February 2009


img_0421The repeating patterns that organize our world. Extrapolate, interpolate: Fern-like, a railroad network is equally legible at the level of the tie, the railroad track, the line.

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Chock Full o’ Nuts Coffee? Earlier examples of brand creep here and here.

C Concourse, Newark Liberty International Airport.

When countries take flight, dreams take wing. Interflug, more than serving as a tangible marker of East German culture, was interesting for what it said about statecraft: It suggested that a state airline is a necessary condition for modern statehood. Interflug is interesting because both it and the state it represented have disappeared; Air Nauru is interesting because it is an outlier, the state airline of the Republic of Nauru, population 13,770. (That’s an Air Nauru 727 in vintage livery.)

Nauru is a tiny island nation in the South Pacific. So what gives a country with maybe a quarter the population of my hometown (also an island, but there’s no Air Bainbridge) the right to have an airline? And airline, moreover, that at one point had a fleet with a seating capacity equivalent to 10% of Nauru’s population? Phosphate.

The vagaries of the global commodities market concentrate wealth in strange places, and cause people to do strange things with it: Air Nauru once flew one of the most comprehensive route networks in the South Pacific, even though most routes were unprofitable and the average load factor throughout the network hovered around 20%. On a 737, that’s about 26 people on a plane designed to carry around 130. To look at it another way, that means one person per row of seats.

But having an airline means you run with the big boys. Note the eponymous Emirates and Singapore planes in the above photo, and the United (US) and Qantas (Australia) planes beyond them. The United Arab Emirates, although a good deal larger in area and population than the Republic of Nauru, is, I think, a fair comparison, an example of how the Nauru model scales up. (Or, to put it another way, how the UAE model might scale down to suit Nauru.)

And although these countries’ airlines have larger planes, longer routes, and more passengers in a day than Air Nauru sees all year, I’d argue they’re not so different. Scale up, scale down. It’s like putting toddlers in suits for weddings: Let me just measure your state and we’ll be able to cut an airline to fit straight away.

Air Nauru is now known as Our Airline (slogan: Let Our Airline be Your Airline). This new name makes the connection between national identity and airline ownership explicit (and ironic, because Our Airline is privately owned and operated). The slogan, cheesy though it may be, speaks to the importance of an airline like this: Nauru gets something from it (a claim to statehood, a chance to be taken seriously, a demonstration of ability) and so does the world (another airline, another state, another voice).

On a larger scale, Our Airline speaks to how we chose to order our existence. It represents, as Interflug did, an alternate reality, another way of seeing and experiencing the world. How do we choose which airline to fly? is really just a proxy query for the deeper question: How do we choose how we want to live?

 

Related: Fly Interflug! and Regionalism in Flight

The New York Times has an article about how the subway trains on the 2, 4, and 5 lines sound as if they’re singing the first three notes to “Somewhere,” from West Side Story. (“There’s a place…”) The sounds aren’t notes, really, but screeches made by the DC/AC inverter, and the difference between them makes them register as a melody to the human ear. Reality as Rorschach test—we see in it what we want to see.

Related: Repurposing rumble strips to make roads sing.

Interflug represented East Germany, and American regional airlines are freighted with cultural meaning much in the same way Interflug that was. Regional carriers abound: In Seattle and Anchorage, expect to see Alaska Airlines 737s and Horizon Air turboprops. In Minneapolis, check out those Sun Country planes. If you’re passing through Milwaukee—although why would you be?—take a gander at those Midwest Airlines 717s. Or look at the animals painted on the tails of Frontier Airlines’ Airbuses in Denver, CO.

What does it mean that our regional airlines have concentrated in these pockets? What is it about the north Midwest and the Pacific Northwest that have given each their own airlines? The only other region that has really had its own airline was the South, with Delta and Southwest, but both have since become national airlines. Are regional airlines indicative of a stronger regional culture? Of weak links to a national culture? Or a symptom of automobile dependence in a post-railroad age: Cities just too far away from each other to be linked by car?

The airlines named above are just the big players: There are also a smattering of tiny, truly regional carriers. The fascinating thing about these is that they, almost without exception, operate under the names and liveries of the big players. You’ve probably flown, without realizing it, with Air Wisconsin, Mesa Airlines, or Chautauqua Airlines, whose planes and crews wear the liveries and uniforms of US Airways Express, Delta Connection, United Express, American Connection, or Continental Express. Regionalism in disguise, wearing the mask of national authority.

We seek our identity in strange places, in strange reflections. We seek it in sports teams and local newspapers, on water towers and postcards. Regional airlines, too, play on ideas of hometown pride and local boys done good. (Alaska is “proudly all Boeing.”) We take these planes as confirmation of our self-worth, players as they are in an anonymous system larger than any of us. If these airlines can make it out there in the world, then so can we. We carry our homes with us, in our hearts and in our liveries.

I love trucking slogans. They represent this odd meeting of personality and corporate image, a vernacular literature.

New England Motor Freight truck, York St.

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