Required Reading: ‘A Week at the Airport’

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If you love aviation, stop reading this blog and go out and purchase a copy of Alain de Botton’s A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary

OK, you’re still here. You need convincing.

Last August de Botton spent a week living at London Heathrow. No, he wasn’t some wayward passenger: BAA offered him the gig and gave him full access and even permission to criticise the airport.

A Week at the Airport is his brilliant summation of an industry as it has never been told before. De Botton focuses on seemingly banal moments and in doing so brings a paradigmatic shift to viewing aviation.

To de Botton, a jet bridge about to dock with a British Airways B747-400 is actually a rubber mouth making a hesitant kiss. A sorrowful and teary good-bye between a couple is actually one of the high points in their lives: they have found in one another a person they cannot stand to be away from.

We bemoan the loss of aviation’s glory days, but de Botton’s lively descriptions restore the allure of flying machines that crisscross the globe. An aircraft’s wheels on touchdown “prepared to greet rubber-stained English tarmac with a burst of smoke that made manifest their planes’ speed and weight.”

This illustrious work will not only help restore aviation’s glamour to the public who cannot tell an Airbus from a Boeing, but also make the most die-hard aviation fan see aviation in a difference perspective.

I opened the cover after settling down in seat 23A on D7 2009 from London Stansted to Kuala Lumpur. Just a few minutes later the de-icing cherry picker outside was not a machine. With one light bulb at the top pointing straight ahead and one aiming down, it was a face winking. De Botton frequently surmises how Heathrow must appear as to passengers. I now saw that the de-icing cherry picker/face winking would offer the best view of my A340-300 if I was fortunate enough to be in the contraption, even with the bitter English winter outside.

I reached page 107, the last of this concise work, over the Gulf of Thailand. But it was some twenty pages earlier that de Botton made his most poignant statement. He talks with British Airways CEO Willie Walsh and realises they are not unlike. BA, losing £1.6 million a day in August, was representative of an industry de Botton claims has never collectively made a profit–just like writing.

That is not wrong, de Botton says. “It seemed as unfair to evaluate an airline according to its profit-and-loss statement as to judge a poet by her royalty statements.” De Botton’s proclamation may seem out of place on a site like ours where we report the financial situation of carriers.

Delve deep into our archive, however, and it is apparent that it is indeed not finances that capture the imagination. TWA and its Eero Saarinen terminal at JFK are beloved, but the carrier disappeared into American Airlines days before it would have had to declare bankruptcy. Pan Am with its Clippers and around-the-world flight is also revered despite a painful bankruptcy. And perhaps no aircraft is more famous than Concorde, which Walsh’s BA found too costly to operate.

The way to judge the two, de Botton says, is that aviation and writing each needs “to justify itself in the eyes of humanity not so much by its bottom line as by its ability to stir the soul.”

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