In transit

Avoid dead time, the recommendations go. Time in airports, time in train stations. Spend that time adventuring, seeing one more temple, eating one more meal. Never eat on the plane. Never drink on the train. Spend the time walking, and then rush to the gate, to the platform. Be the last one on board. See more, and wait less.

This advice is not wrong. The airports of the world are more similar than the cities, the restaurants, the temples. Train platforms are empty things, born of functionality and passenger capacity. Security lines are massive multiplayer experiments in patience, and in humanity’s ability to trust the unseen. A single hour sitting in a Ho Chi Minh City food stall is worth a dozen in Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport Terminal 1. An hour in Edinburgh more valuable than a dozen in JFK’s Terminal 4. Time waiting can’t be reclaimed, and hours spent in the Shaoxing train station can never be turned into great stories.

Except for the arcade game in Shaoxing station, a drop the claw and pick up a prize style box, the glass enclosure filled not with plush toys but with foil-wrapped packs of cigarettes. Except for the hours spent with old men sitting in the halls of high speed trains, watching the Chinese countryside blur past. Except for the feeling of a long tail boat pushing off from an island beach in Thailand. Travel is dead time and it is watchful time.

In between our house and our office are two chapters of a novel read on the train, a podcast, a phone call, an album. In between where we are and where we are going are a couple of accidental interactions with people we had no intention of meeting. Multiplied by hundreds, thousands, and our lives are suddenly full of strangers, filled with observation and the opportunity to learn. Would we be richer without all our time in transit? When asked what super power I’d want, I immediately wish for teleportation; the ability to eat dinner with my grand parents and then watch the sun set on the Pacific, the chance to play ultimate with friends in all corners of the globe on the same day, and the opportunity to see hundreds of thousands of places I will probably never see specifically because of transit time. Until recently I have never considered what I’d be giving up.

Airports can be hassles, security mind-numbing. Busses can be too bouncy to read on, or smell of urine. Trains can be filled with people eating food on our seats and smoking cigarettes in our air space. And yet are we better off without that time? Are we better off without each other?

On a flight back from Haneda to SFO I look around at my fellow travelers, each with their own destination and their own purpose. We are crammed together in this flying tube far above the Pacific, uncertain of the hour or day, trusting our pilots, watching movies, and dreaming of places far away. For a few hours we are free from all interruptions from the world outside, obligated only to each other.

We could all do worse than these hours expended in motion.


Treat each other

A century on from its invention, air travel remains one of our greatest abilities. Flight grants mobility to that least mobile class of capitalism’s three, labor. By allowing us all to span continents it reduces our tendency to stereotype and dismiss those we have never seen. By encouraging quick visits home for holidays it enables family ties to stretch and thus daughters and sons to move further than they ever have. And, hundreds of years on, the magic of descending into Hong Kong as the dawn rises will still impress.

Yet air travel also reflects the stratification of society, the belief that not all people are created equal, and the separation of humans from one another. Waiting in LAX a few months ago a family seated near me was preparing their children for their first flight, reassuring the youngest and explaining which plane was likely theirs to the eldest. From the sound of it they were headed on vacation, to a new adventure.

Like many I can’t remember my first flight. I can guess, to Sacramento in the eighties, to see my grandparents. My parents might remember, such travel was rare enough then, planned for months and each trip separated from the next by a year or two. US Air, probably, one of the pre-bankruptcy incarnations. Definitely a layover, between Ithaca and Sacramento, possibly two. An easier security check though, fewer hassles than this family in LAX has had to endure. Especially at a small airport like Ithaca, like the old Ithaca, where there was only one gate and passengers mingled with those waiting for arrivals. It was no $16 flight up the west coast that Joan Didion remembers, but it was a simpler time.

And that brings me to LAX, to SFO, to HKG and JFK, and status clubs and priority boarding. That brings me to the striation of humanity inside one of the great engines of democratization. No longer is moving from California to New York a rare occurrence. Students from China can go to school in Boston and see their families on holidays. Cousins from Australia can visit upstate NY for the summer. And a boy from Ithaca can meet a girl from Colorado in Shanghai and move to Houston together.

Air travel is a great enabler. Along with the internet it has changed how fast, how often, and for what reasons we communicate, visit, and learn from each other. It is also, especially compared to the internet, an incredibly resource-intensive idea, burning fuel dug out of the ground to cross and re-cross the planet. Considered that way the idea of bachelor parties in Croatia and weekend trips to LA sound foolish, a waste of a shared resource for fleeting enjoyment. And yet what a glorious ability, to weekend elsewhere, to visit spontaneously for scant dollars.

This is the problem, of course. The democratization of air travel comes with a cost, and that cost is covered in a large part by the segregation of fliers, by the thousand dollar price difference between a seat in business class and economy on the same plane, leaving and departing at the same times from the same locations.

What is different then about those seats? How we treat each other. More money earns a nicer experience, free drinks, a courteous smile upon boarding, a newspaper. Most importantly more money earns a larger seat, more personal space.

These inventions should not surprise, and they don’t. Of course more money will buy a nicer version of something, whatever the thing may be. Of course those with are treated more preferentially than those without. That is the very basis of human economics, for better and worse, for thousands of years.

What is changing, what has changed, is the view from the bottom. Not only are those who pay more treated better, but that those who pay less are now treated slightly worse. Premium tickets bring additional benefits and economy tickets bring less and less. From paying for food to paying for legroom (Jet Blue, United, Virgin) to paying for TV (Frontier) to paying for boarding (Southwest, United, Virgin) there is no longer a sense of service with the ticket purchase. Overhead compartments have become a war zone due to checked fees and frequent travelers spend actual minutes of life learning the amount of bin space on different aircraft. The additional transactions, costs, and restrictions create small burdens on each of us until the very heart of flying, the joy of being airborne, has been whittled down. Until the child preparing for his first flight is cautioned with a thousand guidelines rather than encouraged in his excitement.

