Samantha Leese: Air travel needs to get its groove back

Samantha Leese: Air travel needs to get its groove back

Don't let cattle-class destroy our innate capacity for patience and wonder

tell me about it

A flight that will take me from Hong Kong to London in an hour cannot be invented soon enough.

Richard Branson said that an hour's flight time from Los Angeles to London (and by deduction from London to Hong Kong) was "not completely out of the question," although it would probably take many years before his company could offer such a service.

I love to go places, but I find the whole process of traveling by air so tedious and degrading that I just want to get it over with. It is no longer enjoyable to fly.

As Alec Baldwin observed (having recently been escorted off an American Airlines flight), "September 11 was a horrific day in the airline industry, yet in the wake of that event, I believe carriers and airports have used that as an excuse to make the air travel experience as inelegant as possible."

That is, the magic of it has been destroyed and replaced by a communal mad scramble to get from one place to another as quickly as possible, as cheaply as possible, without getting blown up and with -- to that end -- a willingness to endure levels of humiliation and discomfort that you would not dream of putting up with on the ground.

Of course, we'll agree that safety is paramount. I'm not sure many people would submit to being strapped inside a metal tube and blasted across the skies if they didn't feel good about it.

But that was true on September 10, 2001 as well. It's not that we were simply more cavalier then, but that the devastation of the Twin Towers introduced dangers that we hadn't even conceived of in the days when, as children, we would merrily go and visit the pilot in his cockpit before the flight.

So we adapted. But the truth is, there was once a way to feel safe about boarding an airplane without also feeling violated. It would be nice if we could all make an effort to get that back.

Air travel doesn't have to suck

The art of travel, I think, lies in two things: patience and wonder.

It's important to enjoy the journey as well as the destination. Otherwise the trip risks not being worth the hassle.

But there are precious few airports and airlines these days which allow that to happen; there cannot be a man or woman alive who survives the current process of air travel with patience untried.

As for wonder, that is a deeper problem. Human beings are naturally curious and we also seem innately compelled to record things.

We don't, I think, in general like surprises and so we allow little room in our lives for awe.

James Durston recently commented that many travelers spend far too much time staring into a phone-camera lens rather than experiencing the actual place.

Photographs combined with the Internet mean that we can, if we like, study our destinations in detail before we get there. And while this will never compare to the live experience, the availability of that information takes something away from it.

On the other hand there is, particularly among frequent travelers, a snobbery about people who are too easily impressed by the world outside their hometown.

We laugh at them swooning and sighing over the Eiffel Tower, while we find a late dinner at an eclectic place in the 11th only Parisians know about.

The goal of the savvy, modern traveler is to experience a city the way locals do -- without fuss.

But there is something to be said for fuss. Intelligent fuss, at least-- not the kind that has you stumbling through the ruins of ancient civilizations with a camcorder pressed to your face.

Some sights are worth a gasp and a photograph and perhaps we dull the wonder of new destinations by insisting that we see them through the eyes of people who live there every day.

I would love, for example, to see Hong Kong for the first time. Because I was born and grew up here, I never have and never will. You're lucky. It must be amazing.


Samantha Leese is a Hong Kong based writer and editor, focusing on travel, arts and culture. Her articles have been published internationally by titles such as Condé Nast Traveller, The Spectator, Artforum and Time.

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