Remembering the Future of Flight
One thing I have done over the years is track how airports and air travel are depicted in popular culture. From TV shows and films to commercials and music, from magazine advertisements to contemporary art, such depictions can tell us a lot about what we expect from air travel in the present or how we imagine it in the future. And sometimes these fictive airports show what we may unconsciously fear we’ve lost, as flight has evolved over time.
So, for instance, you might recall that Brad Pitt starred in two big movies in 2019, the year before the pandemic: Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-winning retro film Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, and James Grey’s Ad Astra, a quiet and haunting film about a near-future space journey and a looming apocalypse. Besides having Brad Pitt as a main attraction, these films shared something else. Each one used airport scenes to set a mood and to communicate something. These brief scenes, in almost proleptic ways, can help us better understand the status of flight in the midst of the pandemic.
At one point late in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, the main characters are arriving home from a trip to Europe, and they are shown passing through the iconic mosaic-walled tunnel at LAX. First we see Leonardo DiCaprio’s main character and his wife, played by Lorenza Izzo. And then we see Brad Pitt’s supporting character bringing up the rear, pushing an absurdly piled-high cart of baggage for his boss. What was going on in this scene? On one level, it’s just more vintage eye candy, thoroughly in line with the whole movie set in 1969, and in fact a favorite background of Tarantino’s (he used the same hallway to begin his earlier film Jackie Brown). But there’s something deeper—or more on the surface, rather—that I can’t help but linger on. The airport hallway is all but empty: it accentuates the star status of the characters and makes every detail pop. In a way, this nearly empty airport scene was prescient of what was to come in early 2020.
When airports emptied almost overnight, and airliners were grounded everywhere, it seemed at first like a freak accident—how could the whole thing be so fragile, aborted so quickly? But the images captured around this time were striking, almost automatically cinematic—and, to me, they were reminiscent of what Tarantino was doing with LAX in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood.
It felt like such an anomaly that some travelers recorded their experiences on social media, like one Instagram post by artist @ryn_wilson. The post read: “This is so surreal, like a post-apocalyptic film. I pretty much got my own airport today. Thanks Coronavirus.”1 The accompanying photographs showed a nearly empty gate area, and a nearly empty plane. A black-and-white filter neatly turned the scenes into something like historic photography. Like something from another time . . . but also, our time. The empty airport, once upon a time.
The ambivalence of this post is worth reflecting on. On the one hand, the everyday traveler recognized that flight had become dysfunctional. It shouldn’t have been this way—it was “post-apocalyptic.” But on the other hand, the Instagrammer was pleasantly surprised by the empty gate area and plane, and reveling in it—even smug about the fact that they got their “own airport.”
Empty airports. Is this what we really want, when it all comes down to it? Do we want to pass through empty (or nearly empty) airports, places there just for us exclusive travelers? Imagine the relative quiet, no lines, sit where you like—none of those annoying amateur fliers or self-absorbed million-milers. Just you and your own airport, facilitating your unique journey.
That’s the wish image of airports, in some ways. I think about the empty terminal in New Orleans, before it opened. The as-yet-unused airport was stirring in all its polish and sleekness. It was also eerie—it felt wrong, somehow, to be wandering the concourses among no actual travelers. The airport opened with a few glitches, but general exuberance—it was a great new airport, and for the most part travelers loved the new restaurants, design features, and its general feel. We had no idea, then, that the airport would be nearly empty again so soon after its grand opening and a few months of record-breaking passenger counts.
These record-breaking numbers of travelers, of course, were also spreading the novel coronavirus for weeks, even months, before anyone realized it. Our new “world-class” airport was indeed performing as it promised it would: facilitating global travel, bringing tourists to town, showing off our city’s cuisine and culture—but, also, it was accommodating the virus’s own lines of flight. We wanted to see our new airport full of travelers coming and going; we didn’t anticipate that all these travelers would indirectly cause the airport to become empty again, come late March.
The dilemma is a real one. Airports need to be busy in order to survive; airlines need passenger counts to be steady, if not always on the rise. Full planes and packed terminals mean revenue is being generated. Capitalism is growing growth. But a chaotic concourse can be harsh and vaguely depressing—air travel at full throttle can also feel like capitalism hates you. So airports look and feel better when they’re emptier, but that’s precisely not what they’re made for. They’re made to maximize people coming and going—until that very maximization causes a crisis that causes it all to come screeching to a halt.
