What’s Your Connection?

What does the expression “up in the air” connote for you? According to the Oxford American dictionary, it means “still to be settled; unresolved.” If air suggests uncertainty and unsettledness, then its opposite, the ground, suggests, well, the idea of settledness or, quite literally, groundedness.

Up in the Air also refers to a movie that came out in 2009 starring George Clooney and Vera Farmiga. I watched this movie while preparing to defend my Master’s essay because it dealt with a space that I critiqued for its homogeneity and fleeting social interactions. With all the discussion by a number of urban theorists stating that airports represent the new public space of the 21st century with the potential for diversity, I pushed back a bit against this glowing report. Are airports really dynamic public spaces like the traditional public spaces of city squares, parks, and piazzas? For one, most airports are privately owned (or leased to private corporations who oversee its operation), and for two, the experience of being subjected to rigid check-in and security procedures while under constant surveillance seems a far cry from a free and democratic public space.

I admit I took a liking to the film Up in the Air because it offered a pretty realistic commentary of our interactions in a globalized society, and also because it echoed the sentiments in my essay (ah yes, what a reassurance to know that Hollywood was backing me up!) Despite the seemingly public space of airports that bring diverse people from different spaces and time zones together, this social meeting of diversity tends to be rather illusory. At one point, someone says to George Clooney’s character (Ryan Bingham) over the phone: “You’re awfully isolated the way you live.” He responds, “Isolated? I’m surrounded” as he looks around his 21st century office – the airport. But he is isolated and looking for connection, as the end of the movie makes clear (warning, there may be some more spoilers – I probably should have stated this before I wrote the previous sentence, sorry).

To relate it back to the title, the movie suggests that a perpetual lifestyle of literally living and working “up in the air” isn’t sustainable or desirable. There exists even in Ryan Bingham – the quintessentially casual, commitment-free modern businessman “living between the margins of his itineraries” – the desire for eventual grounding. Unfortunately, this grounding never occurs because he fails to operate by – or rather, keep the rules of temporary, casual airport relationships while the woman he’s interested in does (this is not meant to give her credit as by keeping these relationship rules, she compromises other ones, like the marital ones with her husband).

Having flown back and forth multiple times between Vancouver and Ottawa during my university years, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in airplanes and airports. Sure, I’ve had some good conversations with my armrest companions, but I haven’t kept in touch with any of these strangers. In fact, I barely remember them (apart from one woman I would later work with at City Hall, but those repeat meetings have been the exception). The connections I made were short, sweet, and most often, solely concentrated at the beginnings and ends of the flight – especially four-hour ones.

The conversation often begins with the polite and obligatory introductions: So where are you headed?” “What brought you out here?” “Do you travel for work often?” “What do you study?” “How long are you visiting for?” and ends with an attempt to wrap up this strange aerial relationship you’ve shared with a stranger by way of some friendly yet neutral conclusive statement: “Oh look, we’re here.” “Wonder what the weather’s like.” “Don’t you just love flying into Vancouver?” In between, in all that air space, is a lot of people watching movies, listening to music, reading books and playing Sudoku. At the end, everyone exits the aircraft and the physical proximity and common destination that brought you together lets you go because you have finally arrived and your status is no longer “up in the air.”

George Clooney cleverly narrates a typical airport interaction in play-by-play format you can watch here.

Transitory space, transitory encounters

I’m not saying airport interactions can’t be meaningful because they’re short or because they’re with strangers (sometimes the best conversations are with people you know you’ll never run into or answer to again), but is this type of interaction really the future – or present – of a city’s public life? The portrayal of air culture in Up in the Air doesn’t offer much optimism in light of this potential reality.

Other popular media supports this transitory depiction of airport culture. In Douglas Coupland’s sci-fi novel PlayerOne set entirely in an airport, one character takes a taxi to an “airport hotel cocktail lounge because she has learned in Internet chat rooms that this is where people go to have flings. A ‘fling’ is a human term to describe a zero-commitment, most often non-procreative, one-time-only sexual act. People in and around airports are usually experiencing a reduced sense of identity, and travelers like to flirt and experiment sexually in ways they would never do in their everyday environments.”

