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De Botton on the Art of Aviation


To many, the process of air transportation has become a laboriously difficult task that all too often exterminates the wonderment of the journey. And yet within these digital walls is a community that adores aviation. Here, there are men and women who cherish the journey so much that a large contingent of them will actually endeavor a mileage run.

What is it that those who adore the 21st-century journey from A-to-B can see that so many do not? They must be either looking through X-ray or rose-colored glasses. They see what others don’t because it’s either hidden underneath or it’s imagined. Or perhaps it’s something else entirely.

To understand, we have turned to philosopher and aviation geek Alain de Botton. The author of “A Week at the Airport” and “The Art of Travel”, de Botton has managed to explain to the novice the writings of Proust (“How Proust Can Change Your Life”), Montaigne (“The Consolations of Philosophy”) and Baudelaire (“The Art of Travel”); surely he can make sense of the journeymen of FlyerTalk.

With continued and ever-increasing airline restrictions, is it still possible for people to find joy in journeying?

It’s harder, for sure. The problem is that airlines and airports seem to forget that there are a lot of people out there who want to enjoy flying. What gets in the way of their pleasure is:

– aircraft that are painted in insulting colors with jokey logos: colors that utterly disregard the need for dignity and the importance of celebrating the sheer beauty and elegance of the machines they adorn.

– airports that explicitly prevent passengers from getting close to the business of flying. That distract them with endless shopping malls, that shepherd them away from anything technical or functional. That drown their senses in CNN or BBC World (two of the world’s most inane TV stations).


Should passengers see the magic and the marvel of the aircraft? And how can they endeavor to do so?

Anyone who cannot see anything magical about soaring up to 30,000 feet at 400 miles an hour, and seeing the curvature of the earth, in a machine put together with awesome precision by thousands of brilliant engineers, is lacking imagination, to say the least. Of course, humans get spoilt. We neglect the beauty and interest of our home towns, our children, our spouses, our friends… and our planes. But it’s really not fair to existence. It’s also unfair that whereas art has huge prestige in our society, plane spotting does not. And yet it should. A plane is as much a work of art as a Matisse or a Rembrandt—and in many ways, it is a good deal more impressive.

What are your thoughts regarding the practice of mileage running? Is the act of the journey ultimately more important than destination?

[The behavior] is of course open to mockery, but I admire it: how determined and wisely crazy it is to do such a thing. They’re right at least to recognize that the journey can be the most impressive aspect, especially if one has the luxury of a business class seat. Try it another way: if Leonardo da Vinci were magically to return to earth but was allowed to see only ONE thing, would you show him

a) Sydney

b) the flight on an A380 from Singapore to Sydney, with a special visit to the cockpit and a chance to check out the Rolls Royce engines on landing?

You’re well-known for highlighting the works of writers, artists and thinkers in relation to the modern world. Is there an individual who can add perspective to the hassles of the airport experience in a post-9/11 world?

We have to get nationalistic here. Airport experiences are really terrible particularly and primarily in the United States. Europe is a far, far easier place to travel in, but American airports truly are hell on earth—and their airlines are no better. In other words, when talking of flying, you have to distinguish between:

a flight from Heathrow Terminal 5 (the world’s best airport) on a British Airways (the world’s best airline) A319 to Rome: generally blissful.

a flight from New York to DC on a Delta 737: generally hellish.

But if you do have the bad luck to be on an American airline through an American airport, please read the philosopher Seneca, who tells us: What need is there to weep over parts of life, the whole of it calls for tears…

In line with the above question, is there an individual who can give perspective to the fear and anxiety that all too often surrounds aviation?

I would recommend reading the French architect Le Corbusier’s wonderful book “Aircraft.” It’s a hymn of praise to airplanes, written in 1932, but relevant today. It reminds the reader of just why the invention of the plane was so momentous.

Photo by Mathias Marx.

Comments are Closed.
Shareholder October 23, 2013

While i respect M. DeBotton and have read most of his books, I must disagree with him about BA and its short-haul service. Even a "business class" (no first on these routes) seat -- those ordinary economy seats with the centre one blocked off with a small table -- with economy pitch is no challenger to a real US airline domestic first class seat with extra leg room and other features not found on any intra-European business class cabin. As for the service, as long as I get my [The] Glenlivet, who cares? And if you're stuck in the back of a BA Airbus, there's no E+ so forget having much leg room. And as an ExecPlat AA elite, if I don't get a seat in First domestically, I get E+ in the back along with free alcohol and BoB. As for T5 at LHR, we all know how anal UK security staff are...it's a horror to get through the queues. With TSA PreCheck, life at US airports -- agree many are dumps, especially major gateways like JFK, BOS and IAD -- is a breeze clearing security like the good old days: no shoe or belt removal, no opening bags to get out computers and baggies of liquids!

billcash3 October 10, 2013

Delta doesn't fly 737s from New York to DC. Plus Delta is pretty good!

hotelgulf718 October 10, 2013

As an airliner artist, this article could not ring more true. My live of commercial stems from.my childhood when American Airlines still flew the 400 Astrojet. Who wouldn't want to climb up the stairs of an aircraft called an "Astrojet?! From then up to this very day, aviation, mostly commercial and biz-jet airplanes have held me in awe of what they're capable of. Traveling from Singapore to Newark Airport non-stop? That is an incredible feat for beings as delicate as humans. The accounting departments and OPEC have changed how today's travelers fly. It has become so commonplace that traveling air has become as routine as stopping by the Target for pet food. Passengers spoilt attitudes are also to blame. I recently flew First on AA from LGA to San Antonio. The passenger directly in front of me in row one and the other in the window seat on the starboard side both had their feet up on the bulkhead. One in his stocking feet the other in shoes. Disgusting. It's an insult to the flight crew, their aircraft, and we, the fellow passengers. Most of the public is so lax when dressing to travel that you would think they just rolled out of bed. I've seen grown adults in pajama pants, flip flops, wife-beater tees, etc. it's not just the airlines that have changed how many see air travel today, it's the public attitude that demands walls with shopping instead of windows for watching. I thank the powers that be that I happen to still get properly dressed to marvel at anything I board; from a puddle jumper to a 777-300er. I'm the one taking notes and chatting up the crews before, during, and after my flights. This is the fuel that lights the fire of my passion for being airborne and illustrating airplanes. Everyone should take a minute when in transit to grasp just exactly is transporting you in living room comfort to any destination in the world.

alpetor October 10, 2013

Reading this interview makes me want to read more of De Botton, but the BA/T5 reference baffles me. While the oneworld lounge at LHR was great, getting to and from the plane at T5 was circuitous at best. I did enjoy BA service and both planes, but their idiotic system for chasing a missing bag really put me off. How can a bag be in Palm Springs, LA and LHR all at the same time? Add to that officially the file was "closed." Aargh!

tonywestsider October 7, 2013

I agree with the above comment. It's best for the author to stick with generalities vs. specifics in the main interview. The specific instances mentioned has pulled down what otherwise seem to be a very good, timely interview. I recently traveled on the world's longest route, which is EWR-SIN operated by Singapore Airlines. I simply wanted to experience what this flight was like, having no special interest in the destination itself, nor was I on business travel. Overall, the service was superb, in spite of subtle cutbacks on the flight. The combination of service delivery by the cabin crew, attention to detail, cabin design, in-flight entertainment system, number of seats, meal presentation, flight routing and flying on the A340-500, made for an unforgettable journey.