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–
–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.