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Air Travel's New Departure

For those of us who persist in romanticizing air travel—the sort for whom a miniature bottle of Johnnie Walker is somehow always more intoxicating than a fifth—the past few years have been a little rocky, to say the least. We pretty much lost the peanut in 1998, and the Concorde in 2003, and in between, terrorism gave us the shoe-check, the demise of flatware and curbside check-in, and ballooning "dwell times," as those interminable, and profit-able, preflight waits are called in the airport industry.

Even well before September 11, 2001, flying seemed less like a spectacular adventure (as it had been in the early days of commercial aviation), or even a sexy diversion (as it became with the advent of the jet age), and more like a time-consuming chore that lay between a cluttered desk in the city and a breezy seaside villa in Capri. The sooner the Ambien kicked in, the better.

Chemically induced sleep was my plan on a recent Swiss flight from New York to Zurich, which is why I assumed I must be hallucinating when I noticed The Out-of-Towners (the Jack Lemmon, Sandy Dennis original) on the movie menu. In Neil Simon's 1970 homage to the tribulations of travel, a nice Ohio couple en route to New York is beset by a harrowing series of high-altitude torments—hours spent circling JFK in a storm, lost luggage, and while the credits roll, a hijacking to Cuba. As I settled into the film, it hit me: if airplane passengers soaring over Newfoundland could actually chuckle over George and Gwen Kellerman's misadventures, rather than grimacing through their own, things are clearly looking up in our choppy, century-long love affair with the friendly skies.

There's certainly something in the air. Not only has the number of domestic passengers increased by nearly 5 percent this year, but a perceptible realignment in the flightgeist has rendered the entire notion of air travel cooler than it's been in four decades. "Any tragedy helps you remember to treasure what you have," notes Rachel K. Ward, the 29-year-old American curator who conceived the forthcoming "Terminal Five" exhibition, which will occupy JFK's groundbreaking former TWA Terminal, from October 1 to January 31. "I really wanted to tap into the joy of air travel, that fascination people had in the 1960's." Architect Eero Saarinen's 1962 icon of the jet age, with its birdlike profile and Seussian interior, has sat unoccupied since 2001, and Ward has somehow cajoled the Port Authority of New York into giving her and a handful of New York-based conceptual art stars the run of the place. Toland Grinnell's steam trunk sculptures will occupy the baggage carousels; the departures-and-arrivals board will play host to Jenny Holzer's playful bits of text; Tobias Wong will stock the gift shop with artworks and other goodies; and Vanessa Beecroft will present a new performance piece (scheduled for late September, it's still top secret, but given the way she filled the Guggenheim rotunda with nude models in 1998, it's sure to beat browsing the Tie Rack kiosk).

Alastair Gordon has studied the downward spiral of our relationship with aerodromes. In his new book, Naked Airport: The Cultural History of the World's Most Revolutionary Structure (Metropolitan/Holt), which hits bookstores this month, he recalls the experience of dropping a cousin off at the TWA Terminal in 1964, "when technology seemed perfectly in tune with human aspiration—before hijackings and air rage, before jumbo jets, before deregulation, dysfunctional baggage carousels, and electromagnetic scanners." A similar nostalgia for that blissful era animates "Airworld," an exhibit running through January 9 at the Vitra Design Museum, in Weil am Rhein, Germany. A blockbuster look at the history of industrial design and airport architecture, the show includes everything from air-travel poster art to early passenger seating (would you believe wicker?).

When it comes to the airlines themselves, it's been left to the discount carriers to bring back the lost glamour (albeit at cut-rate). JetBlue has announced plans to renovate and reopen Saarinen's TWA Terminal (after the artists are removed, of course); and Song, operated by Delta, has introduced such frills as a signature appletini, an in-flight exercise program created by fitness guru David Barton (a nifty stress-reducer for you and a surefire annoyance for the poor soul in the next seat), and Kate Spade-designed uniforms. Meanwhile, Southwest, the perkiest of airlines for decades (ticker symbol: LUV), has turned the everyday hassles of air travel into mass entertainment. Now in the middle of its second season, the A&E reality series Airline, which reveals the superhuman patience of the carrier's crew members in the face of inebriated, odoriferous, outraged, overbooked, and overweight passengers (a.k.a. "customers of size"), is one of the most popular programs on non-premium cable. In December, Martin Scorsese's film The Aviator recounts how Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) purchased TWA in 1939 and fought a battle for air supremacy with Pan Am's Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) that defined the modern era of flight. (This was before Hughes went mad and grew out his nails.)

And then there's NBC's new prime-time drama, LAX. A gussied-up, fantasy variation on Airline, the show somehow manages to transform the everyday life of a big-city airport—from the immigration office to the baggage check—into the stuff of pulse-pounding drama. The airport manager has just committed suicide by stepping onto the runway in front of an incoming jet; the governor's plane is due to arrive the next day; a drunken flight crew is demanding to be cleared for takeoff; a pet pooch has escaped from cargo; and a highly suspicious package has been left unattended on the concourse by a guy in an army jacket. And that's just in the season premiere. It's telling that the pair of bureaucratic rivals charged with containing this chaos, the airport's chief of terminal operations and its chief of airfield operations, are neither beleaguered sad sacks (like Burt Lancaster in 1970's Airport) nor heartless pencil-pushers (like Stanley Tucci in The Terminal), but an arrogant hotshot and a dangerous blonde (L.A. Law's Blair Underwood and Melrose Place's Heather Locklear). According to Nick Thiel, who created the series, early audience testing indicated that the setting was one of the show's major draws. "It's amazing," he says. "People actually want to hang out in an airport."

And why not?Transit stations to the other side of the rainbow, airports are among the most charged spaces we inhabit—sterile zones of possibility, where thousands of journeys intersect every hour, and the sublime poetry of flight submits to the technological efficiency of the modern age. Of course, there is a downside to regimentation: Gordon compares the modern departure lounge to a penitentiary cell block. Both are walled-off areas of confinement, where time is suspended, surveillance is total, and tension is pervasive. The difference, of course (besides the fact that in prison, you can't order a vodka tonic at four in the afternoon or pick up a Thomas Pink shirt just because), is that we enter airports by choice, willingly bidding farewell to those we love, doffing our shoes, and laying bare our most intimate possessions—and that we get something very precious in return.

AARON GELL is a contributing writer for Elle and the film critic for O, the Oprah Magazine.

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