Saturday, December 17, 2011

Flying the Modern Airliner Through Magical Skies

Scene from Lufthansa Flight 400 today
All the great aviation writers, Antoine Saint Exupery, Ernest K. Gann, William Langewiesche, even the Boeing 747 designer Joseph Sutter (a surprisingly good writer for an engineer) know that flying is an exquisite balance of science and art. There’s poetry in the skies and plenty of it. 

Nevertheless, the world of air travel we know today is reliant on the hard reality of complex and interconnected systems.  I mention this having just returned from Ethiopia, where Ethiopian Airlines, joined the Star Alliance and became - in my opinion - the perfect illustration of the yin and yang of the skies. 

Ethiopian Q400 at Lalibela Airport
To many people - even plane geeks - what airlines participate in what alliances, is of little interest.  I got that. But it is worth pausing to appreciate how an airline can connect a traveler to twelve-hundred destinations in 189 countries while serving corners of the world so remote that the local airport is one of few places in the area with electricity. 

Be astonished - because when I arrived on an Ethiopian Airlines flight at the tiny community of Lalibela last week, I was barely off the airport property before I saw farmers threshing  grain in the fields using hand tools. The finished product would be hauled in sacks, uphill on a donkey if they’re lucky, on the back of a person if they are not.

Villagers walking home from Lalibela
That airline services can reach previously unreachable communities is a thrilling evolution and it only occurs because of the love it/hate it progress of communications technology. 
These alliances; Star, One World and SkyTeam, it doesn’t really matter, all require their members to  speak to each other, across many departments  from ticket sales to baggage tracking to frequent flyer programs. 
Yep, it’s the decidedly unglamorous, down-to-earth reality of modern aviation.  But you can’t have that thrilling product, the ability to travel to and from formerly remote corners of our globe without it. 

If you want to get a good debate going ask your friends, "What has had the largest effect on modern civilization; advances in communication or aviation?" Until a few years ago I would have said, "aviation". These days, though, aviation seems ever more reliant on following the innovations that have their origins in communication.

This was reinforced on Saturday when I boarded Lufthansa Flight 400 on my way home from Africa and discovered wifi was available during the eight-hour flight. While waiting for my computer to boot up, I looked out the window and  saw an amazing sight, the sun was casting the shadow of our A340 on the cloud layer below. Surrounding it was a perfect circle of refracted light.

Meteorology may explain the phenomenon. Engineering got the plane up there in the first place.  Never mind, we were flying through a magical halo and flying was poetry again.

And the fact that I could take a picture of it and upload it to my blog’s Facebook page within minutes, did not detract from the experience one teeny-tiny bit.

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