Banality and Miracles at 10000 Meters

I recently flew to England.

Nothing strange about that you might think; but that’s my point here: there’s nothing strange about flying to England, indeed, there’s nothing odd about flying anywhere – business as usual. But what suddenly struck me halfway through the flight, was precisely the fact that whilst on the one hand flying is about as banal as taking the tram to Alex, it also remains to this day an absolute miracle that it is at all possible.

Think about it: you climb into tube made of plastic and metal, strap yourself down, and then you’re propelled at a staggering speed high into the atmosphere with only 12cm between you and a vast, hostile, impossibly
cold void. Then at the end of it all you’re expected to land on a tiny strip of concrete. Unbelievable. Flying has remained science-fiction.

But during the flight itself, you are anything but aware of this incredible feat of engineering and logistics. It seems that everything has been designed to distract you from the fact that what you’re doing is utterly miraculous. My flight was with ‘Buzz’, a daughter firm of the Dutch company KLM, whose online booking policy guarantees not only low prices but keeps human contact to a healthy minimum. So from the first moment of the modern flying experience, you are removed from a world of negotiation where you might actually have to talk to people, and find yourself overwhelmed by a sense of ‘eventlessness’. You type in your credit card number, press OK, and whack! you’re 300DM or so poorer. Then, instead of being sent your ticket in the post, which could have been the first event based in any kind of materiality, you simply pick up a reservation slip at the airport on the day of your flight. This reservation slip is often nothing more than a photocopied sheet, with some obscure number on it written with a blunt 2B pencil.

Inside the aircraft, you take to your seats, which are tastefully decorated with lime green and purple fabrics (no, really), and prepare for lift-off, during which time you are informed of the safety guidelines which supposedly come into effect “in case of an emergency landing”. The mimed lifejacket demonstration performed by the peculiarly uniformed stewards and stewardesses, is also an event which sits on the border between the banality of routine and the horror-fantasy of How Things Really Are. The experience of a hypothetical mid-air disaster, and all it’s contingency plans (“should the cabin suddenly loose pressure, oxygen masks will drop down from a compartment above your heads” or “in the event of an emergency landing on water, lifejackets are stored beneath your seats”) are performed by the smiling staff as though they were explaining the advantages of one particular brand of toothpaste over another.

In the unlikely event of a massive fireball ripping through the aircraft, incinerating everything in its path in less than 3 seconds, you can make your way quietly to the back of the cabin, where a member of staff will be able to provide you with refreshments and a selection of small snacks.

This is distraction-technique at its most potent. The colourful seat fabrics, the smooth plastic mouldings of the baggage holders, the quaint nets which hold the in-flight magazines and sick-bags, and the inane, sanitised smiles of the staff, all serve to avert your attention from the idea that flying is really quite an amazingly dangerous thing to do, despite it being statistically the safest form of transport.

But this is all analysis from a distance of three months, and in the comfort provided by terra firma. The one key event which put me in this frame of mind, and sparked my interest, was my buying a sandwhich during the
flight, from a stewardess pulling a ‘snack trolley’ (yes, this was a really cheap flight). The sandwhich was horribly expensive, but that’s beside the point. I opened the cellophane wrapping, extracted the rather ill-looking thing from inside, and munched away on it whilst my eyes came to rest on the label. It read:

“All Day Breakfast. Breakfast style combination of egg mayonnaise, sliced sausage & bacon rashers in white bread.” Then I looked out of the window and saw this:

And in that space of five seconds, of reading the official description of my sandwhich (which, as you might already have imagined, sucked), and of glancing out of the window, two worlds collided in my head. The exhausting banality, and breathtaking miraculousness of flying.

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