In The Air


Many people dislike air travel.  They become anxious, anticipating all sorts of delays and inconveniences.  They are afraid of missing their flight.  They worry about security lines and being singled out for special, unwanted, pat-downs and luggage checks.  Stories of needless strip searches lurk in the back of their minds, even though such occurrences are exceedingly rare and usually provoked by some suspicious situation.  They’re worried that the plane might go down.  They hate bumps in the sky.  They may get air-sick.

I’ve flown millions of miles—belonging to two airlines’ Million Mile Clubs among more than a dozen other mileage programs—and have never once had such concerns.  Maybe it’s fatalism.

I was sixteen the first time I flew.  With three other swim team members I was flying to Charlotte, North Carolina to swim in one event, a 400-meter free-style relay.  Our coach expected us to set the US National Record in the race, which we did.  Teammate Brad McKean’s mother was our chaperone. I stayed at the house of one of the local Charlotte swim team members.  The day after the race, our picture was in the sports section of the Charlotte newspaper.

My father flew frequently when I was a child.  Flying back then was an exciting, big deal luxury.  He always wore a suit to fly.  Taxis or car services weren’t common in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, so my mother and I would drive my father to the airport and see him to the gate.  I remember waving to him as he walked out to the plane’s stairway.  My memory is that he always wore a hat.

pan am 747

It was an even bigger deal the first time my parents flew together.  They were flying to New York where my dad was attending a business conference.  I can see my mother boarding the plane, wearing a blue suit and heels.  To her dying day, in 2006, she always wore a blue suit and heels on a plane, all the while bemoaning the lack of appropriate dress of the other passengers: “They were wearing blue jeans!”

Throughout my life, my mother always drove to the Allegheny County Airport to pick me up, meeting me at the gate when that was still permitted and outside security afterward.  The airport was famous for the huge Calder mobile hanging in the entrance.  (It still is.)  Having my mother waiting annoyed me when I was in college, but now I look back poignantly at those signs of anticipation and motherly love.


Pico Iyer wrote earlier this year in The New York Times that the greatest luxury today is being disconnected.  No phones; no internet; no communication beyond having a conversation with another human being.  Flying once provided that opportunity.

For a three-year period I flew monthly from New York to Tokyo, to meet with my Fujitsu clients.  Sometimes it was twice in one month.  The flight lasted seventeen hours.  I looked forward to these long flights.  They represented peace as no other life situation did.  Seventeen hours of quiet, with no questions other than, “would you like another glass of wine?”  I flew business class on Japan Airlines.  Their service was exquisite.

Sometimes my seatmate would initiate a conversation.  I remember on one occasion another guy and I told each other our life stories.  Almost nothing was held back: college romances, the joys of children, the perils and pain of our marriages.  I don’t think it’s unusual that two strangers share these intimacies in mid-air.  We meet, talk and never see one another again.  Another time I sat next to Tom Kelley, the founder of IDEO, and we talked the entire flight.  He gave me an inscribed copy of his latest book The Ten Faces of Innovation as the plane landed at Narita.

Mostly, however, I kept to myself.  I would take several books and hope to read one straight through.  I would sleep—never a problem for me when flying.  I always chose the Japanese meal over the Western option.

These long flights were times out of time.  I could have been traveling to the moon, or alone at sea.  There were trips when I wished the plane would never land.  We would keep going and going into an unknown place in the sky, someplace of ultimate disconnection and quiet.  Oddly, I never fantasized dying.  I just saw myself forever heading away.  I think about this every time I hear David Bowie sing Ground Control to Major Tom.

During the years when I worked overseas, I often flew long distances with my family.  Traveling with small children is a different experience, although in my case my boys were good travelers even when very young.  I remember flying from New York to Barcelona on Easter Sunday when David as three and Sam barely two months old.  Sam slept in the bassinet attached to the bulkhead for most of the flight.  We were flying Swissair and the flight attendants came round giving all the children on board beautifully wrapped Swiss chocolate Easter Bunnies.

There must have been times when the boys were fussy, but I don’t remember any.  Once, though, on a full flight from New York to Pittsburgh, David was sitting in my lap and without warning vomited all over me.  It was Christmas time and every available space was stuffed with gifts and carry-on luggage.  There was nothing to be done except futilely dab myself with cocktail napkins.  And smile.

When we finally returned to the States from Australia my wife and I decided to ease the boys’ transition by taking an extended vacation on the way back.  We first went to Singapore so that David and Sam could revisit all the places that were once familiar to them.  Being four years older than when they last lived there, we wanted to rekindle their memories to be fresh and happy as they returned to the home they no longer knew.

From Singapore we spent a week in Maui.  Because we were moving countries, and not vacationing, we were traveling with twenty-nine pieces of luggage including baby strollers, hand luggage, kids’ knapsacks, plus all of the larger suitcases.  We made porters happy everywhere.  I remember transferring in Honolulu to a smaller plane for the short flight to Maui.  We were a spectacle, much less a logistical nightmare for the agents.  Somehow everything was accommodated.

After Hawaii, my family entourage flew to Los Angeles to spend four days at Disney Land. The boys of course loved every minute.  Among all the photos taken there’s one of David enraptured with Minnie Mouse that captures the joy of childhood.

Eventually the return journey ended at JFK and with that conclusion ended a period of another kind of disconnection.

The life of an expat is not too dissimilar from the isolation and distance of being on a plane and in a foreign place.  In another country we’re never the same person we were at home.  The Japanese even have a term to describe the children of returning Japanese expats: “third culture kids”–problem children who are too Westernized and individualistic.

There’s a scene on Lost in Translation where Bill Murray is alone at night in his hotel room, high above the lights of Shinjuku.  His wife is faxing him plans for some house remodeling.  He knows his marriage is falling apart.  He knows—and feels—he’s very, very far away from his life at home.  He knows his own life is far away from anything he ever wanted it to be.  I’ve stayed at the Park Hyatt where the movie was filmed, and sat alone in my room at night.  I’ve felt the same emotions of inevitability and sadness.  Thinking about the long flight back to New York, I knew it would be a bridge to something I didn’t want to face.  I was grateful that it would last seventeen hours.

I’m writing this on a Sunday flight from San Francisco to New York.  It’s a long domestic flight, although not as long as I like.  Today I’m flying with no dread or painful anticipation.  I’m looking forward to being in New York at Christmas time, my favorite time of year in the city, and to working with my colleagues in our New York office. Later in the week I am returning to California only to turn around the next day to fly to Frankfurt on my way to Sam’s wedding in Finland.  In Germany I’m visiting my good friend Sean MacNiven and continuing the conversations begun in San Francisco a week ago.  We plan to visit the Neander Valley near Dusseldorf and hike in the footsteps of the first Neanderthals.  I’m setting off on a Big Adventure, beginning with a very long, and welcome, flight across the country and ocean. Can’t wait.


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