It appears JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater might plead his way out of jail, but I’m still mulling his self-imposed sentence: banishment from employment in the travel industry.
If only I could have reached him before he jumped on that life-changing slide, I would have recommended a witty, insightful and weirdly inspiring ode to airports I recently read.
In 107 pages, it detailed the settings, rituals and patterns that I (and Slater) have witnessed hundreds of times, but which are described in such loving and unexpected ways that when I put it down, I was excited by the thought of going to the airport again.
Not of traveling somewhere, but of going to the airport.
The slim volume was one of two books I read this summer that explain why so few people who work in the travel industry ever leave it.
"A Week at the Airport" by Alain de Botton (Vintage International, 2009), in a tradition harkening back to the Renaissance, has a wealthy patron. BAA, the operator of London’s Heathrow, among other airports and enterprises, commissioned de Botton to spend seven days at British Airways’ new Terminal 5 and write down his observations.
Given this genesis, the book could easily have ended up being an unremarkable vanity publication handed out to clients during the holidays and lying, undisturbed, on tables in BAA corporate waiting rooms around the globe.
But de Botton approached T5 as Thoreau approached Walden Pond, bringing vividly to life what we all would assume was just another variation on the familiar.
In bringing our attention to what we take for granted, he returns us not to the childlike awe of seeing a bustling airport for the first time but to an adult appreciation for the technology, humanity and even grace that exists in a structure we often view as an obstacle course we must run before our real trip begins.
To de Botton, airports are inseparable from the miracle of flight. An operation as commonplace as a jet bridge meeting a fuselage becomes analogous to a first, hesitant kiss between long-separated lovers. He makes us hunger to see the mundane again — but, next time, as he describes it.
If one is going to rhapsodize about the commonplace, it helps to have a strong sense of irony, and part of the joy of this book is de Botton’s understated humor, bolstered by a wide-ranging appreciation for history, art and science.
You can sense the linkage between his observational skills and his bottomless curiosity as he describes the sweeping architecture of the departure hall or imagines the life stories of travelers who pass fleetingly before him.
Though the book is primarily about T5, he passes nights in a Sofitel hotel attached to the terminal, and one of my favorite passages involves his description of ordering and receiving a club sandwich from room service.
He sees the absurdity in the overwrought descriptions on the room service menu yet truly appreciates the thought and effort that went into its writing, ultimately comparing it favorably with classic haiku. He then describes the all-too-familiar rite of delivery:
"It is a strange moment when two adult men meet each other, one naked save for a complimentary [bathrobe], the other newly arrived in England from [a] small Estonian town," he writes. "It is difficult to think of the ritual as entirely unremarkable, to say in a casually impatient voice, ‘By the television, please,’ while pretending to rearrange papers — though this capacity can be counted upon to evolve with more frequent attendance at global conferences."
While he sprinkles the text with a poetic sense of the humanities, his true gift as a writer is his ability to put into words what we all feel about the people and infrastructure we encounter at airports.
Describing the frustration travelers were having with T5’s new ticketing kiosks, he remarks they make one "long for a return of the surliest of humans, from whom there always remains at least a theoretical possibility of understanding and forgiveness."
The second book I’d recommend to Slater is simply titled "Travel," by Jim Heimann and Allison Silver (Taschen, 2010). Its pleasure is as visceral as "A Week at the Airport" is cerebral. It’s a 400-page coffee-table book containing full-page, travel-related advertisements published from 1900 to 1989, and it’s as concise and accurate a history of our nation’s travel experiences (or, perhaps, expectations) as exists anywhere.
While it could be viewed simply as an excuse to wallow in nostalgia, it also makes clear that travel is an amazingly comprehensive microcosm of society, reflecting far more than how we transport ourselves and what we do on vacation. Everything from technological advances to shifting social mores are on display in what ostensibly are efforts to promote getting from point A to point B (and then relaxing).
Each chapter opens with a context-setting timeline, but the real joy is in the ads themselves. In the early 1950s, Cunard boasted that "getting there is half the fun," a claim today’s cruise lines would see as too modest by half. Even changes in our lexicon jump out; these days, only a niche line would suggest "every voyage a gay cruise" as American Export Lines did in 1952.
In both graphic and sociological terms, the chapter on the 1960s most drew me in. Visually, styles move from clip art to pop art, and throughout the decade there was enormous emphasis on the "stewardess," in terms so politically incorrect that they make the TV series "Mad Men" look enlightened.
PSA Airlines suggests that its passengers want aisle seats to better ogle its attendants, while a frighteningly Freudian American Airlines ad shows a sultry stewardess adjacent to the headline "Think of her as your mother" (who, the text explains, "only wants what’s best for you"). Slater might think today’s passengers have unrealistic expectations about flight attendants; perhaps a historical review would put things in a different light for him.
I might have donned the blinders every enthusiast wears, but looking through these two books made me feel a bit sad for those who work in other industries. Yes, we’re somewhat fragile, at the mercy of every economic blip, health threat or earthquake. Our practitioners are exploited by local taxing bodies, we get no respect in the halls of Congress, and we can literally be blown off course by bad weather.
But these books remind us of what Slater has now lost. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson’s famous commentary on London, when you’re tired of travel, you’re tired of life.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/awtravelweekly.