Saturday, April 09, 2005

How many paunchy businessmen have indulged in sticky, volleyball-sized Cinnabons in the departure terminal before boarding a doomed flight that's exploded in midair, sending seats and bits of fuselage and bodies plummeting into the ocean? Struck another plane on takeoff and somersaulted hideously across the airport's perimeter to come to rest on the interstate? Been taken over by a team of swarthy terrorists barking allahu akbar?

There's a shot of sunshine coming in from the window for the seat in front of me. It's reflecting off my watch and projecting an abstract splatter of golden light all over the wall beside me and my lowered window shade.

Plane tickets are disappearing into immateriality. It used to be you booked a flight, you got a dossier of printed matter: the multi-copy ticket itself with the receipt and the ticket that's not a ticket and the copy for your records. The separate, somewhat redundant itinerary specifying meal and entertainment provisions. A brochure of travel information in the style of a sexual hygiene pamphlet or coffeemaker manual. Car rental and hotel coupons. The requisite airline branding and marketing materials, complete with slogan and mission statement. Fine-print customs and luggage policies, warnings and indemnifications. All sheathed in a glossy, half-size portfolio you might need to fasten with a rubber band. And the volume and self-importance of these documents seemed measured to equal the grand, nearly miraculous nature of what you had contracted the airline to do: fly you somewhere. In the sky. With the introduction of e-tickets you still got something like a ticket, a printed description of the imaginary ticket – it's as though neither airline nor passenger trusted the other to have faith in a thing you couldn't keep close to your heart in the breast pocket of a leisure jacket and produce ceremoniously upon official request. More recently the e-ticket has been represented, appropriately enough, only by an e-mail, which you were advised though not required to make real by printing it out and bringing it to check-in. Which leaves us with the boarding pass as the only tangible document required. For a long time these were still made of sturdy, reassuring card stock, the kind you're warned not to bend, fold or mutilate. But today when I checked in the electronic kiosk spat at me a curl of the thinnest, flimsiest paper. Perhaps someday we'll fly on but a whisper or a promise.

On the way to check-in there stood the entire South African women's gymnastics team, or maybe tennis – glorious in green and yellow nylon, some wearily holding trophies half their size upon their hips.