I traveled through the Charlotte airport in late January 2020—the last time I flew. I was struck by how much of a mess this airport was. The floor was in tatters, the ceiling spewed utilities, signs were taped over, extension cords were draped here and there, and the acoustics were terrible. And still, everyone plodded toward their gates. Somehow we all understood that airports are giant works in progress, always. Some airports just show this a little more, in the midst of things. It can be slightly unnerving to show up for a flight with everything in total disarray right up to the point of the actual aircraft. If you’ve ever traveled through or into a terminal renovation in process, you know the feeling I’m talking about.
We’re not done with Brad Pitt yet, though we are leaving him in the empty LAX of 1969, and finding him again around fifty years from now as an astronaut on a voyage to Neptune to retrieve his errant father, also an astronaut, played by Tommy Lee Jones. What caught my attention in Ad Astra were some early scenes that show a lunar base as, essentially, a grubby airport—not unlike the Charlotte airport as I experienced it in early 2020. There in the moon port we briefly see a DHL shipping store, a Subway, trudging passengers, garish if obscure corporate signage, and bored security personnel loitering about. The lunar base is rendered ordinary—just another cringe-worthy airport.
A few minutes earlier in the film, we see the departure back on Earth on a commercial rocket—the departure screen looking just like they do today, in LaGuardia or JFK or wherever: “GATE 4A . . . ON TIME . . . BOARDING at 16:00”—even a diagram of the rocket, so similar to how it might look when you see if you’re flying an Airbus A320 or a Boeing 737. If you look very closely at this sign, you’ll even notice that it’s a branded trip: it’s run by Virgin Atlantic. (It’s hard to tell whether this appearance is intended as another branding shout-out or just an oversight in otherwise careful editing.)
When the passenger capsule arrives at the moon, its landing is completely normalized. Reaching out to the capsule is a familiar object: a jet bridge. I’ve been endlessly fascinated with these things, as they are the awkward in-between zones where you’re neither in the airport, nor in the airplane.
These corridors are forgettable spaces, merely there to be passed through. (I can’t imagine what social distancing has felt like in jet bridges—not easy or reassuring, I would guess.) We don’t typically think of jet bridges as futuristic or as such an integral part of flight, which is why I always take note when they appear—whether in films or in other contexts.
When headlines were abuzz with news of that ultra-efficient Flying-V aircraft I wrote about earlier, I couldn’t help but notice something in the concept illustrations: they had to show the plane hooked up to a jet bridge, as if to authenticate its proximity to actual reality. As if by adding that one design element, so common and trusted and overlooked, we could just imagine and wish our way to this new, greener plane.
And then there’s Elon Musk. His successful May 2020 Crew Dragon launch, in partnership with NASA, utilized (and was staged and photographed from the vantage of) the astronauts’ own jet bridge. Once again, what we see is an attempt to normalize what SpaceX also wanted to champion as a major achievement: sending American astronauts to space in an American vehicle, launched from American soil—a feat that hadn’t been done since 2011. And it was a major achievement. The lift-off was elegant and inspiring. (And the return, a few months later, no less so.)
But that jet bridge! It just made it seem so blasé. Interestingly, Musk himself has insisted time and again that the goal of SpaceX is precisely to make space travel as common and reliable as commercial air travel. For Musk, it is realistic and desirable to use the norms and expectations of commercial air travel to sell humans on far more risky, costly, and exclusive ventures: to the moon, and then to Mars, and then . . . beyond?
There’s almost nothing so static in air travel over the past sixty-five years as the jet bridge. It’s there, ready to board us onto the plane, and ready again to deplane us at our destinations. We learn how to move through these things unconsciously, lining up, inching forward, maneuvering our roller-bags . . . we rarely talk about them, but jet bridges are critical to the whole operation.
So in some ways, SpaceX’s use of the perspective from the jet bridge is no surprise and is even tactical. And yet. I can’t help but wonder how this recourse to the old form—the jet bridge—keeps things in a vicious cycle, rather than ushering in something revolutionary, something truly different. Commercial flight has been caught in this loop for some time—at least since Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which depicted an orbiting space station with a relatively subdued waiting lounge. Even if jazzed up with bold color and high-modern design, it was still not so different from an everyday airport, with a hotel attached and plenty of seating for waiting passengers. The cushy red seats in that space station communicated everything: It all comes down to time to wait. (And if you can recall that scene, it almost looks like Kubrick anticipated social distancing, too!)
