Jeremy and I were supposed to spend this past weekend in Lisbon. I woke up last Thursday morning all set to pack and head to Gatwick in the afternoon for our flight. Then I checked Twitter, where the first tweet I saw was this:
My first response, quite naturally, was: WHAT. With some hasty Googling, I pieced together the story about Icelandic volcanoes and ash clouds and all the planes in the UK being grounded. When it became clear over the course of Thursday and Friday that we wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon, Jeremy and I settled in for a sunny weekend in Brighton instead of a rainy one in Lisbon (I’m sad about not getting to Lisbon, but we’ll get there sometime).
Since then, I’ve watched with amazement as the airport closures have spread from the UK to mainland Europe and been extended day after day. It’s unprecedented, and it’s wreaking havoc around the world: hundreds of thousands of people stranded, plans fallen through, families separated—not to mention entire fleets of planes of the ground, and aircraft and crews scattered all over the globe. Even once the ash cloud dissipates, it’ll take a long time for this mess to be sorted out.
The ash cloud hasn’t been bad for everyone; if you live near Heathrow or another major airport, you’ve gotten to enjoy several days of peace and quiet, and if you’re inordinately bothered by the site of jet contrails in the sky (I didn’t realize this was a thing, but apparently it’s a thing), then you’ve had several days of contrail-free heavens. So it is perhaps from these people, or from the people who have never had to (or wanted to) travel very much, that I keep hearing the same infuriating refrain: “Wouldn’t it be great if the planes never took off again?”
Don’t get me wrong, I really don’t like to fly. I’ve become a very nervous flier over the past year or so, so much so that I’ve started dreading every flight ahead of me. On my most recent long-haul flight, during some nighttime turbulence over the Atlantic, I tried to calm myself down by imagining all of the other planes criss-crossing the globe at that moment, thousands of people up in the air just like me, crossing oceans, crossing mountains, flying through sunlight and storms, daylight and moonlight, so many other tremendous metal contraptions ferrying their precious cargo through the skies all at once. It was a vaguely comforting thought in the darkness at 36,000 feet.
Aside from my fears, I’m pretty much a bona fide tree-hugger: I recycle, I compost, I use public transportation, I buy local food, I use green energy, I try to keep my carbon footprint to a minimum. I am fully aware that air traffic is responsible for much of the CO2 which is seriously damaging the environment, and I contribute to that damage every time I fly. This does not please me.
But all this dreamy talk of a world without planes butts up against one cold, hard personal fact: I live in the UK, and my family lives in the USA. Now, if there were no air travel, I would still have several options:
1) Move to the States.
2) Cross the Atlantic by ship.
3) Never visit my family.
None of these options are particularly appealing, for the following reasons:
1) Moving to the States: As much as the UK may drive me crazy sometimes, this is where my life is right now, this is where Jeremy has a good job, this is where we own a home. And if we lived in the US, we’d have the same problem trying to visit Jeremy’s mom in Ireland. Moving won’t help.
2) Crossing by ship: It takes a week to cross the Atlantic by ship, and it would take almost another week to get from the east coast of the US to either Arizona or Seattle by land. Trains and boats are a romantic way to travel (they are, in fact, my favorite way to travel), but the only people who could afford to travel like this regularly are those with unlimited time and resources. I have neither.
3) Not visiting my family: Yeah, right.
For all the discomfort of air travel, for all its environmental impact and all those pesky contrails, I will say this about it: thanks to modern aviation, I can leave England and be with my parents and grandmother in Arizona or with my brother and sister-in-law in Seattle in the space of 10 hours instead of two weeks. Thanks to the miracle of flight, I can attend the weddings of family members and friends around the globe. I can share meals with pals in Australia and Canada, Thailand and Japan. And when I have to say goodbye to someone who lives far away from me, I can do so safe in the knowledge that we’ll be able to see each other again soon, even if we are separated by continents and oceans.
In the 19th century, when my ancestors were leaving Ireland for America, the Irish would hold what were known as “American wakes” for departing emigrants. Travel and communications being what they were at the time, it wasn’t always likely that the family of an emigrant would ever see or hear from their relative again. After all, not everyone could afford to hop on a steamer for a family holiday across the “pond”.
Obviously, communications aren’t the same issue today, but if the planes never took off again, then we would revert to a time when the oceans were tremendous barriers to personal contact, and when living on a different continent was almost like living on a different planet. I’m not especially keen to go back to that time, so I suggest that we focus on developing quieter, cleaner forms of aviation (zeppelins, anyone?) and stop longing for a world without planes—because a world without planes would be a world in which goodbyes were much more permanent.