Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Flight school

Signs in the airport gave me a few ideas about how to improve the world. Firstly, if airlines don't want you to fly sick and infect all your fellow passengers, they need to make it easier and cheaper for you to cancel your reservation. Secondly, I think someone could start a great business selling powdered shampoos and cosmetics, for people who are limited to a quart of 3-oz bottles in their carry-on bags.
Recently, I traveled by air from Baltimore to Oregon and back again. While this is not the first time I have been a passenger on an airplane, it was the first time I've been able to experience the flight with 26 years of learning behind me. This trip, I was struck by all the ways in which flying is not just a skin-drying, gravity-defying, ear-assaulting, germ-transmitting, internal-clock-attacking adventure, but it's also a learning experience.

First of all, flying is a sociology lesson. What better way to learn about herd behavior than to observe a bunch of people entering an airplane? I flew Southwest Airlines this time, and unlike all the other airlines I've flown on, which ask you to tell them your seating preferences when you book your ticket, Southwest lets you board in the order you checked in, and choose your seats on the plane. For 3 of my 4 flights, I was among the last people to board, and I watched as all the people in front of me snapped up the seats near the front. The last seat in the plane was always the last to go. What does that say about human behavior? I really don't know--I'm not sociologist! But I do know that it worked out well for me.  Being forced to sit in the back of the plane meant that I was conveniently close to the restroom. I never had to stand in line for the toilet--I could just watch the door and wait for a convenient time to get up. I also got a great view out the window, completely unobstructed by the wing. That never happens to me!

This great view and fairly clear skies gave me ample opportunity to study the ground below, whereupon I realized that flying is also a geography lesson. You never appreciate how mountains ripple out from their central ridges until you've seen them from above! You see how rivers bend and loop, and how the trees cluster more densely around them, and how even when you can't see the water, you know it's there by the branching fingers of green that it nourishes! You see big bloated riverlike bodies of water and you realize they are the reservoirs formed by dams. You can tell where people have been by the geometric shapes they leave behind them! Staring out the window was so fascinating, I wondered how many flights I'd have to sit through before I ever tired of the view of the earth from above.

As I neared the end of my flight back home to Baltimore, I had my third learning experience. Flying, I realized, is also a history lesson! I had seen how the land in the Midwest was neatly divided into gridlike patterns. (And I had pondered long and hard over how I can see circular irrigation patterns so easily from the air, yet I've never noticed them on the ground--but that's another story!) The less-populated areas of farmland were like a patchwork quilt of perfect squares, and (with a certain amount of apropos boredom) I was brought back to my school days, when I learned how the government parceled out land in the West, squares divided into smaller and smaller squares until at last they divided one final time into rectangles (yikes! Now I'm thinking of mitosis! All this talk of school will do that to me). Traveling eastward, the patchwork quilt pattern gave way to a crazy-quilt of fields of all shapes and sizes...roads going every which way...near complete chaos! This being a relic of the time when property lines were defined more by natural features than a grid. It was fascinating to look at, and to realize this distinction, even if it makes finding your way places a lot more difficult here in the East!

This concludes my rhapsody on air travel. Thanks for choosing Val's Galorious Galaxy, and have a great evening!