OK, I have a confession. I love in-flight maps. Whether they are in the in-flight magazine or on the screen tracking your real-time location, I can’t stop staring at them. I don’t know how much time I’ve wasted (invested???) just looking at those things. But, I’m always captivated by them. Their allure puts me in discovery mode, as if I’m a modern day Captain Cook sitting in seat 24D ready to take on the world and see new places I could go one day. My fascination started long before my career break.
In college, I took a course called Map Of the Modern World. Any Georgetown student enrolled in the School of Foreign has to take this class. At least in the early 90s (not sure if it’s still run the same way), it was a pass-fail class with only one exam. All you had to know was where every country in the world was, a bit about key border disputes and some basic facts about geography. I loved this class. The hardest part for me was the Caribbean and all those tiny islands in the Micronesia region of the south Pacific. Ever since that class, I’ve had a fascination with maps, and flight maps always engage me.
While it happens to me on domestic flights, the real magic is on international flights. In June while flying between New York and Delhi, I flew over some new parts of the world for me: the Middle East and the Near East. Even flying over places like Iraq and Afghanistan gave me a certain thrill. Cities popped up on the screen that rarely, if ever, crossed my travel-hungry mind. I may never visit them, but I feel an odd connection with them at 35,000 feet.
My favorite is flying over Africa. I’ve flown both KLM and South African Airways over the continent from Europe to Johannesburg. Now that to me is really exciting. I will likely never get to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And, I wonder what places like Addis Ababa, Kigali and Lilongwe would be like. Even looking through Sawubona, SAA’s in-flight magazine, I see all the places they cover on the African continent and I think, “I fly South African Airways. I like South African Airways. I like traveling to Africa. Maybe one day…”
Part of the allure is the romantic notion of travel that I still hold on to. Part of it is the explorer within me, looking for the next adventure, country or region to explore. Part of it could be boredom with the flight. Honestly, it’s more enjoyable than watching Two and a Half Men.
Frankly, it’s just the same dreaming and exploring I do online often. It’s just a different context and a different set of search tools. The world always seems smaller, more accessible to me with these maps. Even when I flew a LAN flight between Auckland and Santiago, crossing the Antarctic, I thought, “Yeah, I’ll get there.” Someday. Someday.
I think there are a few reasons why the flight maps entrance me during flight (beyond the fact that I’m part of a captive audience. Again, I could be watching Two and a Half Men).
First, you see all those possibilities. The world is at my fingertips and it seems so easy to say, let’s go there. There is also a certain wow factor in having it all laid out in front of you. It’s sort of an awesome feeling and in my mind I think, “I could start here, then make my way there.” As a member of several frequent flier programs, I start thinking ahead to cashing in the miles for that free trip. And, when the maps throw in the routes of their partner airlines, my wanderlust goes into overdrive. Intentional or not, those lines on the map between destinations are like bright shiny lights to a little kid. Ooooo, pretty! Then, there is the oddly colored “Future Service” line showing new possibilities. For example, on a recent United flight, I saw that there is new service coming between Houston and Auckland. As a frequent flier through Houston, I loved seeing that one. Finally, there are always a list of cities that I never knew existed or never really paid much attention to. But, in that moment, all of sudden I feel like I have to go there.
The likelihood that I will see all these places is remote. But, a guy can dream, can’t he?