The view from seat 23E

The next time you board a plane, pause for a moment and think about what it is you’re doing. You’re about to fly. Fly. As recently as fifty years ago, flying was still the exclusive domain of the extravagantly wealthy. Fifty years before that, if you were flying you were probably participating in a war. And little more than a decade before that flying was, quite literally, for the birds.

Flying is now so commonplace that we scarcely give it a second thought. In fact, were we to give it a second thought, it would likely focus on the various and increasingly imaginative airline fees, the standing room only planes – or our next flight. It almost certainly would not involve thinking we are about to do something our grandparents could only dream of.

As we continue to pursue lives and careers that demand speed ahead of quality, the last few decades have seen flying quickly transition from the exotic to the routine; airports from adventure gateways to bus stations. In the process, we have created a world in which there is no viable alternative to flying – unless you’re willing (and able) to spend days or weeks on a journey that could otherwise be completed in a few hours.

Perhaps the airport has become a microcosm of modern society; where impatience permeates every aspect of our “Me First” world, where consideration for others is more often treated with suspicion than gratitude. In any case, there’s little doubt that today’s flying experience can turn even the calmest, most unassuming person into an angry, self-obsessed idiot. I know, because I’ve been that idiot.

Those who know me will attest that I’m generally relaxed, unemotional, unflappable; often to the point of appearing as if I only have a vague idea about (or interest in) what’s going on around me. Some, I’m sure, still doubt whether I have a pulse. Yet, of the few stand up arguments I’ve had in my 48 years, almost all of them have been in an airport.

After the last of these, a couple of years ago, I realized that the argument at the check-in desk didn’t change the slightest thing about my travel arrangements that day. It didn’t make me feel better, actually quite the contrary. And at least one person, who didn’t know me the day before, now wished it had stayed that way.

It was then I resolved to try to enjoy the flying experience; to even find some amusement in it. I knew that the mid-century gateway to adventure was gone, but perhaps its 21st century offspring has more entertainment to offer than meets the eye.

Before the airport, it’s hard not to laugh – in a derisive, “what-will-they-think-of-next?” way – at the airline fees. The charges for baggage, extra leg room, snacks, and blankets are annoying, no doubt, but maybe it’s time for the U.S. travelling public to realize it is not being “nickel and dimed”. This implies the fees are somehow trivial. I would suggest that “Grant and Jacksoned” is a more appropriate expression.

As the scene shifts to the airport and the front of the security check line, our first task is to make a snap judgment about the travel competency of our fellow fliers. In a choice between two lines, composition is more relevant than length. We instinctively know that a longer line of business people with laptops out, belts off, shoes in hand is far preferable to a shorter one whose occupants seem to be oblivious to the sunglasses on their heads or the large watches on their wrists – and whom we suspect are also likely to have various liquids or a small arsenal of weapons concealed in their multiple carry-on bags.

Having silently congratulated ourselves for our security check savvy, we make our way to the boarding gate. There, and usually well before any airline staff has arrived, the dance begins. Optimal positions are nonchalantly taken and gradually advanced; not so close to the gate as to arouse the derision of fellow passengers (most of whom are participating in the dance, anyway), but close enough to secure a leading place in the boarding line and, consequently, a carry-on bag’s place directly overhead.

As a member of the airline staff picks up the microphone, the previously discreet shuffle toward the gate gains momentum.

“We’ll be boarding the aircraft by zone number, which you can find on your boarding pass.” They should, of course, go on to say, “The zone number is assigned by an ancient and mysterious algorithm. Other than filling an otherwise blank space on your boarding pass, it serves no practical purpose and is inimical to an orderly boarding process. We respectfully ask you to deal with it.”

Practical purposes aside, as a strong-willed Englishman whose answer to any queue jumper is to glower ferociously at the back of the miscreant’s head, I have always thought that – however irrelevant the concept – any attempt to board the aircraft before your zone number is called should be accompanied by blaring alarms, flashing lights and, after a small delay to allow for public ridicule, a gaping trap door. Maybe one day.

It occurs to me there may be something about the boarding process that exposes some latent numerical amnesia. We are frequently reminded that we are permitted one carry-on bag and one personal item. That makes a total of two. We have the same number of hands. But count how many people don’t get that or, more likely, think they’re above that particular restriction.

Then, after the first class passengers have smugly smiled and waved their way out of sight, at the words, “We now welcome our…” chaos ensues. Throwing women and children behind them, all of the precious metal- or gemstone-level preferred travelers rush forward, accompanied by those who’ve signed up for the airline’s credit card, those born on a Tuesday and those who are just far too important to wait any longer.

Unfortunately, their path is usually blocked by the only person on the flight who doesn’t have “status” and has chosen to stand, with all of their Antarctic expedition gear, right in front of the gate.

Once aboard, and just before falling out of the rear of the aircraft, we see the middle seat that will be our home for the next few hours. Although our hopes for reasonably pleasant, non fried food eating row companions are occasionally dashed, we shall extend a curt greeting, take our seat and begin the quest for control of both armrests.

A short while after take-off, and being careful not to cede armrest domination, we turn to look out of the window. We’re five miles above an earth that is being left behind us at a rate of 500 miles per hour. Fifty years ago we may have been going a little slower (albeit in considerably more comfort), but our incredulity at what we were doing could only have been matched by how entranced we were by the view. However blasé the modern business traveler has become about flying, it’s still a remarkable thing.

4 thoughts on “The view from seat 23E

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