Ready or not, the Tricentennial of the City of New Orleans is coming, followed shortly thereafter, depending upon work interruptions for rain, heat, hail, hurricanes, Mardi Gras and fried chicken festivals, by the unveiling of a nearly $1 billion new passenger terminal at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.
Forget for a moment the irony that our original Kenner airport – Moisant Field – was named for aviator John Bevins Moisant, who died in 1910 after being ejected from his plane by heavy winds while practicing for the Michelin Cup and falling 25 feet into a Harahan field. Moisant Stock Yards (MSY) still is the identifying code for the New Orleans airport today.
Dr. Christopher Schaberg, a professor of American literature and environmental theory at Loyola University New Orleans, long has been fascinated by the hidden culture of airports, which are transient gathering spots for people who need to get someplace else fast and often feel powerless in controlling their destiny and thus become susceptible to a wild jumble of emotions.
When Schaberg was in graduate school at Montana State University in Bozeman in 2001, he needed a few extra bucks to pay his bills, so he answered a want-ad for a part-time position at United Airlines. The Bozeman airport was a relatively tiny place, but to someone who had the curiosity of an academic, the job revealed an amazing, unseen world.
“I spent the next few years loading luggage, de-icing planes and emptying the lavatories at the end of the day, because at a small airport, you do every job,” Schaberg said. “They called us cross-utilization agents.”
That cross-utilization has led to an academic cottage industry for Schaberg, who now has written three books on the airplane industry and, in particular, airports. His latest, “Airportness: The Nature of Flight” (Bloomsbury), is a breezy read that describes a single-day’s journey through the seemingly routine but interconnected activities that characterize air flight today.
“My friends keep asking me, ‘This is your third book on that topic. That’s a trilogy. Are you done now?’” Schaberg said, laughing.
Actually, he’s already planning a sequel, this one a novel set 15 years in the future dreaming about what might become of air travel.
Schaberg began his job at the Bozeman airport in April 2001. Five months later – Sept. 11, 2001 – the world, not to mention the aviation world, changed forever.
“The students I have in my classes now were 1 year old when 9/11 happened,” Schaberg said.
Anyone who has traveled by jet in the last 16 years understands how airport security has added another irritant to the routine. Even Schaberg is unsure if the additional security measures are actually making us safe or simply making us feel safer.
“We’re putting so much effort into protecting the space, but we may not be safe at all,” Schaberg said. “I hope I’m wrong.”
One hope Schaberg has for readers of his book is that they will learn to be more contemplative and flexible as they roll their luggage through the Disney World-style lines on their way to meet the TSA agent with the blue latex gloves. Not to mention the boarding announcement that begins with: “Folks, we’ve got a small problem …”
“One of my pet peeves – and this comes partly from working at an airport – is seeing how quickly people can become impatient and unhappy,” Schaberg said. “It dismays me that people can so quickly give priority to their own interests. It’s amazing how narrow the threshold is between tolerating something and getting angry. My modest hope is that this book will help people just to think a little more about flight, which is something we’ve done as a species. Instead of thinking of individual things – my money, my ticket, my drink – we should think of this as something we’ve done together.”
That thought struck him in Bozeman when people in hiking gear, returning from a glorious week’s vacation in Yellowstone, where surprises lurk around every bend, could not stomach a 30-minute change in schedule.
“Something will happen at an airport and they will get angry,” Schaberg said. “They’ve just come away from nature, where things are so unpredictable, and I always wonder, why did they turn off that capacity and why do they suddenly need instant gratification. I hope people would be able to take a deep breath and appreciate the unexpected. Look for the poetry in air travel. People today don’t look out the window and see the beauty of airplanes landing or taxiing.”
Yes, airline travel is filled with mysteries and conundrums, but Schaberg offers a few tips. The maxim that tickets are cheaper if you fly on Tuesdays or Wednesdays is usually true “but not always the case.”
Pack smaller and carry on your bag to lower your blood pressure. Appreciate the craziness and the bravery of the Wright Brothers and other aviation pioneers, including Moisant, who gave their lives to create this amazing advance in human history.
And, at least in New Orleans, do not yearn for the future when there may be flying cars.
“What would we do without potholes?” Schaberg said.
Flying cars can’t happen in New Orleans. We don’t use blinkers.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.