Flight of fancy

I’m flying over Vietnam on an evening flight when a glance out the window reveals something extraordinary.

Rectangles of light are scattered across the dark Earth — not the sparkling carpet of city lights you might expect to see, but substantial, illuminated tiles, as if someone had laid out huge sheets of fabric and backlit them with a spotlight.

Months later, I’ll still be unsure exactly what they are — the lit-up roofs of warehouses or industrial buildings, perhaps. But it turns out these lights are just the beginning, trailed by more usual urban illuminations and then the coastline, beyond which the lights of cargo ships float like stars in the glossy darkness. Away towards the horizon, lightning flashes, setting the clouds aglow.

When you’re queueing for an economy-class toilet or trying and failing to nod off in a cramped middle seat, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that air travel retains a lingering magic which even the most parsimonious of budget airlines can’t quite kill.

Indeed, though it may sound trite, it continues to feel almost miraculous to me that I can board a plane in Perth and disembark after a remarkably short stretch of time to somewhere with different weather, different people, a different time zone.

In between, there’s that sense of being out of time and space, neither at home nor properly away — the liminal quality common to most modes of transport, heightened by the speed and relative ease of flying.

Unlike on a journey by car or train or bus, aboard a plane you’re sealed up and quite separate from the outside world. Despite the growing ubiquity of in-flight wi-fi, there’s still the sense that you’re out of touch and uncontactable while you’re in the air. At a time when demands on our time and attention can feel increasingly relentless, there is a freedom — and a pleasure — in this enforced idleness.

Of course, plenty of passengers fill a flight with work documents to be read and emails to be queued for sending upon landing. But — assuming you’re unencumbered by small kids — it’s far more enjoyable to embrace it as a brief hiatus from everyday life. I might take the rare opportunity to read a book cover to cover, or watch the kind of middle-brow movie I’d never admit to enjoying on the ground. Once, on a half-empty flight home from a particularly hectic work trip, I spent most of the 5 1/2 hour journey just sitting, thinking, staring into space.

You can do that on a plane in part due to the distinctive interpersonal forces at play. An airplane cabin is a space of enforced intimacy — in economy, especially, you’ll be sharing a very limited area with complete strangers for potentially far longer than the average work day. And though we’ve all heard the odd story of friendships or romances that have bloomed at cruising altitude, mostly I’ve found in-flight interactions to be an exercise in exaggerated politeness as passengers seek to offset the awkwardness of such unusual physical proximity.

This is, perhaps, one explanation for that odd phenomenon jokingly christened “altitude-adjusted lachrymosity syndrome”. Indeed, though theories for travellers’ susceptibility to a mile-high blub range from the on-board air pressure to the effects or one too many sauvignon blancs with your in-flight meal, I think the particular emotional dynamics of air travel might have something to do with it. On a plane, you can smell your seat-mate’s perfume, but probably don’t even know their name. Given this combination of intimacy and anonymity, it’s little wonder you might feel sufficiently vulnerable to break down while watching a Diane Lane film in the relative privacy of seat 27C.

For most of us, though, flying is nothing more than a means to an end. And so the real magic comes after you’ve landed, when you finally shuffle up the aisle and off the plane with a weary farewell to the cabin crew. That’s when your destination comes creeping around the edges of the aerobridge, or envelops you atop the airstairs. And whether it’s the incense scent of Bali, the distinctive crispness of London, or somewhere else entirely, it’s then that the adventure truly begins.


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