Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham
This weekend marked the fifty-eighth anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, so what better time than to take a look at some of the work being done by human geographers into the social and cultural dimensions of air space and air transportation. February 6th 1958 was the darkest day in Manchester United F.C.’s history. Following their European Cup quarter final win in Belgrade, the ‘Busby Babes’ – so-called after their illustrious manager Matt Busby – were involved in one of the most documented plane crashes in history, in which twenty-three of the forty-four passengers were killed, including eight of the players, when their plane crashed after trying to take-off amidst a devastating snow storm in Munich. Memories of the victims are still today as poignant as ever, in an age when air transportation has been completely transformed, and has come to signify the complex networks of social, political, and economic relationships in our contemporary mobile world.
‘Aeromobilities’, as Adey (2008) calls it, started to become the subject of geographical enquiry in the twenty-first century, with geographers looking to trace the economic and political links that air transport creates between places. Adey’s (2008) paper provides a useful summary of some of the work within geography about air transportation, research which has drawn on the ‘mobile turn’, a shift towards investigating how spaces are travelled through.
‘Identity’ being a key theme in geography due to the influence of feminism, the airport and the airplane have themselves been unravelled as sites of identity creation and performance. Adey (2008) explains how both airports and airplanes have become important geographical sites for the formation and suppression of identities. For some, airports are sites of alienation and inequality, whilst for others they are happy, homely places, a stepping stone between important places in their lives. Nowhere better is this evidenced than the film ‘Terminal’, in which Tom Hanks plays an eastern immigrant whose country suffers from the collapse of its government whilst he is in the air, leaving his papers no longer valid when he lands in America. Forced to stay in the airport for weeks, he feels the brunt of the airport’s hostility and exclusive power, but starts to enjoy and embrace his time there, making many friends, as well as enemies. Today, Adey (2008) argues, borders are shifting even further, spatially and temporally, with your entry into a country being variously permitted or denied from a distance, before you have left your airport of departure. Thus, the ways in which we imagine our place in relation to the rest of the world have changed, air transportation building notions of national identity and citizenship, and variously connecting and disconnecting people and places.
Modern spaces of air travel, as spaces for international border-crossing as well as state and terrorist violence, have triggered increasing regulation of societies. As Adey (2008) states, air-travel has become one of the most closely-monitored and highly-segregated spaces in modern society. Security screening in airports today has reached very intense levels, which redefine both bodies and belongings as ‘threats’. Full-body searches and X-ray machines mean that it is not only international boundaries that are crossed at airports, but also, as Adey (2008) claims, our personal boundaries. All this is part of a new culture of ‘anticipation’, in which our vision has become so accelerated that it has overtaken time (Adey, 2008). The threat of terrorism is, today, pre-empted, an imaginative geography of disaster created before it has even happened, evoking fear and panic.
Air transportation has also had more fatal effects on societies, playing a major part in wars since the turn of the twentieth century. Aerial warfare has come a long way since the air raids of World War Two, with new unmanned aircraft causing terror and destruction to contemporary society. The aerial view – or as Adey (2008) calls it the ‘cosmic view’ – has, since the early days of landscape surveys and the invention of aerial photography, been associated with a powerful total gaze of the world, with limitless capacity for knowledge and control. This total observation is seen, for example, in Israeli-occupied Palestine, where Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are used for aerial surveillance of military and civilian targets (Adey, 2008).
The performance of gender relations within the space of the plane has also, Adey (2008) claims, captured the imaginations of geographers; cockpit and cabin gender roles being fascinating examples of gender relations. A recent paper by Lin (2015) has explored this in relation to air hostesses on a Singapore airline. Feminisation and sexualisation of air hostesses’ bodies on planes has been long been practised by most airlines. In Lin’s (2015) example in Singapore, the design of air hostesses’ uniforms was evocative yet graceful and traditional, whilst interview candidates were carefully screened for flaws or disfigurement, their body shape, beauty, and complexion being important. Even successful candidates underwent various aesthetic ‘corrections’, such as speech therapy, and were prescribed precise shades of make-up to make them appear uniformly ‘beautiful’. Lin (2015) frames the cabin – a ‘mobile atmosphere’, as she calls it – as an important social space, in which geographers have explored the multi-sensorial interactions between passengers and their environment. The plane and its crew provide a ‘service’, passengers’ bodies forming active consumers during their flight. Air hostesses create a comfortable and professional environment for passengers. These women perform a version of femininity whereby they are a friendly, affectionate, reassuring, approachable, helpful, polite, and glamorous aid to passengers’ journeys.
A lot has changed, therefore, in the fifty-eight years since the Munich Air Disaster. There is a vast range of research being done by geographers into the spaces of air travel, research which can help us better understand the social, cultural, and political experiences of airports and air transportation. The looming threat of terrorism means that geographers have a lot to contribute to understanding ways in which different nations engage with air space. However, it is a testament to the continual improvements to passenger safety being made that today geographers are talking about passenger ‘comfort’ rather threats to their ‘safety’.