The mystique of flight is over for now

Among those old enough to remember it, it’s common to hear that the current pandemic recalls the feeling of 9/11 and the weeks that followed. One can sense it in the quietude of the skies: There are far fewer commercial airliners flying overhead now, just like there were then. The lack of contrails is noticeable, even if you’re not in the habit of noticing them ordinarily. At my home airport outside New Orleans, nearly all outbound flights are cancelled on the morning that I write this, and they probably are now, as you are reading.

As a recent news story reported, commercial flight has “sunk to a level not seen in more than 60 years.” Obviously this isn’t due to the vagaries of consumer demand or the emergence of a better way to travel: People aren’t flying right now to keep the coronavirus pandemic from taking more lives. They aren’t flying because there’s nowhere they are supposed to go but home.

Democracy on an airliner was always a highly ambivalent thing

The human cost of the pandemic far outweighs the fate of the aviation industry. But aviation is also an index of certain common aspirations, such as professional mobility, vacation travel, and social connection. With flight, there was always a physically transcendent factor: the push into your seat on takeoff, the breath held right before touching down. The ideals of progress could be felt in the body.

Vast fleets have been grounded around the world. Planes are parked in carefully staggered rows on tarmacs, raked wings tessellating as these mechanical birds lie dormant for now. What few travelers there are post photos to their social media feeds of desolate concourses and gate areas, airplane cabins hauntingly vacant. Complimentary drinks feel very different when no one else is around.

Now, with the majority of airliners grounded and airports like ghost towns, the persistent wish images of commercial flight over the past 70 years seem like relics of another epoch. In 1950, Northwest Airlines called their coast-to-coast Stratocruiser a “Castle in the air!” And since the dawn of the jet age, fantasies of airborne cosmopolitanism had reigned supreme. As one Pan Am transatlantic ad from 1959 put it, “Halfway to Europe between cocktails and coffee.” Promoting the supersonic Concorde, British Airways would roll out an ad in the 1980s with this mouthful: “Who cares enough to make the world half as big by flying twice as fast? We care!”

In the ebbs and flows of airline ad campaigns across these years, what stands out is how the glamour of flying is set against its increased accessibility. In other words, the experience of flight is at once rarified and democratized. For instance, in the early 1970s, American Airlines announced their opulent coach lounge on the Boeing 747 with the claim that “You won’t believe you’re on an airplane” — an apparent acknowledgment of flying’s cramped inconvenience. By the late ’70s, TWA was punning on the spaciousness of their latest widebody airliners, which evinced “not a crowd in the sky.” Flying was both a luxury and not luxurious enough, a way to join the crowd and at the same time try to escape it.

This alchemy became a common theme. In an aesthetic that now seems eerily prescient, so many early airline ads featured near empty planes, with one passenger or a romantic couple marveling at all the space around them. In 2020 we find similar snapshots being shared, but the travelers in these interiors are unsettled: Planes aren’t supposed to be this empty, even if that was always the fantasy.

The stimulus recasts commercial flight as a necessary evil, a basic service, or even as a right — that untouchable aspect of aviation

The space and privilege of business and first class were always dependent on the scrunch of an economy class. Flight attendants would hand out pamphlets for loyalty cards, offering the key to better service — if glossing the brute realities of the economic hustle involved therein. Signing up for a frequent flier program is one thing; attaining Diamond status requires a significant financial commitment. To borrow a term from theorist Sarah Sharma, we might say that the “temporal architecture” of air travel is meted out in inches and points, armrests and miles. It’s a race that anyone can join but which no one ever wins. In a certain sense, modern air travel had become as much about the status and privilege enjoyed en route as actually going places.

This glamor survived and persisted beyond 9/11, newly imbued with patriotic symbolism and a collective sense of entitlement, as though air travel had emerged as a quintessentially American right. By 2002, air travel was ramping back up, planes voraciously gobbling up and spewing out passengers around the world again. The perceived dangers in flying were addressed by more elaborate screening measures: Full-body scanners were deployed, and travelers started taking off their shoes when passing through security checkpoints. People learned to travel with small bottles of shampoos and conditioners. It’s not yet clear what measures will be put in place to make flying seem safe from viral transmission.

During this time, frayed edges were also showing around the whole system. Airlines squeezed seats closer together, even in first class. Checked baggage charges were invented overnight, creating a new revenue stream for airlines if also annoyingly clogging overhead bins, complicating the flight crew’s jobs, and creating headaches for weary passengers. Boeing hurried to produce a new mass-market version of the 737, the MAX, which resulted in at least two fatal crashes. (When Donald Trump spoke of helping out Boeing as part of the coronavirus relief, he hinted at how the airplane manufacturer was already beleaguered by the stain of the MAX — as if it made sense that the pandemic should brush that other problem under the rug.)

Still, over the past two decades more travelers than ever flocked to the sky each year, as commercial flight grew ever more common and expected. In 2013, United Airlines brought back its “Fly the friendly skies” slogan — a reboot of commercial-aviation idealism from 40 years prior. This constancy belies a subtle shift, though. We have come a long way from the glamour assumed in early commercial flight. Travelers have become numb to the gritty determination and grind of the post-9/11 journey, with its uniformed security regime, encouraged paranoia (“If you see something, say something!”), and squabbles over seatback reclines and personal device volume. Democracy on an airliner was always a highly ambivalent thing. But no one thought it would end so abruptly.

