What keeps planes in the air?

by Bryan

What keeps planes in the air? Yeah, yeah, hydraulics, geometry, combustion and speed. That’s not what I mean.

What I mean is: Why do we fly?

That question has long had two answers: Business or pleasure. Apparently they used to ask which it was at ticket counters, and they still ask it at Customs. The question is really: “What in God’s name is so important that you need to leave God’s Green Earth for a few hours to get there?”

Airlines don’t really make money, and when they do it’s on the backs of wealthy corporations that pay egregious sums for last-minute and first-class seats that effectively subsidize the entire enterprise. Often it’s not the corporations themselves that do this subsidizing, but the people who work there who are otherwise egregiously compensated and think flying coach class is for rodents, and they buy overpriced seats, thereby subsidizing the whole enterprise.

The intersection of all of these factors comes in last-minute travel and it’s nowhere more stark than it is when traveling for the death of a loved one, where airlines offer a “bereavement fare” to those who show up with a death certificate.

THINK about this for a second. I think it tells us everything we need to know about airlines.

An airline will cut your fare by hundreds of dollars if you can prove that one of your loved ones died. They will do this because air travel has become as much a part of our culture as grieving. If you have decided to move away from your loved ones, you are allowed to go see them one final time. We have decided that this is fair for everyone. This is the bargain we have struck.

I will not get into the wisdom of mourning, except to say that it is such a regular occurrence in human affairs that there must be a value to it that goes beyond money. Except, in the cases where a bereavement fare is applied for and accepted, we have an exact number for how much, to one company and industry, the mourning of a death was worth.

In the months after September 11, I had a conversation with a friend who was angry at people who were angry at new flying regulations. “No one needs to fly,” he said, correctly. Of course, no one needs an iPad or Gatorade or even to brush their teeth, either. The difference is that people will subject themselves to specific searches and delays and the incredibly slight chance of certain, immediate death to fly, which I imagine they would not do to obtain Gatorade, unless they were thirsty to a degree few have experienced.

The hollering about these delays is nonsense. Air travel is the most efficient way to get from, say, New York to Charlotte, but that does not mean air travel is an efficient system. It is, in fact, such a grossly inefficient system that it relies heavily on subsidies and union labor and price gouging of AmEx black holders that the cognitive dissonance between the reality on the ground (so to speak) and the average person’s idea that flying should be simpler and easier is so vast as to be almost indescribable.

I have a good number of friends and one brother who are obsessed with air travel—its inherent romanticism and Byzantine framework are, for them, the stuff that studying makes life worth living. One will holler out the carrier name for each airline that sends a plane over the Mets’ home ballpark, usually before the rest of us have even noticed the plane; another wrote a full New York Times column on how to abuse the airlines’ nonsensical fee structure; another has kept every ticket stub from flight he has taken, a pile that was larger than the size of a fist when I last saw it seven full years ago (note: I used to do this with sports tickets, but eventually stopped; my friend laughs at me); my brother has merely devoted his life to trying to get a job at an airline, going to engineering school and wading his way through various supply-chain management jobs until an opportunity arises at an airline and he boards, ultimate destination unknown.

It’s here I wonder if the purpose of flying hasn’t been misunderstood from the very beginning, and whether airlines should be set up like movie theaters, where the attraction (being the air) is the draw, and not as a utility to get us from one place to another. (As a movie does with time and emotions.) But—no. Hooters Air can attest to this. For 99.9 percent of the people who do it, flying is a void into which we shove Stieg Larssen books and airplane food. It is the absence of an experience, because the only experience we imagine we can really have on an airplane is crashing.

Which gets to another point: When flying, you cede all control to the airline system both on a macro (getting to the airport, having your goods X-rayed, being delayed by a storm system thousands of miles away) and micro (pilots and flight crew, storms hundreds of miles away, people sitting next to you) level. But in every case, you’ve almost always ceded control to something larger than air travel, be it business, emotion or wanderlust. The last being a lack of control that looks like a freedom right until you realize that the truly open mind could be enlightened by the next town over.

But that truly enlightened mind is as much an ideal fiction as the fiction that airlines are run efficiently. Sometimes we really feel like we need to go far, far away as fast as possible—a view that is encouraged by enlightened travel writers, who encourage us to move without guidebooks in foreign places because travel is the best way to broaden the human soul. What would these writers do without air travel? What would any of us do? If airplanes suddenly vanished from the world tomorrow (on the ground, empty), would it change our concept of what it means to be human? And another thought experiment: What if this was just temporary, and we decided to start “airlines” as we knew them from scratch, as a business and system that made sense? What would we end up with?

It’s my thought that we might end up with something slightly more efficient in the short-term, but we’d end up with the same problems in the long-term. The airplane is an anachronism, kept afloat by nothing more than our feelings, which, more predictably than anything in history, twist logic to their own ends. The entire air travel system is a testament to our inability to balance our needs and our wants with any sort of economy. Any person’s lack of economy is one thing, but add up the change from hundreds of millions of people and it can support a perpetually failing business in the sky that always manages to stay airborne. If you look at a photograph of a plane, you have to know how it works to understand why it doesn’t fall toward the ground. It stays in the air not by hydraulics, geometry, combustion and speed but by love, heartbreak, dreams and fears.