by Geoff Olson

When a strange craft glided over Huffman prairie in 1905, the general manager of Dayton’s rail line and his chief engineer ordered the conductor to stop the train while they and the passengers on board watched in astonishment. Piloting the strange Ohio craft – one of the world’s first flying machines – was a man by the name of Orville Wright.

In his 1994 book Alternative Science, author Richard Milton writes: “From December 1903 to September 1908, two young bicycle mechanics from Ohio repeatedly claimed to have built a heavier-than-air flying machine and to have flown it successfully. But despite scores of public demonstrations, affidavits from local dignitaries and photographs of themselves flying, the claims of Wilbur and Orville Wright were derided and dismissed as a hoax by Scientific American, The New York Herald, the US army and most American scientists.”

Cut to over a century later. In December 2014, Cho Hyun-ah, vice president in charge of in-flight service at Korean Air, had a meltdown over the way she was served macadamia nuts in a first-class cabin of her employer’s airline.

Hyun-ah allegedly struck a flight attendant and ordered the plane back to the gate of a New york airport as it was taxiing for takeoff, so she could boot out the chief flight attendant. As a result of her “nut rage,” the airline executive lost her job and was charged with endangering flight safety. South Korean prosecutors are recommending a three year prison term.

It’s a testament to human adaptability that you can pack a few hundred people into a pressurized metal tube and fling them partway across the globe, without stories of meltdowns becoming as routine as in-flight Adam Sandler films. But New York Times writer Frank Bruni suggests otherwise. In a recent article, he insists it’s bad up there and getting worse.

‘’There are few better showcases of Americans worst impulses, circa 2014, than a 757 bound from New York to Los Angeles or from Sacramento to St. Louis. It’s a mile-high mirror of our talent for pettiness, our tendency toward selfishness, our disconnection from one another and our increasing demarcation of castes. It’s a microcosm at 30,000 to 45,000 feet,” he writes.

I haven’t flown either route, but I’ve done a fair bit of airline travel across the US and Canada and have very rarely witnessed the kind of behaviour that Bruni infers as typical for the Orcs in couch class.

“Courtesy is dead. The plane is its graveyard,” he concludes, working the rhetorical wa-wa pedal harder than Rex Murphy on Screech. Sure, it’s easy to insist that US passengers deserve better from the airlines and each other, when in fact their plane ticket prices have dropped 50 percent in real dollars since 1978.  On both sides of the border, passenger light has become the aerial equivalent of bus rides to middle class customers. The sense of entitlement in first class is correspondingly higher.

In the public mind, it’s not just normal but necessary for relatives to jet across the country for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  As a result, what was once breathtaking has become banal. In a much-viewed comedy routine on YouTube, Louis C.K. mocks an imaginary passenger who complains of waiting on a runway for 40 minutes: “Oh my god, really? What happened then, did you fly through the air like a bird, incredibly? Did you soar into the clouds, impossibly? You’re sitting in a chair in the sky. You’re like a Greek myth right now.”

Myths are impossible by definition.  According to Richard Milton, a main road and a rail line bordered the Wright brothers’ testing ground in Dayton. So for years, thousands of people had witnessed their flying experiments. It didn’t matter – experts had concluded that heavier-than-air flight was the stuff of Icarus and other fictional frequent flyers. Ergo, there was no need to investigate claims of success.

Eventually, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered public trials at Fort Myers, to settle the rumours once and for all. In 1908, the Wright brothers won official credibility when the army and scientific press accepted their flying machine as reality rather than myth.

Two brothers taking turns in chairs in the sky. And a hundred years later, millions of people follow their lead, spewing carbon compounds and complaining of cattle car conditions,  with the occasional tantrum over service. But mostly, politely enduring what was once considered impossible.

The Vancouver Courier, Feb. 6

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