As in air, so too on the ground. The quick plummet of flight’s utility may be eerily indicative of a broader dynamic, in which the demos is exposed as far more illusory than might have been thought. While laid-off workers struggle to file for unemployment, small businesses shutter, and entire industries teeter on the brink, financial markets still claw for gains wherever possible, whipsawing daily but still reaping rewards for the shrewd investor. It was never about the people; it was always about profits, accumulated by an elite few. So too the airline bailouts are less about restoring democratic access to flight than for keeping the whole economic pyramid intact — structurally holding up the very pinnacle.

It is hard to believe that our current world will see an enthusiastic return to air travel. A recent email from Delta CEO Ed Bastian to SkyMiles members pleaded for continued patience and understanding, underneath a seal that read, “Our Promise: Your Safety Above All.” The problem, of course, is that Delta’s promise is self-compromising: When people arrive everywhere safely, so does the virus. Our safety above all, at least for the foreseeable future, means staying on the ground.

Whereas once it was about my status, my legroom, “social distancing” practices have rejiggered our collective senses of space

We know that the novel coronavirus spread rapidly by plane, not just at the small scale of viral shedding potentially infecting those in a six-foot radius but also at the global scale of air travel, jumping across geopolitical borders. Commercial air travel is implicated and newly suspect and will likely remain so until there is proven vaccine for Covid-19. Even if temperature scans become as common as X-ray machines and mandatory health certificates become as expected as passports, the sheer biology of epidemics will have undermined the untouchable symbolism of commercial flight. But it’s more than symbolic: Flight is literally instrumental to the march of so-called progress.

I once wondered whether slick digital technologies such as phones in our pockets were compatible with the clunkiness of actual airplanes chugging up into the sky; it seemed like we were reaching a threshold where the speed and self-fulfilling premises of our personal devices would undermine the feasibility of the collective enterprise of queueing and sitting together to fly. But I never imagined the issue would be forced by something smaller than pixels — something in our body’s cells. Zoom, Blue Jean, Facetime, and Skype have now supplanted so many meetings that would have happened in person. And even if these media interfaces have already created their own forms of exhaustion, they’ve also become normalized with remarkable swiftness. It’s almost as if the predictable speed of jet travel were transferred unconsciously over to these apps and windows. If business travelers and conference attendees had been conditioned to expect relatively seamless travel across thousands of miles, time zones, and cultural contexts, this same shared expectation made the mass transition to video conferencing so much easier over the past couple months.

The federal government’s commitment to restoring commercial flight acts as if this pivot to virtual presence will be a temporary blip. But this attitude ignores the seismic shift that has taken place, articulated in the activism, epitomized now by Greta Thunberg, that has for years been flagging the environmental cost of excessive travel. It is likely that businesses that have become versant in Zoom and its ilk will cut travel budgets significantly rather than encourage their workers to Uber back to the airports in droves.

The recently passed stimulus package offers bailout funds for the airlines so that workers can continue to be paid and aircraft can be kept ready to fly at a moment’s notice, should the virus disappear, as in the “miracle” that Trump once touted. But the stimulus as written really just buys some time, a few months — while airline executives have pointed out that the economic damage will be felt on a much longer timeline. As part of the stimulus arrangement, the Department of Transportation requires that airlines receiving financial assistance “maintain minimum air services on a nationwide basis,” which recasts commercial flight as a kind of necessary evil, as a basic service, or even as a right — that untouchable aspect of aviation, itself now gasping for air. What if passenger demand never rebounds to even close to what it was prior to the pandemic, and for good reasons? But this question is anathema to leaders in government and the aviation industry alike.

Dreams of glamorous air travel have come back to Earth. The novel coronavirus may well be our Icarus moment. It’s hard to imagine a return to sanguine treatments of flight after the curve has been flattened, when travelers, however tentatively, will consider taking to the skies again. In a few weeks, or a few months — if we fly at all, depending on how things unfold — people may only want to get from point A to point B without catching Covid-19, not to mention instigating a new pandemic.

We’ll want to know that airports are attuned to the potential of humans to be infectious, and not just trying to funnel us in and out as efficiently as possible. We’ll be sensitized, perhaps, to the inconvenient fact of interconnectedness. Whereas once it was about my miles, my status, my legroom — so-called “social distancing” practices have rejiggered our collective senses of space. And there’s no way to simply fly above these new spatial constraints.

Air travel is not over, not yet. But whatever comes next, we’ll be more aware of how it is, inescapably, an organic planet that we live on — that we’re always commingling with others, as well as with other species. Life on the ground will seem more heavy and less easily left behind.

Christopher Schaberg is Dorothy Harrell Brown Distinguished Professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans, and the author of The Textual Life of Airports (2011), The End of Airports (2015), Airportness (2017), and The Work of Literature in an Age of Post-Truth (2018).