How an aircraft becomes a bus

In 1999 I had the pleasure of flying from Amsterdam to Boston via New York. Both legs of the flight were operated by the same airline, with the same aircraft, under the same flight number, and I was sitting in the same seat. The only differences were the origin and the destination. A perfect situation for an experiment: what is the difference between a flight from Amsterdam to New York JFK and a flight between New York JFK and Boston, while all other variables remain unchanged.

The obvious difference is the difference in travel time, seven hours versus about one hour. And that the first flight is international and the second domestic. That, of course, may have influenced the results of the experiment. But, our observer is moderately experienced in short flights in Europe and I presume that she has taken these experiences into account objectively. In other words, shut up and listen.

My two-legged flight turned out to be a lesson in different travel cultures, more specifically in air travel cultures. At Amsterdam Airport the people that gathered for the flight to New York were relatively sharp dressed, carrying special bags for travelling and were maybe slightly nervous or otherwise excited about the journey they were about to make. It felt familiar being among them, like on most flights around Europe. Air travelling is – at least it was in 1999 – still a kind of special event for many people.

At New York JFK the atmosphere was a predictor of what I was about to experience on the next leg of my flight. An old, and not very shiny but cosy airport terminal welcomed me upon arrival. With people sitting back relaxed in their chairs and watching CNN until their flight is due.

How an aircraft becomes a busPhoto: flying over Boston, taken during the flight described in this post.

When the aircraft was cleaned and refueled I got back on board for the flight to Boston. The majority of the other people on board were probably Americans on a domestic flight. They were wearing jeans and t-shirts, and carrying linen bags that they carelessly dropped into the luggage bins. They were sitting back relaxed in the same way as they did in the terminal, looking a bit bored. And then I realized where I last saw this kind of travel behaviour: on a bus.

For several reasons, amongst which the large distances between cities, domestic air travel in the USA is abundant. You decide to take a flight just as easy as you would take a bus or a train in Europe. And the travellers seem to act accordingly. (By the way, it makes you wonder why Airbus is a European company).

How did it make me feel? It was double. I usually think that air travel should be experienced as something special (read: Plane of thought), but that way of experiencing also makes you a bit more frightened about possible disasters. The laid-back way in which flying was experienced by my fellow travellers on the domestic leg of my 1999 flight made me feel more confident.

So I cannot say which way of travelling I prefer most. It is good that you can experience both, it makes travelling more interesting.


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