IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Stranded airport refugees get dose of reality

To today's travelers, going anywhere on the planet is a birthright. Until some volcano erupts. Now, travelers struggle to figure out how an infrastructure that is usually theirs to command could have turned on them so abruptly.
Passengers, stranded becuase of Iceland volcano distruptions, wait and sleep in a line at a Finnair counter at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on April 20, 2010.
Passengers, stranded becuase of Iceland volcano distruptions, wait and sleep in a line at a Finnair counter at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on April 20, 2010. Seth Wenig / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

They sit grounded, scattered haphazardly across Europe and the United States — a baggage-toting diaspora of humanity's jet age, reduced to temporary refugee status by a volcanic cloud whose ash has upended the sense that for want of a boarding pass, the world is our oyster.

To today's travelers, journeying to anywhere on the planet is a birthright. It's hard to believe that as recently as 100 years ago, human beings who traveled from continent to continent did so only in the most extraordinary circumstances and spent weeks en route. But thanks to technology and life's ever-frantic pace, around the world in 80 days became 80 hours.

Then some Icelandic volcano called Eyjafjallajokull erupts, and the global citadels we call airports are crippled. Stranded on another continent! Your Wednesday meeting in Amsterdam unreachable! Unacceptable!

In the sharp-elbowed World of Now — where BlackBerry e-mails must be answered within minutes, Skype video conferences are convened across oceans and fresh maguro tuna from Japan is expedited to New York City sushi bars — being unable to be there simply doesn't cut it.

"To go to Paris and not know how long you'll be stuck there, that's kind of like our grandparents. There's a sense of disbelief. People say, 'Not us — surely they can't do this to us,'" says Guillaume de Syon, an aviation historian at Albright College in Reading, Pa.

You can divine this notion from the comments of travelers, regardless of nationality, who have appeared on camera at airports and in hotel lobbies across Europe during the past week. Their facial expressions are usually of a piece — vaguely disoriented, struggling to figure out how an infrastructure that is usually theirs to command could have turned on them so abruptly.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), the lonely, disconnected road warrior obsessed with frequent-flier miles in the 2009 film "Up in the Air," captured the attitude of the modern traveler perfectly as his character circled runways and wandered though airports: "The slower we move," he said, "the faster we die."

Unsurprisingly, a spate of movies in recent years have explored the arrival-and-departure life as a deeply alienating experience that deposits people in unfamiliar backdrops as they try to figure themselves out. These are postcards of alienation from a global culture still coming to grips with what it has at its fingertips.

In 2003's "Lost in Translation," Bill Murray's traveler struggled to find his humanity in Japan; a year later, in "The Terminal," Tom Hanks played an Eastern European man caught in visa limbo who was forced to take up residence in John F. Kennedy International Airport and, in the process, discovered who he was.

Airports, of course, are the purgatory to the modern travel Valhalla we like to believe we inhabit, and only more so since 9/11 turned them into isolated fortresses. Recent days' events illustrate this vividly: Though many upended travelers this week are staying at hotels or hostels, the truly stranded are sprawled out on shiny floors and sleeping on Samsonite pillows, trapped between the worlds they inhabit.

The travel writer Pico Iyer, who has written extensively about the placelessness that modern travel can cause, takes particular note of the airport terminal as a symptom of what our jet-stream society has wrought.

"Things get lost in translation in airports, and the whole cross-cultural drama is stirred up by the fact that many of the people in airports are in something of a dream state," Iyer wrote in a 2000 essay for which he inhabited Los Angeles International Airport for a time.

"One of the odd things about airports," he writes, "is that the instruments we make to serve us always hold us hostage, and many of the people in gate lounges are clearly frustrated because they're at the mercy of forces they can't understand or control — red-eyed, bored, waiting to be transported."

And what if we were, ultimately, stuck in one place? What if something reversed our ability to fly the not-so-friendly skies forever?

This past weekend, Alain de Botton, the recent writer-in-residence at London's Heathrow Airport (that there is such a thing speaks volumes in itself), penned a reverie about what the world might feel like if planes were grounded forever and we were forced back into travel that spanned days, weeks, months.

"Those who had known the age of planes," he wrote, "would recall the confusion they had felt upon arriving in Mumbai or Rio, Auckland or Montego Bay, only hours after leaving home, their slight sickness and bewilderment lending credence to the old Arabic saying that the soul invariably travels at the speed of a camel."

And when an ashy volcanic cloud from a distant land — something elemental and ancient and out of place — slows our bodies, our baggage and our lives to that speed as well, there are lessons. They're unwelcome lessons, because they tell us that we're not as in control as we'd like to believe.

That sometimes, without our flying machines and the world they serve up to us so seamlessly, in the end we are the powerless victims of our own 21st-century expectations.