Amid Ash Cloud Chaos, Could Passengers Rediscover Thrill of Travel?

April 20, 2010 12:00 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
The volcanic ash out of Iceland has grounded flights across Europe, leading some to question whether convenience has dulled our appreciation for adventurous overland and sea travel.

Cruise Ships and Trains Booked

The formidable ash cloud has not dimmed people’s “need to travel,” while airports like Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and London’s Heathrow have closed, CNN reports. Many passengers have flocked to ferries and trains. Eurostar, which provides rail service around Europe, and P&O ferries, operating routes between Europe and Britain, have seen huge increases in Web site traffic and phone inquiries, CNN reports.

According to Cruise Critic, there’s been a sudden interest in transatlantic cruise ship service aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. The ship is the only “fairly regular” service traveling between Britain and New York, and Cunard has seen triple its usual number of inquiries. The next three transatlantic voyages, including two in April and one in May, are now totally booked.

Others have turned to unorthodox modes of transport. Famed British actor John Cleese, for instance, is said to have “hired a taxi to take him from Oslo to Brussels” for $5,000, Cruise Critic reports.

Remembering How to “Travel”

His viewpoint might be different were he stranded in an airport, but writer Seth Stevenson is pleased with “this blessedly jet-free interlude” and wishes it would continue. He explains in an editorial for The New York Times how his recent round-the-world trek, made with his girlfriend without taking any flights, proved to him how dependent we’ve become on air travel.

Furthermore, the experience led to an epiphany of sorts: flying in airplanes “is not really traveling. Airplanes are a means of ignoring the spaces in between your point of origin and your destination,” Stevenson writes. He hopes “that some travelers stranded by the volcanic eruption have been able to discover the joys of slow travel for themselves.”

Stevenson is the author of “Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World,” based on his own trip. He allowed Slate to publish five exclusive excerpts from the book earlier this month.

At one point, the author likens air travel to “[t]eleporting.” Flying simply “doesn’t allow for the same kind of spiritual transformation you undergo whenever you make an overland trip,” Stevenson writes, before expanding on the odd sense of displacement that comes with suddenly landing in a faraway destination.

Background: History of air travel and its impacts

On Dec. 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright took turns at the helm of their revolutionary aircraft in the first of four sustained manned flights, an event that launched the aviation era.

Duke University Libraries has information on the history of airlines, starting with “the Wright brothers’ first successful flight,” and touching on the impacts of World War I, the Kelly Airmail Act and the Federal Aviation Act.
Writing for the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission, James C. Kruggel discusses air travel’s impacts on “the Way We Live and the Way We See Ourselves.” In the 20th century, combined with other technological advances like cars, medicine and plumbing, “the ability to fly was part of a growing sense of mastery over the world and control of one's destiny,” Kruggel writes.

1971 saw the emergence of Southwest Airlines, which only served Texas to avoid federal regulation. The company showed ordinary citizens what flying could be like; until that point, only the wealthy and businessmen flew frequently. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter and Congress “deregulated the airlines,” which meant companies “could now choose their own routes and fares.”

A Roanoke College Web page, whose sources are listed, provides thorough background on the components of planes, the future of flying, and positive and negative impacts of airplanes on people and communities. There is also a brief timeline of crucial events in the history of flight.

Related Topics: Rail travel and the settling of the American West

On May 10, 1869, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads were connected in a ceremony in Promontory Summit, Utah, forming the transcontinental railroad.

The railroad had long been a dream for engineers, entrepreneurs and politicians, but it was not until 1860 that engineer Theodore Judah developed a feasible plan for a railroad running from California through the Sierra Nevada and the western deserts to the Missouri River, where it would link with existing railroads.

Part of the romance of settling the American West was the fact that it required overland travel, as settlers crossed dusty landscapes en route to the coast.

The exploration and settling of the American West began well before the Civil War. Although it was slowed down by the War, it resumed again in earnest after the conflict ended. Learn about essential elements in the settlement of the West, like the transcontinental railroad, the fur trade, immigrants and the Gold Rush, for example.

PBS presents "Transcontinental Railroad," part of its American Experience project. Find a timeline, photo gallery and a section devoted to the railroad’s impact on Plains Indians. Educators should visit the “Teacher’s Guide” for classroom ideas.

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