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7 September 2022

The antidote to the horror of air travel is the wonder of a child flying for the first time

I was dreading my flight with two fractious five-year-olds until I was at Heathrow Terminal 2 and remembered a key factor: magic.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Going through airports always makes me think not of Hugh Grant’s misty-eyed monologue at the start of Love Actually, but of Douglas Adams. “It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the expression ‘as pretty as an airport’,” wrote Adams in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, published in 1988. Since then, airport design may have marginally improved from what he calls “a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort”, but the entire flying experience has morphed from an inconvenience into a nightmare.

The extra security demands introduced in the wake of 9/11 and the foiled 2006 liquid explosive plot feel guaranteed to maximise stress. Is my 120ml bottle of sunscreen really a major threat? Will we all feel safer if I put my Kindle in a separate tray to my wallet? Airlines, meanwhile, have been working hard to make flying as unpleasant as possible for economy customers in a blatant effort to force them to upgrade out of pure desperation. Seats are getting smaller (it’s not just you – they really are) and the arms race to fleece passengers for all they’re worth is out of control.

In one of the lulls between lockdowns I was charged for having the audacity to want to sit next to my partner – ironic considering Covid was still raging and masks were mandatory “to reduce the spread”. Add in the recent chaos as staff shortages lead to flight cancellations, endless delays, lost baggage and mile-long queues, plus the inevitable “flygskam” (flight shame) that goes hand-in-hand with air travel mid climate crisis, and the very thought of getting on a plane is enough to induce a shudder.

So the prospect this summer of doing all that with two fractious five-year-olds in tow filled me with what I can only describe as abject terror. Airports are horrendous. Small children, while wonderful, are not known for their patience and serenity while being dragged around crowded departure lounges, forced to wait in countless queues, and shepherded on to an unfamiliar and frankly uncomfortable aircraft. This was going to be varsity-level step-parenting. And it was, I was sure, going to be a disaster.

Yet there was something I hadn’t factored in until we arrived, laden with luggage, at Heathrow Terminal 2: magic. Because human-powered flight is genuinely, transformatively, undeniably miraculous. How else do you explain 150 people locked inside a metal tube weighing 70 tonnes ascending to the skies, only to disembark safely at their destination hundreds of miles away? Engineers will tell you it’s physics, but we all know the real answer must be witchcraft.

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As the American aviator Ernest K Gann put it in 1944: “Flying is hypnotic and all pilots are willing victims to the spell.” Any passenger without an advanced degree in aerodynamics is placing their faith – their life – in a technology they cannot begin to understand but that fulfils an ancient human fantasy. The Greeks told themselves stories about Icarus and Leonardo da Vinci tried to build himself wings; today, we trust our lives to Boeing 737s without a second thought and chafe at the tedium of being shown yet again how to fasten our seatbelts or told we can’t use the loo because we’re about to land.

Nothing can remind you of that magic like a child on an aeroplane for the first time. Never has a safety card been studied in so much detail (“When we go down the big yellow slide, Rachel, you must take off your shoes”); never has a window been watched out of so avidly. “I can see France!” one twin exclaimed, as we crossed the Channel. “We’re actually flying through an actual cloud!” the other chimed in shortly after. She was right – we were. How could I have flown through clouds so many times before without taking in the sheer fairy-tale-castle enchantment of them? How had I let petty frustrations about the seat in front crushing my knees overcome the marvel of soaring through the stratosphere?

The airport, when we landed, was as ugly as any other. We had to queue for extra passport stamps thanks to Brexit, while news alerts on my phone informed me the chaos on our return would be even worse. I was drained and dishevelled, lugging too many bags and painfully aware of how airline cost-cutting and climate guilt have together sucked every ounce of glamour from what was once considered a luxury form of transport.

But I was with two little girls still up on whatever cloud we’d transited through, effervescent with wonder at their very first flight. And the memory of their joy may just be enough to silence my inner Douglas Adams next time I’m forced to relinquish a forgotten tube of toothpaste at the security gate.

[See also: How to sell your soul for clicks]

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This article appears in the 07 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Liz Truss Unchained