A for Airplanes: a foreign yet familiar world

The majestic Aer Lingus

This post is part of the Alphabet Project, where I write a post for each letter of the alphabet. It was inspired by Ash Huang’s Alphabet Meditations.

I have always loved traveling by airplane. I like seeing planes lined up in a row, decked out in their airline colors, with heads like bottlenose dolphins and massive wings like wandering albatrosses. Once I’m in the belly of one of those giant beasts, I gaze outside the window as it calmly glides over the tarmac, then whirs to life. It gathers speed. Suddenly, we’re flying above civilization.  

There’s a unique culture associated with the airline industry. There’s nothing quite like packing everything you need into a small case, falling asleep in a metal container traveling at 500+ miles per hour at a dizzying altitude, and waking up to find yourself in a foreign part of the world. I’m so familiar with airports and airlines now that I’ve come to take for granted all that I learn in the process.

It starts with packing. Since airlines restrict how much baggage I can bring, packing becomes an exercise in deciding which objects are truly essential in my life. I take pride in not needing too much stuff in order to survive. Even so, it’s stressful deciding precisely how much underwear I need to be comfortable.

Next, we arrive at airports. They are portals to different worlds, and each has its own character. Everything from the language of the overhead signs to the selection of overpriced food provides a peek into the world I’m about to encounter outside the walls. I’m familiar with the Taiwan Taoyuan airport, but no matter where I travel, SFO will always be my home base. Nothing makes me feel more American than joining the “U.S. Citizens” line at customs.

I’m always in awe of pilots and flight attendants who walk calmly through crowds in their matching uniforms, dragging their matching suitcases. Whoever has the knowledge to pilot these monstrous airplanes possesses a terrifying and unique power. Automobile drivers have power over their metal beasts on wheels, but pilots operate on a much grander scale. Next to them, the flight attendants also look collected and professional. I feel like I can trust them. 

My romantic views of airplanes can make me forget about the cramped seats, odd smells, and stale air that permeate the inside of the airplane. Surviving lots of trips in tiny metal containers is an exercise in empathy. As seen in this awesome blog called “Passenger Shaming,” people can be inconsiderate assholes. I’ve spent many a torturous flight smelling the feet of the person sitting behind me.

Some problems are not as clear cut. The mandatory screaming baby on every flight is an especially polarizing issue. I admit to rolling my eyes whenever a baby starts screaming, and sometimes wish that The Oatmeal’s new way of storing babies was feasible. But after reading articles about parents who try their hardest to comfort their babies, I can spare some sympathy. Babies are difficult to care for. As long as both parents are trying their best to comfort their children, I’m willing to overlook my discomfort.

The size of airplane seats might also pose a problem for people. I’m lucky that the squishy chairs are quite roomy for my tiny body. I never stop to think that taller people might struggle to fit their legs in the tiny space. Commercial airlines are definitely scheming to squeeze as many of us onboard as possible.

I also quickly realize the downside to being short. My legs dangle above the ground, and most planes don’t have footrests. This means I’m sitting in a chair for hours, slowly cutting off circulation to my thighs. I also barely reach the overhead bins, which leads to a lot of stretching on my part. I don’t mind these inconveniences too much, though.

I like learning about other people’s odd quirks when I fly with them. Everyone has different habits when they get on the airplane. My mom will immediately take out some alcoholic wipes and clean off the armrests, remote controls, and food trays. My friend will gleefully read the safety instructions in case something happens to the airplane. He’s a true Boy Scout, always prepared.

The issue of choosing the aisle, middle, or window seat is as much of a character test as being sorted into a Hogwarts house. Unfortunately, my choice fluctuates depending on who I fly with. The introvert in me will choose the aisle by default to set up an easy escape route, but I’ll sit in the middle if I want to be next to two people who I like. The window seat can make me feel trapped sometimes, but it’s worth the view.

Regardless of where I’m sitting, I always turn to look out the window during landing or take-off. It’s a chance to see the world of lights, cars, and houses from above. Even though the people are reduced to invisible beings on a huge land mass, I feel solidarity with each and every one of them. During those moments, I love all of humanity.


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