Two weeks ago, I flew to Montgomery, Alabama — a trip I was supposed to take in March 2020, when COVID-19 was silently spreading across the United States. The excursion was worth the wait. I toured the Freedom Rides Museum, housed in the old Greyhound bus station where the late John Lewis and his fellow activists endured the blows of a racist mob. I waded through big rain puddles and dodged banana spiders in a buzzing cypress swamp, in which a nonprofit is looking to build a new network of public trails. It was all edifying, exhilarating and much needed.
But getting there required stepping back into the gauntlet of air travel, which millions of us have avoided for more than a year.
For me, this was a big lifestyle adjustment. I’ve reported stories for newspapers and airline magazines that required long flights. My network of friends and family has also fanned out enough that before the pandemic, I would fly at least three to five times a year for visits to the Pacific Northwest or Southern California. Being grounded for 14 months was the longest break I’ve had from air travel since my in utero days, and during that respite, I embraced the new locality of life — long walks, long drives and long phone calls. This past week, however, suddenly flying again, I re-learned something most of us have learned to put up with.
Flying is a profoundly miserable way to travel.
Maybe I should just fly less.
The nightmare begins before you even reach the check-in counter. If your airport isn’t easily accessible by trains or buses — or, if you’re flying when transit services are shut down — figuring out how to get to the airport can get expensive. TSA security checks still require placing your hand luggage in bins that have ferried hundreds of pairs of shoes through the scanner. (We are lucky that COVID-19 doesn’t spread easily by fomites.) When you finally board the plane, you Tetris yourself into a seat which the airline has purposely made smaller and tighter, to better cram more people into the airbus. In a normal year, this can make for a tense atmosphere among passengers. But this year, as flight attendants are left to enforce federal masking rules for air travel on their own, we’ve seen an alarming uptick in violent behavior from passengers.
None of these problems with flying are new — except for the surge of mid-flight assaults — but after taking a regional staycation for more than a year, I wasn’t prepared for how unpleasant the inevitable return to cross-country air travel would be. Normally, I might ask: “How can we make this better?” Can we lower the costs of air travel, or add more legroom to seats? But one day this month at roughly 1:00 a.m., as I emerged, Quasimodo-like, from the jetway at Logan, a different thought crossed my mind.
Maybe I should just fly less.
The most mainstream case for boarding planes less often is climatological. Air travel accounts for an estimated 3 to 4 % of our greenhouse gas emissions (although it’s worth noting that wealthy air travelers contribute to these emissions far more than anyone else). Maybe we shouldn’t make air travel more pleasant or inexpensive — perhaps we should pack more passengers onto planes — and cancel first class — as a way of forcing people to consider alternatives to flying. But in light of the past year, in which millions of us quickly adjusted to a new reality in which we only boarded planes as a last resort, we should rethink how we utilize air travel. Each of us would do well to consider what it might mean to fly more selectively and intentionally.
I plan on flying only when I have time to dig deep into the destination or when I have to be somewhere …
Because here’s the crucial thing about my trip to Montgomery. It undid the agonies of flying! Montgomery is a city imbued with incredible civil rights history — some of America’s ugliest and brightest moments — and the people I met during my four days there were strikingly generous in pointing me toward the local forests, rivers, museums and culinary treasures.
I headed back to Boston feeling as cathartically toasty as I had been after attending my best friend’s wedding in Seattle the December before COVID-19 infiltrated the infamous Kirkland nursing home. But what if I had flown to an unremarkable conference or networking event? What if I had bought one of those dirt-cheap Boston to Florida tickets, to spend an extremely fleeting and expensive weekend in Miami, just because I could? Would the inherent misery of flying have melted away? Would the trip justify my credit card statement bloat, or my contribution to climate change?
Commercial air travel isn’t going away, nor should it. Flying allows us to have experiences that make life more savory and meaningful. I don’t want to return to the era when visiting my cousins in Foligno, Italy would require a voyage on a barnacled steamer. But in the same way that many work meetings could be emails, many of the wretched, wallet-wrecking, butt-numbing flights that Americans take each year might be avoided by simply asking, “Do I really need to fly? Is this worth it?” It’s the same question we had to ask ourselves during the darkest days of the pandemic, before the arrival of vaccines, when flying could heighten our risk of exposure to COVID-19. Just as many people will embrace remote work and seasonal masking long term, I plan on flying only when I have time to dig deep into the destination or when I have to be somewhere and there is no other option but to squeeze into an airline seat.
For each one of us, some things are truly worth flying for. But as we learned last year, many of life’s tasks and joys can be experienced right in our own backyards. My porch seat will be ready.