‘Cabin Pressure’: Making Atmospheres?

Weiqiang Lin, University of Toronto

2014 was a year of reputational setback for aviation in Southeast Asia, seeing no less than three high-profile fatal crashes attributed to the region. In view of these events, commentators have been swift to question the ability of Southeast Asia’s airlines to safely sustain the kind of breakneck growth that they have been pursuing for years. In an industry where confidence can quickly dissipate, it would seem that the mood has soured for a market once thought to be a bright spot in aviation.

This is not a place to defend or impugn Southeast Asia’s aviation credentials. But suffice to say, public sentiments have turned their back on an (entire) region’s industry, now subtly coded with Orientalist undertones of incompetency, corner-cutting tendencies and technological ineptitude. An improved image needs to be tangibly sculpted by regional airlines to render their business trustworthy and viable again. In fact, this work has already begun with Malaysia Airlines, which has lately attempted to enshroud itself with an (abruptly different) atmosphere of resilience and conviviality.

Such image-boosting tactics are not new, and have in fact been enacted with great sophistry since the advent of aviation. This is exemplified by my recent contribution to Transactions, in which I examine the stresses—or ‘cabin pressures’—of providing the ‘correct’ atmospheres to instil confidence and a favourable impression among passengers by another Southeast Asian airline—Singapore Airlines (SIA). In attending to the ambiences SIA and its flight attendants sought to produce onboard its aircraft in its early years, I invite scholars and the public to be more circumspective of the kinds of pre-fabricated experiences and spaces that service providers often have us immerse in and buy into. More critically, I leave some food for thought concerning how the notion of ‘Orientalism’ can as much be harnessed as a resource and selling point by companies (if at the expense of some service workers), as it is denigrated by its detractors.

Making atmospheres. Image credit: the author

Making atmospheres. Image credit: the author

Such calculated use of mood-shifting atmospheres to persuade, entice and incite enthusiasm can actually be found in a whole gamut of other, non-aviation contexts, displays and social movements. Like their counterpart in the air, these spaces, too, should not be taken for granted as dwelling places where events simply take place. Rather, they should be exposed for the coded messages, emotional influences and political/commercial aims already inscribed into the ambiences they exude. Neglecting these subtleties in atmospheric design not only risks relegating daily encounters of the affective to the realm of the emergent and organic. Worse still, it can also allow the methods that corporations, governments and organisers use to move us all—including for a quick turnaround (justifiably or not)—to escape accountability.

About the author: Dr Weiqiang Lin is a postdoctoral researcher in geography at the University of Toronto, under National University of Singapore sponsorship. Weiqiang joined the University of Toronto after obtaining his PhD from the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. His research is primarily focused on aviation, mobilities and infrastructures.

books_icon Lin, W. (2015), ‘Cabin pressure’: designing affective atmospheres in airline travel. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12079

60-world2 Kurlantzick, J. (2014). Why Air Disasters Keep Happening in Southeast Asia Bloomberg Businessweek

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