Tag Archives: Edward St. Aubyn

Are We There Yet? The Plane in the Map

New markets of maps are always emerging, and we seem to have our own interest in making maps for an growingly de-centered globalized world.  But perhaps one of the oddest markets is for the rehabilitation of the itinerary in a globalized age, a rehabilitation that seems not only against the grain but designed to bequeath greater familiarity to a space often felt to shift beneath one’s feet:  where one is as one watches the landscape unfold in the most current flight maps almost undermines the position of the viewer as if to reinforce whatever queasiness one might feel while suspended high above the earth in a crowded flight cabin.

In an attempt to create a sense of individuality in the in-flight experience that seems safely guided by a captain piloting the plane, the in-flight maps omit the range of other planes crowding the airspace of the world, and indeed the possibility that the plane is steered remotely or by an automated program, giving a sense of collective participation in mapping the steady course of the airplane’s flight-path in a proliferating variety of formats.  Whereas airline-based in-flight tracking maps are generated for paying passengers for apparently utilitarian ends, the fairly antiquated medium of spatial representation is compellingly abstract–and often can prove as disorienting as much as orienting.  Increasingly, the tools for envisioning the path of your plane on a Mercator projection–serendipitously fitting in the frames of video screens inset above most tray-tables in Economy flights–which allow us to imagine the global context of airplane flight paths in unique ways.

Wildly out of scale and based on estimated representations of flight paths, the maps displayed behind tray-tables on the backs of seats claim an odd sense of exactitude designed to increase confidence, the maps convince us that we are in good hands, and suggest that once we have entered on our course of air travel we have entered into a unique relation to the land  but also a position of safety, in which we will be safely guided to our eventual destinations.




Is it any coincidence that the map is viewed as one has little sensation of moving, and needs to be reminded of progressive trajectory of global motion across it?  The inclusion of a directional set of arrows, resembling an early modern wind rose, atop the rather detailed bathymetry of the ocean floor suggests a reminder of global travel.  If there is a superfluity of detail in mapping the ocean in a ramp of bright iridescent blues, the map also serves somewhat as an invitation to future destinations–


United Flight Paths:GeoNova.png


–that reflect the increased expansion of air travel from a time when plane rides seemed to sketch something like a single transcontinental highway in the air with a few turn-offs:





The proliferation of airspace in recent times is well-known.  But less scrutinized or contemplated is the value of retaining or communicating a personalized map of the travel of the individual plane across an empty cloud-free sky, as a distillation of the personal experience of flight.  The disorientation of these personalized maps consulted above tray tables provides the clearest reminder between snatches of sleep or airplane reading that we are indeed in motion at that very moment, providing a register of distance travelled, height, and arrival time as well, in the upper left-hand corner, time remaining in flight–and the depiction of the magnified presence of a plane over the land that lies contracted below, wildly out of scale with the perspective of the plane that moves across its surface.




Edward St. Aubyn nicely described the odd nature offered by the constant counterpoint of the disembodied relation to maps for passengers faced with the cartographical options of geolocation in rapid-fire succession.  If the provision of data seems to revel in informative abundance, the information overload easily loses coherence for many viewers, so carefully crafted are the maps to command attention over the short-term, as if to compensated for the limited attention-spans that is assumed of most airplane passengers.  The dizzying disorientation with which the shifting scale of the map, showing a child “their plane hovering near the Irish coast, south of Cork,” suddenly “expanded to show London and Paris and the Bay of Biscay,” only to morph yet again to an “informational feast” that “[at] the next scale included Casablanca and Djibouti and Warsaw” in ways that immediately undermined any comfort  of its color-saturated informational content.  If airline companies may hope to present to its passengers a form of reassurance, the abundance of maps, apparently exulting in the possibilities of representing a course of transit, and as a result communicated “told you everything except the local time on the plane.”  If St. Aubyn sees the superabundance of information on the map as deeply alienating, it is also a reminder of the alienated nature of the in-between space of transit.  For one is in an intermediate place in the plane, which remains outrageously magnified on the map, but also outside of it, moving across time zones with the apparent potential of moving to any place on the map, and indeed eventually moving outside its frame, as one shifts among maps that seem to lack any indices, but hurriedly create or improvise a sense of place as long as we are in the air.

With the crowding of the paths of the airways,  the itineraries overhead are not only an “informational feast,” but a progressive sense of the unfolding of the flight path that one can watch, while seated, from an empyrean point of view, that is truly satisfying to frame not one’s sense of where one is, but of how much flight time remains.  For if the seated passenger is removed from any sense of place, during the course of transit, the map allows one to be a spectator of where one is flying and enlists the most recent mapping graphics to do so, foregrounding the varieties of visual entertainments of map reading while we are in the air compounding the iconography of the cloud cover of a weather map, the remove of the plane from the ground foregrounded by the ridiculously out of scale rendering of the aircraft.





The plane is in a sense part of but not part of the map, a sort of talisman that gives us a sense of direction and markers of distance as we are removed from the earth.


Miles to NY


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Filed under air travel, airspace, flght maps, flight paths, spatial imaginaries

Maps in the Air

The novelist Edward St.-Aubyn offers a moving description of the existential torture in-flight maps inflict on his hero.  St.-Aubyn captures indeterminate relation we all feel as passengers suspended before the sheer toponymic abundance displayed on monitors during air travel, which offer handy metaphors for one’s own suspended relation to space.  The in-flight maps are often as disorienting as orienting, and might trigger a moment of panic, even as they seek to pacify by providing a clearer pathway to one’s destination than one could imagine in air.  Especially for Robert:  “Robert switched channels to the map. It showed the airplane hovering near Cork. Then it expanded to show London and Paris and the Bay of Biscay.  The next scale included Casablanca and Djibouti and Warsaw. How long was this informational feast going to go on? Where were they in relation to the moon?  The only thing anyone wanted to know finally came up: 52 minutes to arrival. They were flying through seven fat hours, pumped full of darkening time zones. . . . They told you everything, except the local time on the plane.”

While these in-flight pixellated screens are over-abundant when it comes to information, the relative dryness of it makes scrutinizing them for meaning as much a masochistic form of torture as the lighting of the inflight cabin itself.

In-Plane Map

There was far less information on this flight monitor, which by a fluke wasn’t working. It didn’t communicate the anticipation of arrival, or give the sense of the snail’s pace of the plan crawling across the video screen.


But it provoked a musing. Because of the presence of maps in so many areas of our daily lives, this may be yet another context in wich we’ve come to devalue the map, and lowered expectations for its use at all.  Up in the air, the sort of orienting map we’re given is often of little use anyways:  this seems to be an assurance that the trip will take a long time, more than even to offer a sense of how long remains in flight.  If it used to offer a sort of minor visual diversion (of whose accuracy we were never so sure) or a sort of punishment inflicted for not buying access to the in-flight film, the in-flight monitor has been marginalized as a flight-tracker map by the deluge of mediated maps of flight paths, like the maps at websites like “Flight Aware.”  The huge amount of metadata–and vastly superior user-interface–these websites deliver to travelers must have diminished expectations for in-flight monitors, if not bring a certain healthy skepticism about the level of accuracy or trust such maps could promise their readers.


Flight-Tracker map


Who doesn’t feel empowered by their newfound ability to track weather formations nation-wide, courtesy CNN or the Weather Channel.  In the maps of FlightAware, the mere addition of the generic swirls of cloud-cover that move across the flat screen add a realist touch from the weather map to an otherwise stagnant and static symbolic form:


Flight Tracker with Clouds


Thanks to the resources of FlightAware, otherwise bored passengers, who forgot to bring novels onboard or have finished their newspapers, can browse flight conditions in different areas, and track the density of airplane travel in screens in ways that have all the symbolic characteristics of an antiquated video game:


Live Flight Tracking--FlyAware


The sort of assent that the in-flight tracking screen once commanded has, it almost seems, been eroded by the proliferation of maps in media like FlightAware, so that they have become an antiquated relic still built into most passenger planes, but rarely consulted for information in the sort of user-friendly ways of the  recent past.  The erosion of their authority might be mirrored in the very sort of in-fight hard-copy maps we find in facing seat-pockets, which  foreground the cities/airports that the airplanes serve–more to communicate that they’ve got the map covered and to advertise future flight possibilities, than to orient the viewer to space:   the service map is surrogate for the nation, which takes second-seat to the aerial triangulation of air-hubs in Boston, JFK, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, San Juan, and Long Beach, sites of airports that constitute a sort of ring around its physical expanse–of course, the map is clickable on their site, but it looks like an uninteractive screen in its paper form.


Where We Jet-JET BLUE

I use that to imagine potential future routes by electing plugin destinations once I get home:

website flight route

But it didn’t serve as much more than an advertisement for future travel plans in its paper form.  The lack of content or topographic variation in the flyer, as well as a lack of interface without wifi, making the image above the stowed tray-table disconcerting.  The Google map format offers a map randomly framed and without a marker to trace the itinerary of the flight path, although with stretches of interesting stagnant greenery whose narrow ornamental in character makes one ponder what it signifies–remaining underlying greenery? old forest growth? cloud cover?  remaining wild areas?  There seems much more of it in Canada.



This seems mapping in the age of NAFTA, or at least driven by specific economic needs and a monopoly on the quality of cartographical information that can be delivered to passengers after the seat-belt buckle is fully inserted and snapped, and one faces monitor of reduced size.  Then again, the monopoly on the quality and range of automated delivery of readily constructed cartographical information that continues to be provided even after we deplane, where the airline provides numbers of maps in monitors that seem to seek to prove that they are up-to-date with models of commanding assent to their content–usually by referencing weather maps.  (Are such low-res video maps programmed for sequenced delivery to passengers, one often wonders, or do they indeed reflect real time travels of the airplane in which one sits?)


Maps in Airports--Jet Blue NYC

Despite the clear elitism that is on view at this library, and the stability of a relation to place that this globe in the city of Fermo suggests, the difference in the viewer’s relation to the terrestrial surface is a huge difference in time, and in how one moves through space.

Fermo Library


There was a nice irony by which these cartographical eras met and overlapped in the Burlington airport, where several of the multiple maps that Samuel Champlain designed of the area and nearby lake that bears his name are displayed on banners for anyone who would like to see.  Or the map inlaid in the pavement of Oakland airport’s baggage claim:  it declares to all arrivals with blunt finality that they have at last arrived, adopting the iconography of the Robertson projection once used by Pan-American airlines to trumpet the position of Oakland in the world, marking it by an outsized start that violates the principles of scale and precision, but that returns the tired traveller’s back to the place where s/he has arrived, no longer coasting over the meridians of the globe, but now having arrived at the imagined center of the intersection of two hemispheres–an intersection coincident, here, with the United States.


Arriving at Port of Oakland--Airport Inlay Map


Filed under Flight Tracking, FlightAware, Port of Oakland, Weather Channel