In the space of just over a hundred years, we’ve gone from the world’s first commercial flight (with just one paying passenger on a 40-kilometre route in Florida which took 23 minutes) to the dawn of space tourism. On average, eight million people fly somewhere every day. Today, the longest non-stop flight in the world – between Dallas and Sydney – is 13 730 kilometres and takes 17 hours and the biggest passenger plane – the Airbus A380 – can carry 853 people.
Somewhere between that first commercial flight in Florida and the launch of the A380, we airline passengers have become blasé about flying. Instead of marvelling at the remarkable technology that allows us and our 20 kilogram suitcases to fly across the globe in a matter of hours, we complain about the annoying airport security checks, the delays due to storms, the lack of leg room, the bland meals and extra charges for heavy baggage. We also roll down our little window blinds and forget to look through the glass at the ever changing landscape below us unfurling by the second.
Have a look at your fellow passengers right now. Can you see anyone staring out of the window? Probably not. When people first took to the skies they were utterly mesmerised by the view below them, but once the jumbo jet came along and the cost of air travel dropped significantly, the view from the plane window lost its appeal. We will pay a lot extra for a hotel room with a view of the sea, or book in advance for the table in the restaurant with the best vista but instead of marvelling at the kind of views once reserved for the birds most of us fill our hours of flying with work, movies, music, books and sleep.
To bring back some of that sense of wonder that that fliers in the early 20th century felt, all you need to do is look out of that oval-shaped glass. Out there are 50 different types of clouds, some filled with more than 500 tonnes of water. You may be flying over ocean, where you can spot tiny white horses and the occasional cargo ship. Or maybe you’re cruising over the arid, sparsely habited Karoo: rusk-coloured mountains and plains scarred with carless roads and dry rivers.There could be a vast patchwork of farmed fields below you, or neat suburbia, with swimming pools like tiny blue jewels and roads like gridlined maths paper. Maybe you glimpse a dusting of snow on top of the Drakensberg or see an above-the-clouds sunrise so beautiful it looks like a dream.
It’s a sad thought to think that the future of flying could be a viewless one. A UK-based development company is working on building windowless planes which could be flying within the next decade, replacing heavy aircraft windows with light smartscreen panels to cut fuel consumption. Instead of windows, screens covering the interior walls of the plane will project the sky outside – but would also allow you to browse the web and check your email. While cutting down on fuel would mean that airfares could be slashed, replacing windows with the equivalent of your laptop screen will take something irreplacable away about the magic of flying.
Whether you fly infrequently or travel by plane several times a month, take a moment (or spend the whole flight) appreciating being 11 kilometres above the Earth, like Richard Branson, who said “There isn’t a flight that goes by when I don’t stare out of the window and thank my stars for what I’m seeing and feeling.” For two hundred thousand years we were constrained to the ground, and just a century ago we found a way to break free and take to the skies. Enjoy those spectacular window views while they last.
This was originally published in the February issue of Mango Juice magazine