Tag Archives: travel

High-flying research: Geographies of air transportation

Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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eastern immigrant whose country suffers from the collapse of its government whilst he is in the air, leaving his papers no longer valid when he lands in America.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’.


books_icon Adey, P. (2008). “Aeromobilities: Geographies, Subjects and Vision”, Geography Compass, 2(5):1318-1336.

books_iconLin, W. (2015). “’Cabin pressure’: designing affective atmospheres in airline travel”, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 40:287-299.



Studying Abroad and the Neoliberal ‘Cult of Experience’ in the Youth Labour Market

By Ashley Crowson, King’s College London

Figures released this week have shown that more UK students than ever are travelling abroad as part of their degree programmes.

Last year, 15,566 UK students studied in another country as participants in the European Union’s Erasmus programme. This was a 115% increase in the number who took part in 2007, when the scheme was first extended to the UK. Large increases in students travelling to China, India and the USA have also been observed.

The figures were released ahead of the British Council’s annual ‘Going Global’ conference for leaders of international education. Professor Rebecca Hughes, British Council Director of Education, said, “This latest evidence confirms that a growing number of the UK’s students are recognising the huge value to be gained from international experience… The UK needs graduates who have the skills and confidence to compete globally, and can compete against foreign talent that may speak more languages, and have wider international experience.”

An Erasmus promotional video highlighting the professional benefits of studying abroad.

Clare Holdsworth addresses the seemingly uncontroversial nature of such statements in a recent article for Area. Holdsworth argues:

Young people are called upon to make themselves employable through engaging in a range of experiences that may include: volunteering, work experience, paid work, internships, travel, leisure and membership of organisations. This fetishizing of experience is becoming so normalised that it is rarely contested. It appears self-evident that in order to protect themselves against an absent future, young people need to not only complete more education and/or training, but they have to acquire experiences to stand out from the crowd.

Holdsworth takes issue with the commodification of experience, suggesting that experiences gained in order to guarantee a better future are ‘conventional and passive’, and have little to do with experimentation, creativity, exploration or learning. Holdworth’s main focus, however, is with the popular notion that the acquisition of experience is a solution to the difficulties of the current youth labour market:

The prevailing popular discourse of youth is one of failure against the need to do better. Thus if academic grades increase, this is because of grade inflation; if more young people are out of work, this is because they do not have the correct skills; if graduates cannot get jobs, this is because they have not acquired the right ‘experiences’… This failure to see beyond the supply side of the labour market is having profound effects on young people’s lives… Not only are young people still faced with the difficulty of finding a job, they are having to do so in direct competition with their peers in a ever-growing globalised labour supply… Thus programmes for work experience, placements, volunteering, internships etc. are rolled out in order to compel young people to invest in their own futures…The cult of experience reinforces this charging of responsibility and passes over other solutions that target the demand side of the youth labour market.

The article highlights the arms race-like nature of the neoliberal youth employment market: as experience is seen as increasingly necessary in order to compete with one’s peers, young people are compelled to engage in more and more homogenised ‘experiences’, effectively ‘running faster in order to stand still’. Invariably, those who win this experience arms race are those with the greatest financial means.

This article also raises important questions for university geography departments; fieldwork has long been seen as a crucial part of a geography degree, but how, in a neoliberal educational establishment, can the experience of fieldwork be elevated above that of a CV-enhancing commodity and turned into a ‘genuine’ learning experience, encouraging students to explore, experiment and consider their own subjectivity?

 Clare Holdsworth, 2015, The cult of experience: standing out from the crowd in an era of austerityArea, DOI: 10.1111/area.12201.

Déjà vu?

By Sarah Mills

Airline passengers in Scotland and parts of Northern England face delays and cancelled flights today due to Saturday’s ash eruption from Grímsvötn volcano in Iceland.  These scenes are similar to those in April 2010 when another Icelandic volcano – Eyjafjallajökull – erupted, prompting widespread travel chaos.  However, scientists and commentators expect the disruption to be far less than last year for a number of meteorological reasons and improved aviation regulations.  Transport Secretary Philip Hammond claims authorities have a “much better understanding” of the risks and that “the threshold for most aircraft is 20 times where it was last year…What we can’t promise is that there won’t be disruption when there is a major natural event like this.”

