The Magazine

The Way We Fly Now

Joseph Bottum, Friendly Flyer

Jul 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 42 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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The man squeezing his way through to the window seat smells of manure. Not a bad, rotten smell, exactly. Just that faint, fresh odor that farmers can’t ever quite get rid of. “He smells funny,” announces the little girl waiting in the aisle, and everyone stares carefully down at the airplane’s industrial-blue carpet, pretending they didn’t hear.

Airplane Cartoon

HAL MAYFORTH

Even the farmer pretends he didn’t hear. And the girl’s mother. And the stewardess. And the smoker shakily clawing nicotine gum out of its wrapper, and the scholarship girl in the Wellesley sweatshirt who’s heading back east to school, and the retired plumber who’s taking his wife to Aruba—they all pretend, because .  .  . well, because that’s what people do on airplanes. It’s the etiquette of the thing. The manners of flying in America, even on a flight from Bismarck to Minneapolis.

Maybe especially on a flight from Bismarck to Minneapolis—although there remains the question of what, exactly, they’re pretending. Mostly that they’re stoically inclined, polite Scandinavians, if the ups and downs of their speech are any guide: all those mildly but consistently misplaced stresses, as though the rhythm of the sentence trumps the accent of the syllables.

Besides, good or bad, the passengers have to put up with the smell, because they’re stuck with one another. The flight from Bismarck is crammed full, all 50 seats occupied on one of those old twin-engined Canadair jets that look like toys when they arrive in Minneapolis and taxi up to the terminal next to the grownup 747s. Next to the fat Airbuses, for that matter, which always remind me of German hausfraus, all oomph, oomph business as they waddle in tweeds through the shops on the village street.

In fact, maybe that’s the best way to understand airports in America: as villages, albeit villages in which the villagers don’t actually know one another. Or maybe as a single village—the world’s largest village, since all airports are really the same place. Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, Boston’s Logan, Chicago’s O’Hare, Fargo’s Hector International, together with LaGuardia, Dulles, Lambert, and Sea-Tac: They’re not locations so much as entrances, the roads that lead you down into Airportville, U.S.A.

I mean, I know, in some abstract sense, that the three-hour layover I’m suffering through on my way to the east coast is at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport in the state of Minnesota. But I might as well be in Dallas/Fort Worth or Denver or Portland. It’s got the same carpet and the same shops as every other airport. 

The same villagers, too. That church glee club passing through Concourse B here in Minneapolis—the Lutheran teenagers with the matching T-shirts and mismatching backpacks. You saw them, or their cousins, anyway, at the Newark airport. And the Miami airport. Baltimore/Washington, Detroit/Wayne County, Charlotte/Douglas. Albuquerque, Indianapolis, Nashville, Roanoke. 

You saw those squabbling kids in line at Starbucks, right behind the sleepy businessman in the gray slacks who’s been traveling since he left his house in Hartford at 4:30 that morning. And the recorded voice endlessly intones, “You are coming to the end of the moving walkway.” And the toddler in the summer dress runs back and forth from her mother to the chairs across the way, playing some exhausting game. And the couple in sunglasses striding by, holding themselves as though they’re expecting to be recognized at any moment. And the fat lady and the man in the beard and sandals. They’re over there, reading the gate-assignment screens, and then they either hurry away or fall into nearby seats and pretend they have messages on their cell phones that require immediate attention.

The most interesting thing may be how polite everyone is. America dressed up, once upon a time, to fly on airplanes: suits and ties and skirts. Now we dress down. Way, way down. But still we behave with the last remnants of etiquette, pretending not to see, pretending not to notice. The virtue of patience has come, in modern times, to be understood mostly as the answer to boredom. But back in medieval thought, patience was named instead the opposite of anger—and the old politeness of the nation still shows up in how rarely Americans allow anger to overcome them in airports. 

Oh, yeah, here and there fury breaks out. But mostly it doesn’t, despite the fact that, even in polite Minneapolis, the local TSA officials and ticket agents seem to be practicing the functionary and facilitating roles they may later play in hell. It is not sheepishness and docility that makes the flocks of Americans in the nation’s airports behave, all in all, fairly well. It’s mostly just politeness. Politeness and patience. Someday, I pray I learn those virtues.

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