People travel by air from business affair to business affair, literally and repeatedly leaving behind the notion of being rooted in a single place for any indeterminate span of time. This is a way of living for a population of transient professionals, whose lives are divided into mini-chapters, opening and closing with airborne views over cities seen in miniature, and buffered by time spent in the raspy, captive climate of airplane cabins.
Earlier this summer, I met a Westerner in Asia who hadn’t been home in nearly two months. He’d been on a string of digressing business trips for weeks, starting off in California, and bouncing through Australia, Singapore, China and Japan. His home, when he was at home, was Denver, Colorado, so chosen because of its convenient location in the geographic center of the continental United States. "It works out great," he explained, "because when I travel from coast to coast, I can always stop off quickly at my apartment to pick up a change of clothes."
I’ve had a taste of that this year, but I defer über-traveler status to him and those like him. I couldn’t credibly lay claim to being a true world-class globetrotter, in spite of the fact that my frequent flyer mileage accounts have ballooned since January.
Part of the reason is that I still take at least some romantic joy in travel, or at least in the opportunities I’ve had to see corners of the Earth I otherwise might have missed. When airplanes land, the world opens up and there’s a thrilling, revelatory quality to living. Sometimes, reeling sleeplessly from jet lag in hotel rooms, I’ll pull out my passport and thumb through it happily. My first passport, issued to me at age fourteen, never lost the stiffness in its spine nor the crispness in its pages (it only ever saw action twice). This one is growing lovably dog-eared, warped into a shape that slips snugly into the back pocket of my blue jeans. I take great delight in the paper ruptures left by visas once attached by staples and since reclaimed, and the haphazard, inky impressions left by the official stamps of immigration officers. Nearly half of the pages have been marked in this way, and I suppose a more cynical, world-weary traveler would look back upon these stamps like an exhausting record of laborious errands. There’s still a bright-eyed, eager kid inside of me though, and he sees a half-written book — the virgin pages aren’t empty, they just haven’t been filled yet.
“I still take at least some joy in travel. When airplanes land, the world opens up.”
There’s a dark side of traveling, of course, and it’s defined by degrees of tedium. I made three or four trips to Southeast Asia this year, which is, as they say, about as far away from New York as one can go before starting to come back home again. Each trip entails an exhausting, lengthy series of flights (it’s always more than one flight), and whether you choose to go East (across the Atlantic and through Europe) or West (across the continental U.S., over the Pacific and through Japan or Hong Kong), you’ll have expended roughly twenty-three hours of your life in the process.
You can call this part of traveling air time, hours spent actually flying. With some effort, a laptop and plenty of distractions packed in my carry-on bags, it’s possible to build a tolerance to air time. What it takes is a resignation of yourself to the hopelessness of vast distances. Forget about how ridiculously long it takes you to get there and you’ll be there before you know it.
Air time, unfortunately, doesn’t happen without a nontrivial and often disproportionate investment of ground time, which is an altogether more awful degree of tedium. Any time you might spend in order to fly — though not time spent actually flying — qualifies. This includes the sometimes stressful negotiation of traffic on the way to the airport, and the often frustratingly lackadaisical drive to any given post-landing destination.
Mostly though, ground time can be defined as any hours or effort spent at the mercy of the infuriating inefficiencies of the airline industry. This is the part of traveling that I hate passionately. I’m talking about sprawling, poorly managed lines at ticket counters or boarding gates. Or plodding, interminable waits on the runway, cooped up inside claustrophobia-inducing airplanes as air traffic control nudges them slowly towards takeoff. There’s customs checks and passport controls too, and the eye-glazing monotony of luggage carousels. And that’s just when things go right — it takes a feat of superhuman endurance to maintain patience in the face of the industry’s innumerable screw-ups: poorly timed connections, mechanical delays, employee strikes, surly and unresponsive staff, misrouted luggage
the list goes on. Honestly, there can’t possibly be very many customer experiences that are more consistently dissatisfying.
“There’s air time, or time actually spent flying. And then there’s ground time, an entirely different degree of tedium.”
I first started writing this essay as I left on a business trip to Atlanta, spurred on by frustrations like these as I tried in vain to get off the ground in a timely manner on a Wednesday evening. So I was writing with a bit of vitriol at the time. A few days later, in the air again and on my way back to New York, I started to edit what I’d written. I began to think that my frustration was perhaps exaggerated. Was the airline industry really that bad? Maybe, I thought, I should tone the language down a notch or two.
Then my plane touched down again at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. The flight was on-time but for some reason the ground traffic was backed up, and for over forty minutes our plane queued in line to get to the terminal. As we made our way towards our gate at a snail’s pace, my frustration returned in corresponding measures. The captain came on the intercom and explained our delay was caused by an incident’ that had occurred between two planes. All sorts of crazy conclusions appeared in my head: engine failures, terrorist acts, natural disasters.
After a while, we slowly taxied past said incident: two airplanes had collided into one another. But the way they’d done it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as I’d been imagining. There was no air crash, no disastrous explosions or loss of life (thankfully). Rather, while leaving their respective gates — which were adjacent to one another — two passenger planes had somehow, idiotically, ridiculously backed into one another, the way that automobiles might do while hastily leaving their parking slots. They sat there now, with their rear-ends collided, like a pair of dimwitted football players who’d somehow managed to super-glue their asses together.