IF WE HAVE BECOME inured to aviation metaphors as slimy business-speak, then it’s no wonder that we’re so desperate for any sign of good news from the sky, any hint that things are getting better up in the clouds and on the runways.
After a tough year in aviation in 2018—the grounding of the 737 MAX after two fatal crashes,1 the crashing of airline computer systems across the United States,2 the announcement of the end of the superjumbo A3803—in 2019 we needed some good news about commercial flight. And that summer, the good news arrived in the form of a revolutionary future airliner.
In early June 2019, CNN swooned over the story of an innovative airplane design called the Flying-V, which was being funded by the Amsterdam-based KLM.4 This was to be an airliner with a titillating new shape, summed up by its eponymous letter. According to early reports, the Flying-V would match the capacity of current widebody jetliners such as the A350 and Boeing 787, but with a twist. The new plane proposed a novel experience of commercial flight: Two aisles running down two separate fuselages which comprise the wings themselves (never mind that half the window seats will not be. Instead, a wall will be there; claustrophobic travelers beware).
The idea of a V-shaped plane is not exactly new, but KLM has indicated fresh interest in making this geometry the vanguard in commercial flight.5 Notably, the Flying-V promises greater fuel efficiency by harnessing “synergy” between the wings and the body of the plane. Outlets from Boing Boing6 and Travel + Leisure7 to Maxim8 latched onto this story, quoting and requoting copy and recycling striking illustrations of the concept plane—as if it were already hooked up to a jet bridge and ready for passengers. Ready to fly.
But there’s a curious thing about the Flying-V. All this buzz around a futuristic aircraft really is not about transportation goals, much less a revolution in commercial aviation. Rather, the Flying-V is a totem of the Anthropocene—our current turning point in geological history, an inflection defined by destructive human impact.9
Even the casual reader cannot miss how the reporting of the Flying-V was consistently framed around a frantic desire for the sustainability of commercial flight. Every article highlighted how the new aircraft promises up to 20 percent greater fuel efficiency, and multiple articles noted global CO2 emissions by way of celebrating the new design. The subtext of all this reporting was that air travel as we knew it wreaks havoc on the environment. The Flying-V stories were like a classic instance of literary apophasis: I’m NOT going to tell you how bad for the environment our old airliners are. . . . The bad effects are evident from the interruption of bird and insect migration routes, to carbon emissions in the atmosphere and voracious fossil fuel consumption. Front-page news items about the Flying-V all but admit that air travel is exorbitantly wasteful, and all but certainly reaching a crisis point.
And yet, in these stories commercial flight also seems paradoxically determined to metastasize.
The story of the Flying-V turns out to be fixated on an alternative present, even as it alleges to be about a sustainable future form of flight, in “20 to 30 years.” As such, this imaginary airplane is also about our inability to conceptualize the Anthropocene as a real problem that we must engage right now. And not just through a technological quick fix or slight adjustment to an existing situation. Rather, the Anthropocene requires humans on a large scale to respond radically, through an entire realignment of how our species understands itself and interacts with the planet and its myriad other inhabitants.
Given the realities of commercial aircraft these days—the stubborn rivalry of the twin workhorses the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737; the trembling of the still-grounded 737 MAX (not coincidentally also sold on a promise of greater fuel efficiency); the end of jumbo jets; the elusive return of supersonic travel on a mass scale—we have reason to be seriously skeptical of any venture that would significantly change the shape of commercial aircraft. Commercial air travel as we know it is too entrenched and is settling down ever deeper into a sheer monotype: twin-engine airliners, small-to-medium size, geared to worldwide productivity. Costs and time of retraining are prohibitive factors to any serious reimagining of flight.
And speaking of costs: The fine print of the Flying-V news went on to explain that this isn’t a “new plane” at all—at least, not yet. Rather, the reality is that a certain large company (KLM) was funding research and design for the idea of a new plane. The verb funding was key, and why some environmental thinkers prefer the name Capitalocene for our current epoch: this name puts a point on the fantasy of vast amounts of capital accumulated by multinational conglomerates or powerful sole owners, capital that then might be channeled in just the right way, as if to magically and precisely fix the problems borne by modernity.10
Of course, capital doesn’t work like this, as if it can jump the future or snap its fingers and get something done at once (build a wall, invent a new plane, provide Wi-Fi for all, go to Mars). No, capital spreads out but gets unevenly distributed; it exploits many people while elevating a very few. Capital builds on itself but not with any other goal in mind. Capital doesn’t care about sustainability but only about amassing frantically, while it can. Or put another way, while air travel is concerned with real origins and destinations, capital doesn’t need to go anywhere in order to develop. Maybe it doesn’t even need a world at all.
Finally, we must talk about the name: Flying-V. This appellation, referencing a Gibson “Flying-V” electric guitar, aestheticizes the airplane—and renders the whole enterprise akin to glam entertainment. The name conjures Lenny Kravitz, or maybe Eddie Van Halen, at some epic show in the past. As if this is all just a flashy rock concert, a mass spectacle that we might wake up from tomorrow morning, hung over and saying what a great time it was. And in a sense, it was.
As another piece of mere clickbait—a brief piece of quasi-news that circulated online for a day or two, something to be distracted by for a few minutes, forward on to a friend or two, sneer at or be amazed by—the Flying-V story becomes part of the Anthropocene in another way. It is evidence of the weirdly timeless drift of the internet, the lazy yet relentless expansion of circuits and devices, nodes and wires, screens and buttons, satellites and cell towers: all the infrastructure and apparatus that pins us to this place and time while we simultaneously confront the horror of a horizon past which all these things will become obsolete, the internet a fading memory of a past of seeming plenty. Where we cataloged all our hopes and fears, where we even stored our airplanes of the future, airplanes that would show that we’d learned and adjusted our behaviors to live more sensitively in the world.
But it turned out we were only hastening the world’s end as we knew it, by insisting that everything remain the same . . . even as we thought we were planning a better future way of flying, of living.