Similarly, the Pan-Am Space Clipper that transported the characters was another throwback—or forward—to our banal airliners. Sure, it’s beyond Earth’s atmosphere and headed to a space station, but it’s basically like taking a transcontinental flight—window seats, cabin service, some time to recline your seat and doze. . . . Like in Ad Astra, it’s as if science fiction can’t quite cut its ties to these recurring themes and forms.
Commercial air travel has become caught in a sort of temporal bind. We know we need to move forward into the future, to change things for the better—and yet we seem stuck in certain ideas and shapes of the past. There is an old carpet in the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport that reminds me of this predicament: It depicts abstract airliners in interlinking and concentric—but perpetually closed—circles. We think we’re taking flights ever forward, but we’re really going around and around, bound to a past we can’t seem to shake.
And there are a lot of things in the history of aviation worth marveling at, and celebrating. This is why many airports feature exhibits and displays that do justice to historic milestones in flight, such as Charles Lindbergh’s planes hanging from the ceilings of St. Louis’s Lambert airport. Or in the case of San Francisco International, the airport houses a brilliantly curated aviation museum and library. These examples celebrate the past of air travel, the triumphs and technological advances that we might indeed keep in mind as we ourselves pass through concourses and are lifted into the air.
Compare those two examples with a display I spotted in Washington Dulles in early 2019: “NASA and Dulles International are improving flight for you”—so reads a small mural positioned on the outside of a children’s play area. It makes overtures to an alternative future of flight: there’s a V-wing aircraft on the left, reminiscent of the Flying-V design and expected to make significant gains with respect to fuel efficiency. Then there’s a diverse group of children in the center, holding kites, in a gesture toward renewable sources of energy—wind power, in this case. In the upper right, a fairly standard twin-engine airliner prepares to land. And all around, a verdant landscape reaches to the horizon.
While the poster is mostly whimsical, and light on persuasive complexity, it is nevertheless noteworthy for its focus on a future generation and (some) new modes of aviation. The language on the mural even states this directly: the airport is interested in the improvement of flight. Now this may just mean having a dedicated play area for children in the airport—which is a good idea!—but I can’t help but detect grander ambitions at work.
But just what might such grander ambitions be, when the existing patterns that dictate air travel seem so set and established? The structures and routines of flight are fairly rigid and fixed, and for good reason: safety, predictability, consistency are of utmost importance.
How can human aviation advance technologically—even dramatically so—while aircraft manufacturers and airport infrastructure projects are dedicated to the continuation of flight essentially as is? In other words—and to stress a crucial point—aircraft manufacturers and airlines are designing, building, and using planes made to last thirty, forty, fifty years. Airport renovation and construction endeavors are likewise undertaken with several decades in mind. What impetus is there, really, for fundamental change?
Contemporary air travelers do not want to be surprised by new experiences in airports or to buy tickets to fly on experimental aircraft. For the past fifteen years or so, passengers and airlines did not expect air travel to change drastically. No one wanted such a drastic change, really.
And then came the novel coronavirus, and the pandemic that all but shut down commercial flight for several months. It was a shock to the system. Empty airports quickly stopped being novelties and became instead flashing economic warning signs. Planes were grounded in spectacular formations, showing in rare form the immense scale of this enterprise we call flight.
Niall Ferguson, in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece on March 8, called COVID-19’s spread “a perfect illustration of the vulnerability and fragility of our networked world.”2 The illustration above this piece was oddly playful: bulbous little airliners zipping around the sky, with a cartoonish, human-face-sized coronavirus sitting in a window seat of one plane, flying along with normal human passengers.
Ferguson’s observations in this piece were largely correct, but throughout the spring there was a sort of cultural schizophrenia about the role that air travel played in relation to the pandemic. Airline executives urged travelers to stay safe but keep flying. President Trump limited air travel from certain places, thereby acknowledging the gravity of the situation, but as air travel continued at a frantic pace throughout the country (not to mention much of the world) through the early spring, the pandemic was exacerbated. Airplanes and airports were undoubtedly significant superspreaders. Still, we kept flying.
