A World Without Air Travel
For years, we heard much about a need to fly less; now, we’re imagining a world in which people might not fly at all.
In the future, children may gather at the feet of the old, and hear extraordinary tales of a mythic time when vast and complicated machines the size of several houses constantly used to take to the skies and fly high over the Himalayas and the Tasman Sea.
The wise elders would explain that inside the aircraft, passengers, who had only paid the price of a few books for the privilege, would impatiently and ungratefully shut their window blinds to the views, would sit in silence next to strangers – and complain that the food in miniature plastic beakers before them was not quite as tasty as the sort they could prepare in their own kitchens.
The elders would add that the skies, now undisturbed except by the meandering progress of bees and sparrows, had once thundered to the sound of airborne leviathans, that entire swathes of the world’s cities had been disturbed by their progress.
They might mention that in an ancient London suburb once known as Fulham, it had been rare for the sensitive to be able to sleep much past five thirty in the morning, due the unremitting progress of inbound aluminium tubes from Canada and the eastern seaboard of the United States.
At JFK, now turned into a museum, one would be able to walk unhurriedly across the two main runways and even give in to the temptation to sit cross-legged on their centrelines, a gesture with some of the same sublime thrill as touching a disconnected high-voltage electricity cable, running one’s fingers along the teeth of an anaesthetised shark or having a wash in a fallen dictator’s marble bathroom.
Everything would, of course, go very slowly. It would take two days to reach Rome, a month before one finally sailed exultantly into Sydney harbour. And yet there would be benefits tied up in this languor.
Those who had known the age of planes would recall the confusion they had felt upon arriving in Mumbai or Rio, Auckland or Montego Bay, only hours after leaving home, their slight sickness and bewilderment lending credence to the old Arabic saying that the soul invariably travels at the speed of a camel.
Whatever the advantages of plentiful and convenient air travel, we may curse it for being too easy, too unnoticeable – and thereby for subverting our sincere attempts at changing ourselves through our journeys.
How we would admire planes if they were no longer there to frighten and bore us. We would stroke their steel dolphin-like bodies in museums and honour them as symbols of a daunting technical intelligence and a prodigious wealth.
We would admire them like small children do, and adults no longer dare, for fear of seeming uncynical and unvigilant towards their crimes against our world.
Despite all the chaos and inconvenience of our disrupted flight schedules, we should feel grateful to a virus – for allowing us briefly to imagine what a flight-less future would envy and pity us for.