance of air travel, indeed.

(1989)

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