New aircraft cleaning procedures were put in place, if inconsistently. “Fogging” became almost a meme, as if to reassure travelers that planes could be so thoroughly disinfected between flights. (Having cleaned planes between flights myself, I can assure you that it’s almost always a harried exercise in futility.)
Passengers who had always obsessively wiped down their seatback tray tables and armrests proved to be ahead of the times; now everyone was doing it. (Or, all six people on a 150-passenger plane, anyway.) Empty planes are better for social distancing, but economically not very viable for airlines—not for long anyway. And some planes during the pandemic were ending up chock-full of passengers, with no firm guidelines in terms of social distancing or mask wearing—making a mockery of the very protocols that all but certainly saved millions of lives.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurial visionaries propose cheery alternative configurations for aircraft seating so as to reduce the risk of viral spread—like one concept for a new seating arrangement, by AvioInteriors. The idea was that by sitting in staggered formation, face to face, with curving transparent plastic walls between each passenger, the problem could be solved. But as some early critics pointed out, it might be a little too awkward to be basically staring at your seatmate’s face a few inches away, for an entire flight. An early design brief showed one masked passenger, and another unmasked—the unmasked traveler smiling happily. This image belied something more troubling about how democratic commercial flight promises to welcome and accept a range of travelers and their varying individual values and beliefs; but when it comes to a virus, there are limits to how such values and beliefs can (or can’t) coexist in such close proximity.
It may be tempting to think that this will all blow over, that soon the masks and face shields and constant hand sanitizing will become relics of the past. Commercial air travel has felt like such a constant, for so long, for so many of us. Even if we only fly once a year or less, we would know basically what to expect. Is it really possible that the entire system has been so disrupted—and will remain disrupted for a long time, even to the point of having to change in ways we can’t yet imagine?
If you are convinced that this is only a temporary blip, and that we’ll be back in the friendly skies in a matter of months or a year, consider that nearly twenty years after September 11, 2001, we’re still trudging through an entirely changed security screening process, procedures and rules that were adopted in response to the terrorist attacks of that day and several threats in the months after. Most of us still take off our shoes to pass through security (talk about unhygienic), after one failed attempt at shoe-bombing a plane in December 2001. Many of us still travel with miniscule bottles of shampoo and conditioner and toothpaste, after rumors and reports concerning possible liquid bombs. We submit to having our bodies sprayed with small doses of radiation, hands in the air.
The atrocities of the 9/11 attacks were of course serious, but we should ask what a proportionate response may be in 2021 and beyond, after hundreds of thousands of COVID-related deaths and newly awakened awareness—if not outright fear—of the likelihood of a next pandemic.
The truth is, air travel occupies an exceptional place in the world—and especially in the most developed parts of the world. Almost no other place is protected like an airport. Not shopping malls, not Costcos or Home Depots, not school buildings or college campuses, not bustling office parks, not churches or synagogues or temples, not concert halls or museums . . . not even movie theaters. Airports are privileged zones of exception, and they are guarded as such. The reason is a combination of air travel being such a functional part of global capitalism, as well as flight being symbolic of human progress on a more transcendental level.
So when it comes to thinking about the long-range effects of the pandemic on air travel, we have to keep in mind how uniquely vulnerable flight is—and how implicated airplanes become in a viral spread.
It’s worth noting how the coronavirus has been described as ‘hijacking’ human cells. This is how an infographic that accompanied a New York Times article in March put it: “How coronavirus hijacks your cells.”3 That metaphor is of course borrowed from air travel and terrorism: airplanes are hijacked. If that’s how we understand the virus, you can be sure the domain of flight itself will take this threat seriously as such.
In early June 2020, American Airlines sent out a news release announcing “A New Look for New York: American Airlines Welcomes Customers to a Reimagined Arrivals and Departures Hall at LaGuardia Airport.”4 It was an odd document, part a celebration of a new terminal at a widely reviled airport, and part an acknowledgment of the radically changed landscape with fewer people flying, and those who are flying more conscious than ever of personal risk and public health. The announcement featured three photographs of the new terminal, and they were revealing.
The first photograph showed off the new departures area, with check-in kiosks spaced out responsibly and hand-wipe stations prominent. Intriguingly—and an all-too-familiar theme, by now—the space was empty. No airline workers ready to serve, no travelers in action. It was another empty airport, directly through the first sliding doors.
