HOOKED ON FLIGHT
Air travel is one of the more powerful symbolic registers of human development. Commercial flight in particular is deemed to be one of the great achievements of the 20th century—a key marker of cosmopolitanism and mobility. It is something you can hear roaring above at almost any hour of the day, and signs of flight’s cultural value can be seen on credit cards as ubiquitously as on the tails of actual airplanes. As an index entry of common sense, commercial flight is practically synonymous with progress.
Aircraft are designed to last dozens of years, and aircraft manufacturers are thereby inherently resistant to major technological advancements and societal changes. As much as people might look back on the astonishing leaps made over the decades of the 20th century, from the Wright brothers to supersonic flight, people are generally close-minded about the current century of air travel. We just want our Boeings and Airbuses to keep trucking, to last as long as possible.
Commercial flight is a consolidated form of broader contemporary addictions, including habits of consumption and patterns of resource extraction and waste. From burning petroleum for our individual trajectories to normalizing a generalized need for speed, air travel is the apotheosis of modern living. Commercial flight is thus not only symbolic of a certain cultural milieu, but is also guarded as the material instantiation of this milieu. Flight is held as sacred, or as a Rubicon that cannot be crossed without threatening an entire way of life.
Upon the announcement of the Green New Deal in early 2019, one initial cry of dissent was a reaction to the alleged end of air travel. Conservative pundits mocked Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for supposedly claiming that flying would no longer be necessary once the Green New Deal was successfully carried out. Fact-checkers and other defendants on the left quickly jumped in to clear up the misunderstanding, qualifying the claims of Ocasio-Cortez and clarifying the intent of the Green New Deal: Not necessarily to eliminate air travel altogether but to reduce reliance on commercial flight by investing in high speed rail among other alternative energy and transportation initiatives. Still, the specter of a world without airplanes lingered.
Dan Reed, writing for Forbes and taking the bait, speculated about what exactly would happen under the Green New Deal once “air travel in America is no longer required by, or available to the masses.” Reed’s findings—projected economic losses and vacated job opportunities—were alarmist to say the least. Of course, while Reed admitted that he was ‘speculating’ about the effects of air travel being wound down, he might not have speculated far enough. To truly imagine a world without—or with dramatically less—air travel, we would have to speculate a lot further into a different future to come.
It’s easy to defend something that has become normalized. If air travel seems like something too ingrained, too precious to change—these are precisely signs that this form of mobility must be confronted and dealt with. We know that commercial flight is far from ideal. The vast networks of logistics can become snarled in an instant, airport delays are dreaded experiences (or worse, waiting in the plane on the tarmac), and air rage seems always on the cusp of taking place.
And people often admit to loathing it. Air travel is one of the more routinely lampooned activities we partake in on a daily basis: from SNL and The Onion to social media feeds, mockeries of commercial flight are only a click away. The charade of security checkpoints, the predictably overworked and exhausted flight crews, the bland overpriced airport food… it’s all a readymade travesty. And the routines are baroque. The luggage check, the repeated queuing, the layers of priority during boarding, the slumping before flight, the barrage of entrainment options during flight—as if the airlines are begging us to just barely tolerate it all.
Digital devices and internet-based platforms all but make commercial flight feel archaic. We cannot deny the millions of meaningful connections that are made each minute on social media and other networking applications. Skype interviews are hardly perfect—but then, in-person interviews can be extremely awkward, as well. Can we really uphold the primacy of these other ‘connections’ that happen so loudly and messily, facilitated by air?
What about vacations? But what even are vacation in after-bedtime capitalism, when everywhere place is entangled with the bland demands of consumer culture, and our job follow us through our phones and personal computers to the most far flung locations? A better vacation from these times would involve more earnest attention to nearby spaces and contexts. Resist fast connections. Slow travel.
The way of life summed up by the concept of the Anthropocene—or the Capitalocene, or the Great Acceleration—is hastening the extinction of many species on this planet, ours included. Surviving this epoch will mean adapting to it, demonstrably changing our habits. Commercial air travel is a keystone habit to which that humans are addicted. A recent Guardian article by Nicola Davison about the Anthropocene and geological consensus references an airport floor full of fossils as a punctum moment:
In Mainz, after the train pulled into the airport, the group made for the departure zone. Among the chaos of wheelie suitcases and people hurrying about, suddenly a voice cried out: “Fossils!” [Jan] Zalasiewicz was off to one side, eyes fixed on the polished limestone floor. “That’s a fossil, these are fossil shells,” he said, pointing to what looked like dark scratches. One was the shape of a horseshoe, and another looked like a wishbone. Zalasiewicz identified them as rudists, a type of mollusc that had thrived during the Cretaceous, the last period of the dinosaurs. Rudists were a hardy species, the main reef-builders of their time. One rudist reef ran the length of the North American coast from Mexico to Canada. Staring at the rudists encased in limestone slabs that had been dug out of the ground and transported many miles across land, it was strange to think of the unlikeliness of their arrival in the airport floor.
Adorning this article were striking images: aerial views of various topography and terrains. Not coincidentally, it is both from the air, and in an airport, that the geologist (and the reader) might catch a glimpse of the impact of humans on the planet.
We need to admit it: we’re addicted to flight. It’s as bad as automobility (a form of transport that deserves its own serious reassessment), but flight is more insidious because it’s less obviously surrounding, and less personalized. Yet it’s also always on the periphery, and always overhead—or just about to be. Flight shapes urban economics and public space, decreeing where and how communities come together—or not.
The other day a behemoth military cargo plane thundered low over the campus where I teach. My students and I were on our way to Audubon Park, going to read and practice examples of nature writing. The gigantic jet shattered the sky, its sound completely drowning out the mockingbirds and cicadas for a few moments. Behind the four turbofan engines, greasy trails streaked across the blue sky. This was a non-commercial flight, but it bespoke the hundreds of other passenger aircraft that swoop in and out of the Big Easy each day, dumping their petrol byproducts into the thick air we breathe.
We have to interrupt this cycle. It won’t be immediately easy, or entirely understandable as in a PowerPoint presentation; but breaking our addiction to flight will be critical to reorganizing our species being on this planet. No more roars in the sky, save wind in the trees, actual occasional thunder. Would we miss airplanes above? Or might their absence result in an enriched experience of life on the ground? I am thinking about all the connections and migration routes—beyond merely human ones—that, as of now, are relegated to a position subordinate to things in the air. Could we discover new forms of transit and assemblage that show the prized routines of mechanized flight to be what they were: exhausting, consuming, and numbing? I think so. But it will take a leap—a true movement in air.
is the Dorothy Harrell Brown Distinguished Professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans and author of Searching for the Anthropocene (Bloomsbury, December 2019). His latest book, Grounded (University of Minnesota Press, November 2020), reflects on COVID-19's impact on commercial flight and air travel.