How the humanities can illuminate air travel incivilities (essay)

When I worked at an airport between 2001 and 2003, the airline that hired me gave out laudatory certificates to employees whenever passengers would report above-average customer service, or any other effort that had been noticed and appreciated. On the one hand, those medal-emblazoned posters were cheesy and brimmed with the type of hollow praise proffered to alienated workers. But on the other, they were well intentioned and meaningful: they reminded us that we were working together, with and for other human beings, on both sides of the counter (as well as above, at the corporate level).

I look at a couple of those certificates now, saved from many years ago, and I wonder if the airline still recognizes such little instances of harmony in the maelstrom of contemporary commercial flight. These days it can seem as though humanity has left the airport entirely, what with random fistfights breaking out, hapless passengers dragged off airplanes, racial epithets lobbed heatedly across seat backs, families humiliated for the most minor domestic incursions and so on. Our worst tendencies and habits come into full bloom during air travel. And people seem at once both surprised by and weirdly expectant of it. We roll our eyes at the latest viral video of violence in the aisles, and we turn the channel or swipe over to a new feed.

I’ve been trying for many years, and over the course of writing three books, to untangle the distinct knots of negativity that airports have become known for. Somehow, it is perfectly acceptable to hate airports, even as they are also supposed to represent the apex of modern progress and cosmopolitan coexistence. How did we get to this contradictory place? And what, if anything, can those of us in academe do to shed light on and possibly even improve matters?

While flying recently I flipped through the pages of Delta’s in-flight magazine, Sky, and I noticed an article called “Higher Education in the Fast Lane” (May 2017). The piece…

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