“You’re sitting in a chair in the sky” and other plane truths

I’m not what you’d call a frequent flyer. Unlike my globe-trotting chums, Cathy and Tonya, who have travelled to more of the world than I will ever see – and my colleague, Bill, who has been known to facilitate a morning workshop in Burnaby, then high-tail to the airport at noon to catch a flight to Kenya for a gig the following day – I am a homebody. That said, this year I’ve racked up a few cloud miles, with return flights to Phoenix, Dallas, Charleston and Calgary. Eight flights a year is a modest sampling to be sure, but enough I think to make this buckle-up and breathless (grab your oxygen mask!) pronouncement: plane travel may not be perfect but it is still pretty damn amazing.

Many passengers at the airport. Back view.Google “airline travel complaints” or “flight from hell” and you’ll find a jumbo jetful of entries: passengers screeching about everything from cramped conditions and surly flight attendants to security pat-downs and lousy food (for which they paid extra). People kvetch about other passengers, too: the seatmate who talks or drinks too much, the inconsiderate doofus who reclines his seat onto their lap moments after takeoff, the smelly snacks folks bring on board and so on. More recently, there’s a collective disgust levelled at those trying to avoid the extra baggage fees: they overpack their carry-ons, necessitating a clean-and-jerk maneuver to hoist the bloated behemoth and the deft hands of a flight attendant to mash it into the overhead bin – while trying not to crush another schmuck’s souvenir sombrero.

The overall theme of travellers’ complaints is being charged more for less comfort and fewer services. In a scathing indictment of modern air travel, journalist Christopher Moraff recently wrote: “Flying has become a necessary evil, a special circle in Hell where penitents are forced to pay for the privilege of enduring austere regulations, humiliating security procedures, cramped seats, high fees and the loss of amenities – such as hot meals, cocktails and in-flight entertainment – that were once de rigueur.” Without question, the whole messy business of flying anywhere is exhausting and can summon the bear in even the most patient soul.

But if we all could stop crabbing about flying the unfriendly skies for just a few moments, maybe we’d appreciate that with all the flights going on every day all over the world, 99.9999% of us get to our destination on time – and safely. The incidence of plane mishaps is exceedingly small. So what if the trade-off for a safe flight is the temporary nuisance of enduring a few hours of Moraff’s “circle of Hell”? True, he’d had a particularly ghastly experience that prompted his rant, but let’s put it in perspective: he was inconvenienced. He wasn’t tortured.

Hombre volando con alas artificialesComic Louis C.K. marvels at today’s technology and wonders aloud how the Wright brothers might react to people complaining about air travel: “I had to sit on the runway for 40 minutes. Oh my god, really? What happened then, did you fly through the air like a bird, incredibly? Did you soar into the clouds, impossibly? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight and then land softly on giant tires that you couldn’t even conceive how they f**king put air in them? You’re sitting in a chair in the sky. You’re like a Greek myth right now.”

I’m with you, Louis. Every takeoff gives me a rush. And when I’m in that tube hurtling 600 miles per hour at 30,000 feet, gazing out the window and down at the mountains and the polka dot pattern of houses below, I experience chills. How can one not be amazed (and grateful?) at the sheer magic of soaring over an ocean and mere hours later, arriving somewhere that less than 100 years ago would have taken weeks – and a journey by boat! Capped off with a beautifully executed landing and the wind roaring through the flaps – mind blown. While some aspects of getting from here to there definitely try our patience, I haven’t lost sight of the wild phenomenon of actually being airborne.

Perhaps part of that awe can be explained by a personal connection to an early space pioneer. My late Uncle Gordon Oates – my dad’s brother – was a distinguished professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the University of Washington. Ranked in the top five in the world in the elite field of jet propulsion, his list of published books and papers on the topic fills five pages. His seminal book, “Aerothermodynamics of Gas Turbine and Rocket Propulsion” is a standard text in more than 100 American universities. My uncle tutored Canada’s first astronaut, Marc Garneau. You couldn’t say, “it’s not rocket science” to Gordon – because it, in fact, was! An extraordinary mind and humble scientist was my Uncle Gordon. So, when the stewpot topic of air travel comes up or I find myself irritated by long line-ups and the pushy great unwashed at the airport, I have to remind myself that if it wasn’t for the vision of this brilliant man – and others like him – I wouldn’t be soaring from Vancouver to London like a modern day Icarus.

Superhero business man flying with jet pack rocket above the city conceptSeth Godin – entrepreneur, thought leader, author – recently mused: Two hundred years ago, we had great-great-greats who lived in the dark, without much in the way of healthcare, commerce or opportunity. Today, we complain that the MRI was chilly, or that the wifi on the transatlantic plane wasn’t fast enough or that there’s nothing new going on at the mall. It’s human nature to recalibrate. But maybe it’s worth fighting that off, for an hour or even a day. The world around us is uneven, unfair and yes, absolutely, over-the-top amazing.” True that.

On our Westjet flight home to Vancouver from Phoenix in early December, the head flight attendant – a Santa hat playfully perched on his head – kept antsy passengers distracted and chuckling. Announcements such as, “There are two lavatories, one at the front and one at the rear. We don’t call them bathrooms because they’re not really rooms and there’s no bath” and “Speaking of baggage, let’s face it, we all have baggage” turned frowns upside down. Because can’t we all agree that life’s too short to spend it grumbling? Or said another way, time flies.

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