In short what was once a gift, a miraculous journey from New York to California, has been turned into a series of chores and of inconveniences. I do not say “has become a series of chores” because that removes the reason for these changes and the responsibility for our worsening experiences. Checked bag fees did not come from the sky, but from the boardroom. Treating each economy customer slightly worse was not an accident but a calculated move. Adding on a few fees after ticket purchase, making travel worse in these small ways, one at a time, was a way to maximize profits at the expense of someone else.

Is a way.

That is why I was excited about Virgin America, and about Jet Blue and Southwest before that. About an airline that claimed to believe what we all know: good service and decent treatment should be the baseline, not an added fee. A reasonable seat, a clean plane, something to drink. This kind of company should be encouraged, should be recognized and aided. How much better must it be to work for a company that treats customers the way we would like to be treated? How much better is it to be proud of our employers, to be customers of our own products, willing passengers on our own airlines and happy diners in our own restaurants?

Treating each other better needs no limits. Airports could easily return to being enjoyable places, with less focus on security and fewer collisions between rollaboards. With faster checked luggage recovery, without so many fees, with only a little bit of better treatment, passengers could once again stroll through the airport rather than drag their possessions into cramped bathrooms and newspaper stands.

These ideas are not unachievable miracles, they are not irrational requests. They are simply how things used to work, and how they still could. These ideas are built on a belief that we can all treat each other better. And that how we treat each other in our jobs, in our companies, *is* how we treat each other. Hiding behind corporate declarations and revenue targets does not reduce our responsibility to each other. By making the collective experience of humans slightly worse we are worsening our own lives, no matter our income or status. In this specific case we are gradually reducing the pleasure of one of our most miraculous technologies.

By making air travel worse it is less likely that a boy and a girl will grow up to love airplanes. Less likely that they will love staring down at the world from above and up at the sky from below, less likely that they will travel so freely and with such joy. This vision is a sad one.

The alternative is simple. We can treat each other better. We can build companies that do likewise. And instead of bin space we can focus on the wonder of air travel. We can help each other and support those who treat us better and those whose jobs are built on the idea.

And we can teach new fliers like that child in LAX the magic in my favorite phrase, a sentence that with every repetition excites me and suggests the future.

“We will be on the ground shortly.”

With wings

He leans against the curved hull, pillow stuffed into the window well. Mouth open and head back, he is asleep in 33A high above the Pacific. Time zones slip past, an oft-ignored creation of human-kind, organizing the world into segments. The plane shudders in the wind, buffeted by invisible currents. As it lands, sliding into the gate, the passengers rouse themselves, stretch. Phones blink to life, electronic cackles of welcome, connection, home and business. The arrival gate and it’s crowds of men with signs, of lovers desperate for the first glimpse, awaits.

Habit shifts can define generations as the rare becomes commonplace, the mythical ordinary. Mid-morning conversations with friends in New York as they settle in for sleep, detailed analysis of fauna found on a day’s excursion on an Australian island read over breakfast coffee in Los Angeles. The world shrinks, people say, as their habits change. As what was once extraordinary, the arrival of mail on horseback, becomes a daily ritual, and then scarce again. On a rural route outside of Ithaca the mailman pets the golden retriever through his jeep’s open door, knows the names of every family on his route, holds their letters when they travel. This integration seems mundane to those born a century after mail calls around campfires. Only a decade after that a single envelope hand-addressed is a cause for celebration, the personal effort touching. Stamps whose varied faces once hid beneath pens in every drawer become difficult to find, require lengthy waits in line to purchase. FedEx, revolutionary in it’s global reach and speed, becomes the province of companies, recedes from the individual. Our travels become electronic, or personal. The detailed letter from Thailand wilts under the weight of a thousand blog posts, of Flickr shots uploaded from dodgy connections at the beach.

These shifts, of distance and technology that become those of lifestyle, are not necessarily successful. The automobile created suburbs that became cities in an effort to avoid the use of the automobile that inspired them. The airplane becomes a cubicle with repetition, and the freedom of takeoff that so delighted little boys becomes a sleep trigger. No longer do the passengers peer out and down, watching cars fade into matchbox toys, wondering who all those people are, and where they are headed. The boy no longer looks up from his lawn mower, wondering where all those people are going, up so high in that silver sliver, trailing white across the sky.

The man in 33A boards patiently. He no longer seeks to be the first in line, no longer jumps at the anticipation of the flight attendant’s newspaper rack. He stows his luggage anywhere, comfortable with magazine and notebook. His movements, long practiced in these tubular confines, have gained an economy of motion, been minimized. Like all such travelers he knows the bathrooms, the coffee spots, and where wifi is at each and every airport. He no longer marvels at the numbers of people heading to Korea, to LA, to Chicago, to Singapore, to Mumbai at any hour of the day, at any time of year. This is how the world works, covered in people constantly re-arranging themselves. All sense of miracle at humanity’s frantic new habit has disappeared.

Perhaps he is correct in this. The technology amazes, as once did the wheel, the steam engine, the railroad, yet underneath the urge to leave, the desire to settle somewhere new, the possibility of better just out of sight has kept people moving for millennia. They have crossed valleys, rivers, oceans, often in no more than their skin, rarely with a plan grander than to go. He crosses the Pacific likewise, back and forth with little certainty, and less consideration. His nonchalance would be epic, save for the other two hundred passengers asleep around him.