Given these portrayals of airports in recent fiction and film, do airports constitute the new public space of our time? Are they really that social? Maybe you have a cool connection story or maybe you don’t, but, in any case, I’d like to hear about your airport experience!

5 thoughts on “What’s Your Connection?

  1. Great read Charlene! I personally have a bit of a different view on the social interactions within an airport. Or at least the interactions that I pay most attention to. Granted, because my volunteer job actually involves people-watching at the airport, I will have a different perspective from those who frequent airport for the purpose of travel. And because the areas I observe are primarily the “public” area before security, the types of interactions I notice may differ from those you (and perhaps the movie, which I haven’t seen) describe.

    For me, the airport has always been a fascinating place to observe emotionally-charged interactions between the traveller and non-traveller. What I’m referring to is friends, family, and loved ones dropping off and picking up passengers. I see long embraces. I see tears- lots of them. I see bouquets of flowers and creatively constructed homemade signs. I see ecstatic smiles. I see reunions being filmed on smartphones. I see people staring at the arrivals door, anxiously ready to pounce every time it opens. Not that the potentially long distance and time apart doesn’t play the primary role in the sad goodbyes and joyous welcomes, but it almost seems to me that the airport really magnifies and heightens these sentiments. It’s as if when someone you love is flying away, they are *really* leaving. The separation feels more real. Perhaps saying goodbye to a travelling loved one appears so stressful because they are about to enter the ambiguous “up in the air” world of the airport once they pass security? And when we pick up someone from the airport, it’s like they survived their journey into this transitory world, and we are so happy to have them back on the ground? Anyway, maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about – I just know it’s quite fascinating to (non-creepily, I swear!) observe pickup and dropoff of travellers by non-travellers at airport terminals.

    I also enjoy seeing how travellers behave with the fellow travellers in their party. There seems to be a bonding, unifying element to group travel, whether it be friends or family. I can’t recall seeing many groups arguing or angry with each other. Although come to think of it, my recollection could very well be coloured by the fact that all my travel experiences have been positive, and to me, travelling with friends brings some of the happiest moments in life. But maybe that’s just me. Still though, I would argue that the travel experience does bring people (who already know each other) together. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re about to embark- or have just come back from – a fun trip together. Perhaps it taps into a warrior spirit in all of us – the idea of coming together to conquer something (the security lineup, the 18 hours of flying, etc) and accomplish a mission (get to our destination) despite challenges (lost luggage, weather delays, etc). Or maybe it’s simply the fact that you really have no where to escape and are essentially forced to be cordial with each other.

    So maybe I’m not being fair since what I’m describing are interactions between people who already know each other. Anyway, I’m not disagreeing with your opinions… just another way of looking at the airport, perhaps.

  2. Thanks for your comments Phil and for sharing another important side of airport interactions that I’ve neglected to mention – those emotionally-charged reunion scenes (which, by the way, you’re not the only one who non-creepily enjoys observing…and I’m sure many others do too!) While these reunions are between people who already know each other, I think you’re right to point out that the airport is not just this temporary holding place for strangers passing through – it’s also a scene of much emotion and bonding. Thinking back on my own travel experiences, I’ve realized that almost all of my flights have been solo, so maybe that’s where my more cynical approach to the flying experience comes from. You sure make a strong case for the way travelling brings friends or family together – it makes me want to experience that “warrior spirit” and camaraderie you speak of in conquering something and accomplishing a mission! thanks again for your thoughts!

  3. Very interesting post Char! I always enjoy reading about your thoughts and learning something new each time. Having traveled extensively, I think I would tend to agree with your conclusions Char – although I could never have expressed them so extensively. Traveling with friends or family is most definitely more enjoyable than traveling solo. Even traveling with just one other person is better because you can look after each other’s stuff and/or have someone to explore/get lost with if traveling to a non-english speaking country! 🙂

  4. Pingback: Up in the Air (2009) | Cine

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