In a few weeks time, my family and I are off to Australia for a couple of months of intensive cross-continental travel. This will be our third visit to this astonishing place and one in which we hope to see aspects new to us. Previously we have limited ourselves to parts of the east coast (specifically Sydney and Cairns) and, while these are obvious attractions, they tell only a tiny part of a complex and diverse story and give no sense of the sheer hugeness of a country that takes a commercial airliner some 6 hours to cross.
I’ve seen the “red centre” all right but from 35,000 feet it might as well be the surface of Mars (to which it sometimes bears an uncanny resemblance) and I’ve long wanted to see it close up. One can sometimes see a good deal from the air and a distance of less than 7 miles from anywhere is ostensibly quite minimal yet we never claim to have actually been there or even nearby if our experience is limited to what can be seen through a perspex porthole from above. If we were at ground level, we would probably claim that to be six and a bit miles from Uluru and to have it in clear sight amounted to being there yet, when flying we make no such claims. This suggests to me that our experiences of commercial aviation are sufficiently depersonalising that we suspend our normal modes of thought when flying. Why should this be so? Perhaps the sheer awfulness of the modern airport experience requires that we switch off much of our critical awareness and the generally dreadful quality of economy class travel requires that we remain in a reduced level of function: it’s not only our cherished i-devices that have “airplane mode”, it’s their owners too and for good reason.
Why does travel by air have to be so awful? Why do civilised security staff insist on acting like beetle-browed thugs? Why is airline food so universally crappy and seats so ill-suited to the human frame? I may well fail to answer these questions but, by the end of September, I expect to be able to pass far better informed opinions.