Book by UB Sociologist Explores the Function and Dysfunction of Modern Air Travel

Release Date: April 26, 2001 This content is archived.


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A new book by UB sociologist Mark Gottdiener looks at air travel and how to cope with the unavoidable and unexpected, including the frustrations of delays, cancellations and hostile passengers.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Air travel today could be considered as much a necessary evil as it is a necessity. With nearly 700 million passengers flying domestically each year, the airport has become a world unto itself, and a turbulent one at that -- overflowing not only with people, but a host of problems resulting from the demand for air travel that has transformed the once-convenient mode of transportation into a quagmire of inconvenience.

"Life in the Air: Surviving the New Culture of Air Travel" (Rowman and Littlefield, December 2000), the latest book by Mark Gottdiener, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University at Buffalo, explores the bevy of issues invading airports -- and air space -- today, from overcrowding and abusive passengers, to delays, cancellations and how travelers spend inordinately long periods of time while waiting to make their next connection.

Gottdiener, whose research deals largely with urban development and cultural studies, blends the two to view air travel in a previously unexplored context: as an emerging social world in which human behavior is governed by its immediate surroundings. Airports, he contends, now are very much like cities, promulgating their own cultural identity both on the ground and in the air.

"The sheer fact that people are spending so much of their time in the air defines a new kind of environment in which people live," he says. "Air travel has become a necessity of people's lives. But at the same time, the system has been strained to the limit. As a consequence, air travel has become increasingly inconvenient."

The book -- which explores the airport as a new space, the experiences and behavior of air travelers, the industry's function and dysfunction, and the economic and political issues unfolding -- was borne of Gottdiener's experience as a bicoastal traveler some seven years ago.

Commuting every two weeks between Los Angeles, where he had been a professor at the University of California, Riverside, and where his family still resided, and New York City, where he had accepted a position with CUNY, Gottdiener's immersion in the culture of frequent flying, coupled with the interesting situations he began to observe, fueled his desire to write about what he was witnessing.

Gottdiener's book incorporates narratives of casual conversations with flight passengers, as well as formal interviews he conducted with frequent flyers. His personal experiences -- those he recorded in a journal he kept while traveling -- are included in the book, which tackles coping with the stress inherent in air travel.

Although violence, including terrorism, is not foreign to flight, Gottdiener says air rage is a new development -- one that is exacerbated, if not often instigated, by alcohol.

"The very worst thing you can do on a plane is drink alcohol," he says. "At a higher altitude, you get drunker faster, and the negative effects on the brain are intensified."

Much of what could be billed as "flying the unfriendly skies" is the consequence of the huge number of people in the air, Gottdiener adds.

Fear of flying is another barometer travelers use to frame their experiences.

"Flying is the safest form of transportation by far," Gottdiener says, "and the fear of flying is not justified, compared to the fear of all sorts of things that happen to you when you fly that arise from the inconvenience of flying."

Four years of field research turned up time and again a set of universal gripes among passengers -- with delays and cancellations at the top of the list.

"That's very traumatic for people because the structure of air travel now requires them to change planes," he says. "When there are delays and cancellations of flights, business trips are ruined and vacations can be ruined."

In January 1999, the industry experienced perhaps its worst shutdown ever when inclement weather crippled a number of major airports. Passengers idled on runways for upwards of 10 hours without food or water, while those "lucky" enough to be inside an airport were relegated to wait, with nowhere else to go, for countless hours, and in some cases, days. Gottdiener says this "outrage," more than any other, was responsible for Congress drafting an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

Gottdiener, himself a frequent flyer racking up more than 100,000 miles of air travel each year, unearthed a wealth of information about how people cope with jet lag and manage meals, whether they suffer any health problems from excessive traveling and how their personal lives are influenced. From eroticism to boredom, medical emergencies to dehydration, food and fares, Gottdiener says he attempts to address any and every issue related to air travel.

"There's no other book like it," he says of his 14th book, which is as much a work about how to cope with the unavoidable and unexpected as it is about air travel. A complete lack of print material on the subject forced Gottdiener to look elsewhere for information, and his book relies largely on information available on the World Wide Web. Online resources provided critical discourse that helped Gottdiener shape his book. For example, the author found of particular value a Web site established by a former airline attendant of 25 years that addresses many of the problems associated with flying, as well as offers expert advice on combating jet lag.

News reports also helped Gottdiener gauge the overall climate of air travel, as well as its future.

"The last couple of years, the service has deteriorated, and complaints have grown each year," he said. But people still are turning out in droves to take flight, with no slowdown on the horizon. Within the next five years, Gottdiener says, the number of annual flight passengers is expected to hit one billion in the United States.

And while Gottdiener says air travelers remain at the mercy of the airline industry and airport architects, people still are the decisive factor.

"By expressing our needs as consumers and enlightened public leaders, we can transform our travel options from a dissonant, alien experience to a more harmonious one," he writes. "In the end, we…will have to deal with our lives in the air in much the same way as we already deal with those lives on the ground -- through effective environmental planning, psychological counseling, architectural design, political vision and smart corporate management."

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