As thousands of travelers fly home this week for Thanksgiving, I’ve been thinking about my own recent flight and what it told me about American life these days at 30,000 feet.
Earlier this autumn, I attended a conference in Canada, which required a four-hour plane trip from Dallas to Vancouver. Throughout the afternoon, none of the passengers appeared to be talking to each other. I’ve often sighed when a traveler struck up a conversation, wanting nothing more than to read my book. By that yardstick, my flight to Vancouver looked like a dream come true. Headphones crowned the heads of passengers, sealing each listener into a gated community of one. Travelers tapped on laptops, tethered to the urgencies of offices far below. Others watched muted in-flight movies. I was free to be alone, which reminded me of that ancient truth about being challenged by getting exactly what you ask for. Rather than delight at the quiet, I felt faintly diminished.
How had a planeful of Americans, a tribe once known for being garrulous to a fault, become so reticent coasting above their country? I’d already spotted some clues as I glanced around the cabin.
On my Vancouver flight, with dozens of films in the on-board cue, with personal keyboards connected to careers and families, with e-readers holding libraries of literature and digital playlists promising an endless supply of Top 40 tunes, why would any airline traveler have felt the need to banter with a stranger? As airlines have largely eliminated complimentary meals, another venue for in-flight conversation has vanished, too. Cultural conventions being what they are, it’s hard not to talk with someone you’re breaking bread with. But when the on-board repast is a bag of pretzels and a sip of ginger ale, passengers can, without risking rudeness, nourish themselves in solitude.
Rudeness — or, more specifically, the threat of rudeness — is probably nudging air travelers to keep to themselves, too. In the wake of those viral videos of passengers assaulting airline attendants or others on the flight, what I call the Subway Rule seems in force on flights now: Try not to engage others, and avoid eye contact with anyone else.
There’s also tighter space on airliners, which might seem to welcome social intimacy but actually discourages it. I was seated so closely to a young woman that my breath would have brushed her cheek if I’d attempted any small talk, making conversation a creepy physical intrusion.
Resigned to the hushed surroundings I’d once sought as an air traveler’s ideal, I looked out the window and thought of Robert Roosevelt, an uncle of Teddy Roosevelt, who argued that the best part of travel wasn’t the scenery but the people one befriended along the way. Maybe he was right, although as I flew toward Canada, there was no easy way to put his principle to the test.
Instead, I opened my book, as I’ve usually done, and began to read.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter @Danny_Heitman.