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Feeling the anxiety in the air

Published Sep. 10, 2005

To soar 30,000 feet above the earth is an inherently anxious experience. It seems to violate the laws of nature _ of human nature, at least.

At some mythic, primitive level, we've always known this, but over the last few decades, and particularly in the last few years, the airline industry has dedicated itself to masking this ancient existential suspicion.

As airports came to resemble shopping malls and airplane seat backs were engineered to function like miniature home entertainment centers, the precariousness of hurtling through the stratosphere inside a thin metal tube was obscured by a womblike illusion of high-tech normalcy.

Pull down the window shade, don a pair of headphones, kick back in your business-class reclining seat _ it's as if you never left the ground. In my novel, I called it Airworld _ this parallel universe of flight, this hovering metropolis in the sky.

That sky is falling, or so it seems lately. On Sept. 11, and then again Monday, we foolish humans remembered something the airlines had trained us to forget: gravity can be outwitted, but not defied.

Saying goodbye to a flying loved one suddenly feels like standing at a naval base waving to a departing sailor. The overwhelming likelihood is that Johnny will return, of course. Flying is still 22 times safer than driving.

It was not so long ago that the mere act of boarding a jet was considered brave, or at least exotic. When airlines were deregulated, air travel was democratized. Nowadays, fear of flying seems almost quaint.

In terms of the history of commercial flight, the disasters of the last two months came at a point of maximum hubris, reminiscent of the launching of the Titanic, when the Cunard line convinced the sailing public that trans-Atlantic crossings could be as comfortable as weekends at the Ritz.

Just last year, for example, Airbus, the European consortium that manufactured the plane that crashed Monday, announced its plans for a super jumbo jet that will offer unheard-of luxury on two decks. Production of this giant is still on schedule, but one has to wonder if the world still wants it.

Until this fall, the culture of air travel seemed to be growing more vibrant by the day. There were still frustrating labor stoppages and flight delays, along with the accompanying rise of air rage.

But the list of in-fight conveniences was growing: DVD players that could be rented at one airport and dropped off at another, first-class seats that unfolded into beds, in-flight TV broadcasts. The new airport in Austin, Texas, even sells itself as a sort of cultural center, complete with live music and major art exhibits.

Frequent flyer miles, those postmodern green stamps, were a consuming obsession for millions. In the miraculous spirit of air travel itself, these ghostly chits seemed to promise something for nothing. Today, as we ride the spiritual downdraft of recent calamities, it's hard to imagine booking a flight merely because it won't cost anything. Not long ago it felt like hitting the jackpot.

In July, on my last flight before the golden age ended, I sat next to a mother and a toddler as our Boeing circled Salt Lake City. The toddler bawled. The mother couldn't quiet him.

Distraught and embarrassed, she finally turned to me. "I think kids know," she whispered. "I think they know there's nothing underneath us."

She was implying that grown-ups often forget this truth _ or, rather, that we successfully ignore it. And she was right: so we do.

Or so we did.

Walter Kirn is the author, most recently, of Up in the Air, a novel.

New York Times