The second photograph was of the baggage claim, with an “I ♥︎ NY” sign and a piece of “custom artwork” hanging from the ceiling. Again, not a soul could be seen in this sparkling space. I want to bring us back to my earlier question: Do we want airports to be empty? Are they best seen and experienced this way? Or does such imagery cast airports wrongly as an impossibly rarified experience—and as such, as an unsustainable enterprise?
The third photograph returned to the arrivals and departures hall—and we finally were presented with a human. A human wearing a mask. The pandemic strikes back. This image also featured another view of the suspended artwork, from straight on—a form that uncannily resembles a coronavirus! At least I couldn’t help but see a vague resemblance to this now so commonly represented shape. Am I stretching things a bit, has my imagination got the better of me? Maybe. But we’ve been inundated by apparitions of this spherical, spiky form.
I feel like I saw one particular image ten times a day throughout the spring—it was the go-to coronavirus image, red and grey on a dark background. CNN even used it to advertise a coronavirus “fact vs. fiction” podcast . . . right beneath an ad featuring none other than—Brad Pitt! Perpetual flight always comes full circle.
Back in LaGuardia, American Airlines attempts to adjust to this new normal, tries to win back customers, and tries to help us make sense of the future to come.
But if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t really know, yet, what this will entail. Will the virus be vanquished and air travel restored to its full splendor? I don’t think it will be that easy or that clear. Especially now that the realities of living in a viral, networked world have been made so plain, and so real, for so many.
Will as many people want to travel, if it means getting temperature scanned when passing through, and perhaps having to show health papers? If it means not knowing if you’re going to have a plane to yourself, or be scrunched in next to a possibly contagious seatmate? If it means having to wear a mask, or at least having to have one on hand, in case? If it means having your flight suddenly rerouted if a fellow passenger falls ill midair?
And in the meantime, for how long will airlines be able to hobble along with planes that are nearly empty? Will airlines begin to consolidate or merge, and what will happen to air fares and amenities as these shifts take place? Airlines won’t show their cards to the public until things get really bad—we don’t know yet which airlines are tipping on the edge of solvency and which might no longer exist in a few months, or a year. I remember watching vibrant red Northwest planes fly in and out of Bozeman—now just a memory. Northwest was absorbed by Delta in 2008, many of their jets lying in airplane graveyards. These things happen fast, and then we tend to forget about them. We’re likely on the verge of major changes with regard to airlines as we know them today.
Could this moment usher in new interest and investment in high-speed rail, particularly in the United States, as a more grounded alternative to air travel? Will people recommit to more local, closer adventures? What are other potential upsides of a collective, newfound wariness of flight?
As I was finishing this book, CNN featured an article that asked whether it was safer to fly or drive during the pandemic. The lead image that accompanied the piece, of masked passengers in an airliner with empty middle seats, seemed to nudge readers toward flight. The article was basically a prosaic shrug: It all depends. Weigh the pros and cons, figure out which is going to involve more exposure, and decide what makes the most sense for you.
But remember our superorganism status: Every single individual decision, taken collectively, affects the whole. Each passenger who chooses to fly amplifies the effects of flight. This was always true; now it’s just been made more obvious and public, with the realities of a disease that we still are learning about and for which we have no vaccine.
You might choose to fly during this time, and statistically speaking, you will probably be fine. But it’s not just a personal risk. Every person who flies in the coming months and years contributes to the exponential potential of viral spread: airports and airplanes are unavoidably “high touch” zones, where viruses can thrive—fogging and hand sanitizing stations notwithstanding. As more people take to the air again, the risks ripple outward, around the planet. Right now, we can grasp this as a public health matter. But there are other economic and environmental ripple effects, as well, that we will have to contend with in the coming years. A pandemic is just one of several imminent calamities in store, if we keep going this way.
What would it mean for people to deliberately choose to fly less often? How could this change business practices, tourism, and family trips—possibly in ways we might benefit from? Could commercial flight be reconceived as an enterprise with 90 percent less demand and supply, and end up better for it? I think these are real questions worth asking ourselves.
Whatever happens, air travel has probably changed definitively. And it will probably keep changing into the next several years—in ways we can’t yet imagine. The downside of this is that we can’t expect it all to return to “normal,” whatever that felt like for the past several decades.
The upshot, though, is that we can be a part of this time of great change, and we can help shape what this change looks like and means for our species—and for our world.