Amy Donovan and Clive Oppenheimer reflected on last year’s Eyjafjallajökull eruption in a recent article in The Geographical Journal.  They reviewed the scientific background of the eruption in the context of European volcanic activity and argued that “the apparent breakdown of communication between scientific research, policy makers and the public is a manifestation of a wider problem”.  Furthermore, they claimed that “transdisciplinary channels for the movement of knowledge beyond the academic community need to be enhanced” (2011: 4).  In light of this new eruption at Grímsvötn, and the supposed provisions and increased levels of governance in planning for such eventualities, the coming days and weeks will reveal to what extent lessons have already been learned.

Read ‘Volcanic ash cloud: thousands face flight delays and cancellations’ in The Guardian  

Read A. Donovan and C. Oppenheimer (2011) The 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption and the reconstruction of geography. The Geographical Journal, 177: 4-11.

Eyjafjallajökull: Geography’s Harsh Reminder

Eyjafjallajökull’s 2010 eruption. Wikimedia Commons.

by Benjamin Sacks

THE ERUPTION of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull on 20 March 2010 caught Europe dangerously off-guard. For two months, waves of ash closed some of the world’s busiest airspace. An estimated ten million passengers were left stranded, international train services collapsed under the heightened strain of people seeking alternate transportation, and governments were left to deal with angered airlines seeking to regain some portion of lost revenue. In total, over one hundred thousand flights were cancelled. The legal and political fallout of Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption continues today. A fundamental questions lies at the heart of this debate: why wasn’t Europe better warned or prepared? Amy R Donovan and Clive Oppenheimer (University of Cambridge) highlighted this problem in their March 2011 Geographical Journal commentary. The danger such natural events as Eyjafjallajökull pose, as Donovan and Oppenheimer argue, is that they lie outside the traditional realm of managerial governance.

Many natural events, however dangerous, lend governments two favours: first, relatively ample warning; second, comparatively localised impact. Hurricanes are an excellent case-in-point. Every summer NOAA, the United States’s oceanographic and atmospheric monitoring agency, continuously tracks existing storms and recalculates their future projectories. Excepting such hurricanes as Andrew and Katrina–most hurricanes cause damage across a limited geographic expanse before weakening significantly in strength. The snowstorms that rack the American northeast are similarly tracked in advance so that appropriate precautions can be taken (even if, in the event, those precautions prove inadequate).

The Eyjafjallajökull eruption, much like the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake, presents a very different scenario. Such events are difficult to forecast, even more difficult to contain, and–like other natural events–impossible to prevent. But, as The Geographical Journal commentary noted, preventative steps could have been taken. Although the Met Office’s Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC), clearly noted the airspace risks posed by Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull volcanoes, this information was not included in the annual National Risk Register, nor did it predicate the implementation of ‘sophisticated, integrated UK or EU policy in advance of the recent volcanic activity’ (p. 2). One hopes that the Eyjafjallajökull airspace fiasco will serve as a reminder of our inability to tame the extremes of physical geography.

Jersey Tourists Lost to Volcanic Ash Disruption“, BBC News 11 May 2010. Accessed 18 January 2011.

Amy R Donovan and Clive Oppenheimer, “The 2010 Eyjafjallajökull Eruption and the Reconstruction of Geography“, The Geographical Journal 177:1 (Mar., 2011): pp. 4-11.


Implications of the unexpected:changes in a research environment to the conduct of fieldwork

by Fiona Ferbrache

Among your family and friends, I am sure there are people you know who have been implicated by the recent snow and ice that has fallen on the UK, as well as much of northern Europe, and the US (BBC News, 2010).  Changes to travel arrangements and festive plans seem to have characterised the end of 2010, just as they did for many parts of the UK at the start of 2010 (The Guardian, 2010).  Of course, the media is often filled with news about the implications of the (relatively) unexpected; political crisis, economic crisis, and natural disaster, for instance.  While these topics often provide the focus of geographic research, they also implicate changes in the research environment for those already working there when incidents occur.

