The limbo of the transit lounge
Airports and airplanes as the location of anxietyBy John Ryle • 1998 • City of Words • The Guardian • Posted 2016 • 761 words
I’m not afraid of flying, but I have a dread of airports: of the limbo of the transit lounge; the horrid bustle of the check-in; the rumble of the moving walkways; the apprehension at the passport counter and the luggage inspection; the eerie glimpses of skeletal bags and briefcases as they pass through the security scanner; the press of fellow-passengers, and that moment of no return before the entrance to the sinister pod-like gangway that leads to the plane. (Which also tends to be the moment when you realise that you that you can’t locate a crucial piece of ID, or that you have left your camera behind—or forgotten to bring the book you intended to read on the plane, or neglected to claim your air miles when you checked in—or some other item on a lengthy list of anxiety-inducing trivia.)
The doleful blend of tedium and urgency that accompanies this long drawn out passage from earth to air is increasingly daunting. And as cities become more like airports—and certain airports, such as Heathrow, swell till they resemble cities—it seems that air travel is taking over more and more of the ground as well.
Once on board a plane, there’s a sense of relief at least, an end to responsibility. When you’re airborne there is nothing you can do, unless you are a hijacker or a terrorist. You can’t get out; you can’t take the controls. You are no longer the captain of your fate; the pilot is. The illusion of choice that accompanies daily life is over. (That’s until you arrive at your destination and confront the new ordeal of the luggage carousel and the customs and immigration inspection.)
Some passengers experience this in-flight powerlessness as a source of anxiety; for me it’s the occasion of a temporary surrender. Flying is like surgery, like anaesthesia, a form of self-abnegation. You have no choice but to trust the technicians and the engineers.
Fears may be liars
There are people who will tell you that you are, statistically speaking, safer in a plane than in a car—safer, no doubt, than if you stayed at home. But the long hours in the air and at the airport eat into self-reliance. This irksome waiting time is a breeding ground for imaginary fears.
Recently such fears have been eating into flight-time too. There are new occasions for anxiety. On one such occasion, with the plane on the ascent, and my neighbour flipping open his computer—ignoring the instructions to wait until the seat-belt sign had gone off—I found myself reading an article in Business Week under the headline “Could a Laptop Bring Down a Plane ?” (Answer: unlikely, but no one knows for sure),
The possibility of electronic interference scrambling the instructions to the engines is also highlighted in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, which carries a lengthy piece arguing that the mysterious explosion that downed a TWA flight off Long Island in 1986 may have been caused by electromagnetic emissions—not, in this case, from a laptop, but rather from US naval vessels and war planes in the vicinity. (It must be coincidence that, as I was reading this article, the plane I was on was flying over Long Island.)
These days we can entertain ourselves with a further thought: that our neighbour on the plane—who is tarrying so long in the bathroom—is not the businessman or woman they appear to be, but a terrorist who harbours in their overnight bag explosives, or a phial of anthrax or camel-pox, disguised as toothpaste or eau-de-cologne. Even as this thought grips your brain, the plague they brought on board could be coursing through the stale recycled air of the cabin.
Airline companies themselves don’t always help. Have you seen Broken Arrow, an action movie with John Travolta as a psychotic US air force pilot who steals a jet carrying nuclear warheads? On an internal flight in the US recently I was startled to find that this was one of the in-flight movies. As we flew over the American midwest unwary passengers found themselves watching sequences of planes crashing and burning in the Nevada desert.
Well, fears may be liars. And here I am just adding to them. How did I get started? If you’re on a plane, for your own peace of mind, you may wish to exit this column now. Please remain in your seat, though, until this paragraph has reached a complete halt. ★