In this new world of travel tribulations, an alternative morality rules the air

The latest travel restrictions merely add to the already frustrating reality of today’s airports. Here, frequent traveller Rafia Zakaria meditates on the nature of modern travel and why it reduces all of us to a state of nature

Passengers enter the security control area at Helsinki airport in Finland. Airports and airlines divide passengers along lines of wealth and passports – and few seem to mind these divisions. Lehtikuva/Antti Aimo-Koivisto/via Reuters
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They say that travel makes you a better person. It’s not true for me. Travel makes me a less polite, more resentful, physically exhausted and emotionally drained person.

It makes me want to cut queues, to have more money (and hence better seats) and judge other people (especially those different to me, and everyone is somewhat different to me) rather harshly. I often fall sick before trips, I’m sullen and sulky during trips and fall sick again after trips. I still travel though, because I like getting there or rather being there, wherever my destination might be.

For all the rest of the time, the drive to the airport, the miserable march through security, the taking some things out and other things off, the languishing at the gate, the cramming into seats, I envy everyone else, anyone else who is not at that moment travelling.

I imagine that most, if not all of us commit similar sins of attitude and outlook when on the move. With the zipping up of the suitcase, our alternative travel selves are awakened, eager to take over. They enable us to accept arrangements and embrace desires we otherwise never would.

The arrangement of classes on planes, the poorest and cheapest in one end, the richer and better off in the other, reflects in literal and concrete terms a world where money and class determine treatment and worth. While some societies are more accepting of class divisions, the fact that these arrangements occur on nearly all airlines regardless of state or culture is notable.

Even the greatest advocates of equality, the most fervent critic of excess and special treatment, accept them and, if they are able, partake of them. Envy and condescension, the cordoned off superiority of the very special, are all deemed acceptable on board an aircraft in the alternative morality that rules the air.

Some portions of this same alternative morality endure when we land. Per the dystopic parameters of border and nationality, the colours and countries of our passports determine where we line up, what we are asked, how we are welcomed and if we are detained. The songs celebrating our common humanity are for other locations.

Don’t bring up human rights or human dignity to the man or woman in the passport booth and have no expectation of the common courtesy that lubricates the rest of life. The displeasure of the omniscient border control officer can equal the transformation of an arduous journey into a truly ghastly one. If you’re unfortunate enough to be travelling to Donald Trump’s America it can mean detention, confiscation and other horrors.

The tribulations of travel are not of course limited to the United States but they take on grotesque proportions as planes inch closer to their boundaries. We all know, for instance, the post-September 11 security regimes that have, in the decade and a half since that attack, colonised nearly every airport on Earth.

Regardless of whether you’re in Manila or Oslo or trying to get to Oslo or Manila, you will be scanned and X-rayed, your belongings scoured, your well-arranged items skewed, all for the privilege of getting on the plane.

In America, or rather when bound for America, even the large sum of all these intrusions is deemed not enough. Earlier this month, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which is in charge of inflicting these indignities at US airports, announced that “pat- downs” are going to get more invasive. This new (and worse) pat-down will be standardised so that everyone gets the same one as opposed to the five different kinds of pat-downs that TSA agents could choose from until now. I can’t wait until I get it.

Last week also brought travellers another and even more cumbersome new rule. The US department of Homeland Security, that is now presided over by a Trump appointee, announced that passengers travelling to the United States from six Muslim countries, the UAE, Qatar, Turkey, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan will all be forbidden from carrying any electronics save mobile phones on the plane. The directive, seemingly less intrusive than the Trump administration’s now twice-struck down travel ban, accomplishes to a lesser degree some of the same objectives.

Without much explanation of the nature of the threat that has provoked the measure, arriving Muslims are collectively treated as tainted, in possession of undetectable explosives secreted in their laptops. The fact that the flights from these countries are some of the longest humans currently endure, that some may like to work or read or have to entertain small children in tiny spaces, is of no concern.

Those are the exceptional and recent inflictions of misery, but even without them travel is riddled with intolerance and inconvenience, our own alternate and impatient travel selves clashing and colliding with those of our fellow passengers. I have had to run from a woman changing a dirty nappy on the seat tray table, argue with a man who even while seated across the aisle objected to my use of an empty seat next to me, tolerate the kicks of toddlers seated behind me and the drunken blather of men seated in front of me.

We all have our horror stories because we as travellers are rather horrible people. These stories serve a good purpose; I use them to console myself on other flights (at least it’s not that, etc) harnessing the power of comparative context to render snoring strangers or stinky strangers a bit more bearable.

The larger point is simply that travel, at least economy-class travel of ordinary people like me, brings out the worst in us. Even as we partake of the great technological and scientific feat that is jet travel, we are reduced by its inconveniences to a primal state.

In the Hobbesian microcosm of the airport and the airplane, we guard our territory, fight over resources and space, are easily wronged and ever-entitled. It is almost as if this very contrast, between the miraculous nature of travelling, of moving so fast in such little time, is too much for our stone-age DNA to tolerate and so it takes us back instead of forward.

I will be on a plane again this week and I am trying hard to resist, to not morph fast and furiously into my terrible travel self. To be the better person that travel is supposed to make me or just the normally nice person that I usually am. The progress is slow and the expectation of suffering great, its acuteness exacerbated by the general uncertainty imposed by the new restrictions falling in torrents on the hapless traveller.

Against all this, the power of an individual to choose seems drastically limited both in the air and at airports: those treated like suspects feel like them, those served last like leftovers and those questioned like criminals.

In these airborne and border spaces, the categories of who paid more and who was born where, bleach away character, reduce identity to race or religion or nationality, and worth to money. We travel to see the world, but the cost of it is immersion in this other world, one where we are all lesser versions of ourselves.

Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan