On a flight from Amsterdam Schiphol Airport to Dubai Airport – 8 hours – I thought about the logistics of modern air travel.
To get my flight out of Schiphol, I had to sit around for a few hours before my flight departed. It was June, tourist season, and Schiphol, even by its own standards, was busy. It took me quite a long time to check in and get through security. The length of the cues and the number of people crowded into a confined space was daunting. Even to buy a sandwich and something to drink afterwards, I had to stand in another long cue.
Schiphol was one the busiest airports in the world. On average, 150,000 people a week passed through Schiphol. There were many busy airports in the world of course. Dubai was another one.
Once in the air and mercifully away from the thronging crowds in Schiphol, I reflected on what I’d experienced.
I was just one person in a vast operation which involved millions.
Every day all over the world, people arrived and departed from airports, some big, others smaller. Planes were constantly arriving and departing, often having to cue before they did so. On a short flight, it could take you longer to taxi into and out of an airport than the time you spent in the air.
Every day all over the world, in a thousand different airports, passengers checked in, their luggage was tagged and put on a conveyer belt, they were processed by customs and security; they arrived somewhere, picked up their luggage and were processed again through customs and security.
In the air, they were fed and used the toilets, were pampered by air flight attendants, amused and distracted with movies and music delivered through headphones, and continually reassured by the captain that all was well.
Mountains of luggage found its way into the holds of airplanes and very little of it ever went missing, no matter that it had to be transferred on the way into the holds of other airplanes from different companies. Bar coding, first developed for use in supermarkets, ensured that luggage almost always arrived at its end destination (and indeed, the comparison between the modern air travel industry and a supermarket was an apt one).
Air crashes were few and far between. When they occurred, they drew a blaze of international publicity. No expense was spared in determining the causes. What was often forgotten was this: air travel was by far the safest form of transport.
The most dangerous was the automobile. If the deaths and casualties from air travel were a fraction of those incurred on the roads, no one would fly.
When you looked at the size and extent and efficiency of the global air transportation industry, you began to get some idea of the truly extraordinary capacity of the modern human race and its technology to solve the most daunting logistical problems.
Every day, 365 days a year.
On the flight to Dubai, a thought occurred to me: just imagine, I mused, if you could apply this logistical brilliance to the task of feeding, clothing and educating every single person in the world irrespective of their race, colour, religion, place of domicile and social economic background?
I suspect that this thought cropped up in my mind because only a week before, I had travelled in Southern Italy at a time when a new anti-immigration government had taken office in Rome. To loud international criticism, this government had refused to allow ships bringing asylum seekers from Africa to dock in Italy. Shortly before I had left Italy, I had spent time walking around the areas of Palermo, Sicily, where there was an overwhelming concentration of immigrants: Africans, Indians and Arabs.
It only required a cursory look at the modern air transportation industry and you realised that the task of combatting global social economic equality was, in principle, was well within our means; it could be done, nothing was surer.
It was an exciting idea. We had this enormous logistical potential at our behest. It could be used for other purposes besides transporting millions of people in luxury from one end of the globe to the other.
After a two hour stop in the early hours of the morning in Dubai, I boarded a flight to Adelaide, South Australia: a 13 hour flight.
It was a turbulent flight (it was monsoon season in Asia) and several babies howled the whole way there.
In the process, the idea of fixing the world’s social economic problems, began to lose its allure.
Running the world was a lot more difficult than transporting millions of people safely through the air.
There was a lot more involved than logistics.
The problem was, the world was organised and run on the basis of nations. And national governments, especially those in the areas of the world where poverty, underdevelopment, overpopulation and gender oppression was the worst, would resist any kind of meaningful attempt to minimise global inequality.
Corrupt, self-serving dictatorships, would resist any kind of international campaign to organise assistance no matter how objectively it was organised. They would talk about about ‘colonialism’ and ‘imperialism’. The only assistance they wanted was the kind which could be milked and fed into off shore banking accounts.
So there we were.
We had the means to solve just about any problem in existence: the modern air transport industry was overwhelming proof of that.
Yet we had no hope of applying our know-how to the problems which really mattered.
Barriers were coming down as more of us travelled and experienced other cultures and other people.
Yet nations and national borders were stronger than ever.
So we were flying into a future of mixed blessings.