Dealing with the impact of change on the conduct of fieldwork is the topic of Veit Bachmann’s (forthcoming) Area article.  This very readable piece draws upon Bachmann’s own fieldwork experiences in Nairobi, as the Kenyan post-electoral crisis unfolded in 2008.  The article deals with issues of positionality, researcher/researched relations and ethics, but from the perspective of changes to the research environment.  It is shown how events shaped the thematic focus of Bachmann’s work, as well as the geography of his research.  This article provides essential reading for any geographer preparing for fieldwork in a potential crisis zone, as well as reminding the reader that all fieldwork is conducted in dynamic environments.

This article is not designed to put you off conducting fieldwork at the first sign of disruption, for as Bachmann illustrates, and reassures, about change to the research environment: “This is, however, not always to the negative” (p.6)

Bachmann, V. (forthcoming) Participating and observing: positionality and fieldwork relations during Kenya’s post-election crisis. Area.

BBC News (2010) North-east US struggles for normality after blizzards. BBC News Online. 28 December, 2010

The Guardian (2010b) More travel disruption as heavy snow moves south. Guardian.co.uk. 05 January, 2010

A borderless world?

Sarah Mills

The Home Office has recently announced a new passport design, to be issued from October 2010.  In an attempt to counter identity-theft and fraud, the passport is being marketed as “speeding up travellers’ passage through border controls” and includes enhanced security features such as holograms, two photographs and hiding the security chip from view.  The Chief Executive of the Identity and Passport Service states that “Through its combination of physical and electronic security features, the UK passport remains one of the most secure and trusted documents in the world, meeting rigorous international standards.”  Its use at border and immigration controls and the continual challenge of fighting fraud means that the passport and its associated (biometric) technologies reflect broader attitudes towards migration, security, belonging and citizenship.

In their paper in Geography Compass, Alexander Diener and Joshua Hagen (2009) examine how despite predictions of a borderless world, “state borders remain one of the most basic and visible features of the international system”.  They argue that although it is clear there is growing interaction between different places and that globalisation has clearly impacted flows of migration and international trade, “borders continue to play a central role in shaping, dividing, and uniting the world’s societies, economies, and ecosystems”.  The distinct political geographies of borders, territory and identity are reflected upon by Diener and Hagen, who use historical and contemporary examples of how ‘borders matter’.  This article is a useful summary of research on border studies and the benefits for geographers and others within the social sciences.  The continued improvement and re-configuration of passports and border security reflects wider ideas about the role of borders and the importance of territory in the international system.

Read ‘New UK passport design unveiled in fight against fraud’ on BBC Online

Read Diener, A. C. and Hagen, J. (2009), Theorizing Borders in a ‘Borderless World’: Globalization, Territory and Identity. Geography Compass, 3: 1196–1216.

Researchers Find a Link Between Gas Prices and Home Foreclosures

By Georgia Davis Conover.

For more than half a century, major metropolitan areas in the United States have experienced urban flight, with people moving further and further away from the city center.  Typically, the further homes are from job centers, the more affordable they are.  What this means, however, is that as gasoline prices rise in the United States, so does the cost of getting to work.  American Public Media’s Marketplace recently reported on a study that showed a correlation between the number of foreclosures, the distance workers travel and the price of a gallon of gas in the Chicago area.  According to the report, as gas prices increased, the number of home foreclosures also rose in concentric rings away from the city center.  The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is now encouraging home ownership with shorter commutes.  HUD officials say they want to ensure the next time gas prices rise, foreclosures do not follow suit.

Of course, this report leaves out important factors such as the nexus between income levels and home buying decisions, incentives for buying homes in different areas and differential travel times between people of different genders and races…all of which have been explored by geographers.  For example, in their article, “Journey to Work” Sultana and Weber look at the commuting characteristics of residents of two metropolitan areas in the Southeastern United States.  Through the use of Census data, the researchers conclude that people living in urban sprawl areas do have longer commutes than those living in higher density areas.  The commutes of the sprawl area residents are longer in terms of both mileage and time.  Sultana and Weber, however, also determined that residency in a sprawl area alone was not a definitive predictor of commute time and distance; socioeconomic factors also come into play.

 Connect to the MarketPlace report.

 Read Sultana, Selima and Joe Weber.  2007.  Journey to Work Patterns in the Age of Sprawl: Evidenc from Two Midsize Southern Metropolitan Areas.  The Professional Geographer 59(2): 193-208.