“The ocean of the air connects us all”

“The ocean of the air connects us all” – this was one of the favourite quotes of aviation pioneer Albert Plesman, who co-founded KLM in 1919. His words seem even more appropriate today, with hundreds of thousands of air bridges connecting continents. I’d even venture to claim that an airline is more like a road or a track or an ocean than like a bus or a train or a ship. Without aircraft there would be no air transport, which means airlines serve a rather unique, infrastructural purpose, offering people a way in and out of places they might otherwise never have seen.

Similarly, the world wide web connects us all, making it increasingly difficult to ignore the plight of people elsewhere. Writers, particularly, often feel compelled to monitor and comment on developments in an age when we are bombarded with news at an unprecedented rate, not only via online and traditional media, but also via social networks. Here we can follow the updates, pleas and concerns of people in the midst of the action by simply clicking a button. Never before have we been so close, so aware, so interconnected.

a330For people working in the airline business, this interconnectedness has been a given since the very first commercial flights. When disaster strikes or unrest flares up anywhere in the world, the first concern at any airline is always for passengers, crew and local staff on site. I know this because my wife has been a cabin attendant since the day we met, and because I have served KLM as a translator for many years. So whenever unforeseen circumstances arise, we are both on the alert because we know friends or colleagues may be in harm’s way and because we may be required to contribute to the airline’s response to the crisis.
In short, it is almost impossible for us to approach such events with complete detachment. I think this applies to most people in the airline business.

Writers, come to think of it, are much the same as airlines: we share a similar responsibility to convey readers or passengers to places that might be difficult to access. When I agreed to write this blog, I initially intended to restrict myself to light-hearted and informative articles on cities I had never visited. I hoped that, by exploring my ignorance of the world and its many cultures, I might prompt others to share their own knowledge and questions, so that we might gain new insight together.

However, the ongoing catastrophe in Japan and unrest elsewhere have been on my mind and crossing my screen for weeks. And so my thoughts have briefly bypassed my funny bone and guided my writing hand to more serious topics. As I write this, I am acutely aware of the privileges I enjoy. My family and friends are safe and sound. I am not fleeing from disaster or foraging for food and drinking water. I have electricity to run my computer and charge my cell phone. And so my thoughts go out to those who have lost these privileges, to those who will never enjoy them, and to those who have forgotten that these are indeed privileges.