REMEMBER WHEN I visited the empty New Orleans airport? Well, it was empty of travelers, anyway. During that open house I still remember glancing over at the new consolidated security checkpoint as we walked through the parallel hallway—X-ray machines half-assembled, shrink-wrapped body scanners lying on the floor. I recall thinking that the security checkpoint was going to get choked during holiday travel periods. What I didn’t anticipate was that the security checkpoint might in fact become empty again all too soon, for very different reasons.
A funny thing about that open house was how pleasant it was. At one point Julien and I ran into some friends from his school and chatted with them for a while. People were ambling about unhurriedly, marveling at the restaurants not yet open and trying out the new seats in their familiar rows. People gazed out the plate-glass windows at the tarmac—no airplanes in the immediate vicinity. This wasn’t an airport empty of people but empty of flight. And it seemed to be almost better for it.
In early 2020, as news of the novel coronavirus spread, we began to see occasional photographs of empty airports in different parts of the world. Then abruptly in the images changed dramatically: they became pictures of jam-packed terminals,1 snaking lines representing the terrifying “superspreader” potential of the virus.2 Air travel was being massively disrupted as people rushed to get home, before travel was further restricted and borders closed, before flights were canceled. Teeming with frantic passengers and chaos one week, the following week found airports quite empty once again, a different kind of disorder.
Think of the last time you had a perfect flight experience.
You probably breezed through security without having to wait even a minute. Your departure gate was uncrowded, and when you needed to plug in your phone, you had your choice of a dozen outlets in the vicinity. Boarding went so fast that the plane was ready to leave a few minutes early; you even had a whole row to yourself. The flight attendants lavished you with drinks and snacks, cracking jokes about the not even half-full plane. The captain, too, remarked over the intercom on how the skies were even friendlier than normal, with the plane so empty. Deplaning was relaxed, and the terminal on the other end of the journey was equally tranquil—almost a ghost town, but not in a haunting way. Your rental car keys were waiting for you, and you sped away from the airport a successful and thoroughly appeased modern passenger.
The sight of an empty airport can offer the promise of a smooth trip. But empty airports lately have portended something very different: the wholesale shuddering of this vast, elaborate enterprise called flight.
This state of affairs was made vivid by photographs of empty airports accompanying coronavirus-themed headlines—perhaps most chillingly at The Atlantic with an article titled “Cancel Everything.”3 The novel coronavirus took a toll on the commercial aviation sector, spurring airlines to ground planes, curb their economic outlooks, accommodate swells of itinerary cancellations and changes, and plead for passengers to remain loyal through these turbulent times. Meanwhile, the federal government doled a massive bailout to the airlines for the whole fiasco.
In a March 9 email to SkyMiles members, Delta CEO Ed Bastian stated that “travel is fundamental to our business and our lives, which is why it can’t—and shouldn’t—simply stop.” It was a subtle but shrewd move, this lumping together of can’t and shouldn’t, therein leaving open the troubling possibility of either/or. Because of course air travel already had stopped in many regions around the globe, from many flights in the United Kingdom and Europe4 to a slew of flights going in and out of Australia,5 even as passengers still hurried to get back home, wherever that was for them.
Any other time we might have welcomed the quietude descending on these raucous social nodes. Air travel is often the worst for passengers when it’s busiest: cramped aircraft cabins, long lines at check-in or security, the exhausted scrum of baggage claim during peak travel times. . . . When it’s empty, or nearly so, an airport can inspire sensations of individual freedom and mobility unparalleled. The vaulted ceilings feel even higher, and the airplanes all seem there just for you.
The empty airport, then, has a strange doubleness to it. Such a space can represent the wish image of air travel: a personalized adventure, the individuated feeling of being spirited up and across a continent or ocean with no apparent obstacles. But a deserted security checkpoint can also signify something quite different. It underscores the baseline fragility and collectivity of our interconnected and networked world, where something as small and site-specific as a novel virus can travel fast and thereby ensnarl—and threaten to terminate—the whole system.
One of the more horrifying stories to circulate over those early weeks of the pandemic had to do with so called “ghost flights,” or how airlines were flying empty planes on their routes in order to keep their takeoff and landing spots at coveted airports.6 While some airports sat uncomfortably desolate on the ground, corollary empty jetliners whizzed far above. This particular practice was quickly called into question and in some cases halted, but still countless planes flew mostly empty through the skies as the last travelers raced home. Right at the time that I was originally writing about this, my university issued a statement prohibiting all faculty and staff from international travel as well as all “official non-crucial domestic air travel” until further notice. We were effectively grounded.
Amid all this, the Delta website posted a new page dedicated to “Six ways Delta is supporting healthy flying.”7 A list of “proactive and voluntary steps” covered the basics of personal hygiene and collective well-being necessary for this moment. An architectural rendering of a modern terminal appeared at the top of the page, generic travelers looking unconcerned and on their way. There were no signs of the COVID-19 pandemic in this fictive, robust airport.
Yet the spectral empty airports, slapdash travel bans, and consuming ghost planes all raised serious questions: What if flying was not healthy, period? What if we were discovering, through this drawn-out period of uncertainty, that air travel on the magnitude that we have achieved is riddled with unhealthy, disastrous side effects?
In all the empty airports a rift was exposed: between humble continuance and sheer economic growth. Air travel could potentially be calibrated to a more modest level that would be less ecologically destructive and make it easier to stem future outbreaks. But airlines and airports are driven by a model of constant expansion such that any decrease in flights is immediately felt as a loss (and a staggering loss, in this case). The empty airport became a sort of zero level of this dilemma, signifying the deep contradiction within modern flight. Given certain circumstances, such as the spread of the novel coronavirus, this form of transportation was not just shown to be unsustainable but was abandoned in a flash: Its voracious capacity is its very downfall.
President Trump’s belated call for Americans to keep gatherings to ten people or less effectively shut down commercial flight: It was impossible to conceive of airport lines or cost-effective airliners operating under that dictum.8 And no matter the magnitude of governmental aid, air travel would not easily bounce back; a reckoning was happening.
What could we do with empty airports? How could we re-inhabit these spaces, once the novel coronavirus has run its course? These questions are very much open, for now.
Climate activist Greta Thunberg brought our attention to the folly of air travel and its significant role in our planetary predicament. But politicians, pundits, and frequent travelers could brush off a lone teen easily enough. Now in the ongoing time of COVID-19, we are being forced to pause and seriously reconsider this modality of transit, commercial flight and all its spoils.