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September 6, 2023

Travelog: Stuck at the Airport

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I’m obsessed with these Onion News Network YouTube videos that were released in the late 2000s/early 2010s. All two or three minutes long, they pretty expertly ape cable news personalities while still infusing that biting Onion satire. There are more recent ones, and in fact they still make some video content today, but as internet news has become more prevalent, and that cable imitation less fashionable, the form of the videos has altered, and no longer features that same charm. 

Anyway, there’s one of these videos that strikes me in a “how did the Simpsons predict X ” kind of way (or perhaps just rubs me the wrong way as a satire that isn’t quite so funny as frustrating at the moment). From how many times I’ve seen it, I’ve almost memorized “Prague’s Kafka International Named Most Alienating Airport.” My Squid and the Whale-esque pseudo-pretentious streak mixed with a love of in-your-face absurdist sense of humor makes it worthy to me of constant rewatches. I even showed it to my partner, way too early in our relationship, and watched her react stonefacedly as I cackled awkwardly. 

I just rewatched the video again, at an airport for the second day in a row, having had my flight canceled and being unable to reach anyone with my airline or get my flight rebooked or figure out how to get my new hotel stay compensated, and, maybe I’m biased, but the video isn’t *that* funny, at least in the way it originally was. After all, in crafting the fictional Franz Kafka International, the Onion attempts to think up the single most alienating, bureaucratic, stressful airport experience imaginable, and ultimately settles on something that just resembles the current system: The best they could come up with were long delays, absurd design, anxiety inducing security and impossible channels of recourse? Really? The joke of a Kafkaesque airport is lost on a society that has fully accepted the flying experience as Kafkaesque, though it remains funny simply for the assertion that these supposedly alienating features would be viewed as exceptional in any way.

It’s not a novel statement to say that we’ve collectively been getting more absurd by the day; in fact, it tends to be a common line of liberals who’d never been forced to actually confront the real and felt inequalities and absurdities of politics until the #resistance told them they needed to. Nor is it novel to make airplane jokes, describe the experience as Kafkaesque or otherwise denigrate the experience. It is perhaps valuable though to identify in that system a form of complacency in a system that doesn’t just not work, but is designed not to work.

A quintessential good flight in our contemporary system is not particularly exemplary. It still probably entails subjection to an intrusive personal screening, shelling out an absurd upcharge for mediocre food and finding oneself in a cramped seat devoid of legroom. Perhaps it’s because even the worst realistically possible flight feels miles above what our anxieties might provoke or because we’ve broadly become so complacent with the inefficiencies of capitalism that a site of particular egregiousness hardly causes us to bat an eye. We expect to need to make use of an Airline’s customer service, whether to manage an inevitable delay or cancellation, receive compensation for lost baggage or to vent some other frustration at the injustice inherent in the system. 

For all intents and purposes, the propensity for airlines to stock airports with friendly faces at each gate only functions as a cruel safety valve, giving a justly angry public a personal face to which they’ll attach their anger. In that sense, the system works perfectly, operating to offer customers the worst possible experience at the highest possible price while still enabling enough potential avenues of recourse, places to scream until we feel a little bit better and underpaid, overworked attendants at which we can exert maximum cruelty and call it justice. It takes so much energy just to navigate the system that the moment we get out of the airport it becomes a near necessity to shed the frustration, smile at relatives and reply, “Not too bad,” to the inevitable question “How was your flight?”

Dysfunction as function tends to be a comedic trope, rather than a dramatic one. I love the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, which stack miniature absurdities on top of each other until the ho hum fever pitch of chaos hits such a high that it resembles something of perfect formal control. Maybe that’s why I tend to laugh at airports, confronted with the weight of it all, each paper cut adding up to a legitimate strain can only ultimately be phrased as a joke, at the end of a long line of “and then”s: There tend not to be operational spark notes versions of miserable flights.  However you might explain it, airports are depressingly, hilariously fascinating as much as they are simply depressing. They demonstrate in such plain terms the injustice the average person can put up with and the methods put in place to help us cope (while retaining the structure of the system). No one event is so great that we must immediately spark a revolution: If planes crashed on a regular basis we may be less complacent. Instead, however, the sheer number of stressors all click into perfect harmony that gives the whole experience the air of an enhanced normal. The experience is Kafkaesque, but not just in the contradictions and impossibilities of the bureaucracy. It is because every single delay, cancellation, lost bag, overpriced menu item, cramped middle seat, inefficient boarding procedure, hard to find help desk and confusing form is part of the point. It isn’t absurdity for the sake of absurdity. It isn’t just so random. It is a perfectly oiled machine: An object as well calibrated as Bringing Up Baby, all designed to drain you of both money and spirit just enough that an airline can pad its wallets and still rely on repeat customers.

Max Fattal is a junior in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected]