Surviving Long-Haul Flights

June 23, 2024 22:05

Picture this.

You’re on a long-haul flight, with inches of room to spare before you. Before you is a reclining seat and a stubborn tenant who is clearly refusing to hear you, despite your best effort. Behind you is a travelling businessman who appears to be romantically attached to his three phones. And to top off the exotic experience, to your right sits a young baby – he stares adoringly at you, bushy-eyed and wholly unsuspecting of what is soon to follow.

The flight takes off. Turbulence kicks in, the seatbelt sign flashes. The pilot makes a mumbled announcement that you strain to hear over the flushing toilet in the background as its occupant frantically makes the way back to her seat.

It's going to be a long ride. And it’s long for reasons that neither you nor the pilot can be faulted. After all, long-haul flights are a matter of necessity – in an age of hyper-globalisation, in an era where corporations value your act of and willingness to partake in flying long distances more than their actual presence, at a time when international travel has become a twisted class, but also status, symbol. “Busy is good; travelling to remote, far-flung places, even better!”

And even if you’re lucky enough to be amongst the select few who can fly whenever, to wherever, and predominantly for leisure… and even if you happen to have secured a comfortable Business or Premium Economy seat, so long as you’re stuck in the tightly sealed and inadequately ventilated cabin for over 10 hours, you’re still going to have to deal with the onerous downsides of long-haul flights.

I’d like to think that travelling via plane over long distances is, in some eerie and uncanny fashion, rather resemblant of the nature of contemporary work in a late-stage capitalist economy. Both are “necessary” – or, more precisely, portrayed to be necessary to give rise to meaning, to allow for the satisfaction of very peculiar objections, and to enable the maintenance of bizarre rituals, such as off-site retreats in the middle of nowhere. Across both cases, we find ourselves stuck doing things that we may not necessarily enjoy, dealing with actors that are borderline obnoxious (only in the context, as opposed to inherently), and coping with the whiplash and mounting physical toll.

And on a more Marxist note, the sense of alienation is palpable across both instances. Flying long distances induces in one jetlag, a sense of disorientation and place-less rest-lessness; one could wake up feeling confused about where one is and fall asleep not knowing that one has done so. To be constantly on the move, as if one were a de facto nomad, comes with both pros and cons. The pros are that you get to see the world in its multitudes, and the cons are that you begin to lose control of your deeper ‘sight’, as the sense of perennial foreignness kicks in: you are always a foreigner, chasing after foreign dreams in foreign lands.

Yet can’t the same be said of labour in an increasingly involuted, inward-looking, and performative capitalist ecosystem? These are times when we work not to produce, but to mimic production. We are told to enroll in institutions and secure degrees that would help us ‘look’ better, as opposed to ‘think’ better. Youth are paid wages that cannot catch or match up to inflation rates, only to be told that if they were willing to work harder, there would be no problem whatsoever. As cogs in the machine, we are enticed to embark upon one flight after another, switching, jumping, converting, defecting, defaulting.

So how can we survive all of this? Where lies the key? To me, the tips I’d give to both the long-haul traveller and the worker are – unironically – symmetric. Firstly, focus on the ‘action’. Don’t think – just do. Bring meaningful work you care passionately about onto the flights and focus on getting it done using the limited amount of time you have available. Similarly, we must make our jobs valuable, and search for – or create – a sense of higher purpose to the work that we do. For the only means of closing the alienation gap is for us to find meaning and orientation in the actions we perform, however mundane they may be.

Secondly, don’t resist naps. Everyone needs a break. Do not fetishise staying awake, both during and after the flights, at the expense of your mental and physical wellbeing. Similarly, the idea that we must work until we drop, or devote ourselves to ceaseless 24/7 labour and churn, is farcical. The law of diminishing returns is real and applies incredibly fittingly to individual worker productivity. If you find yourself dozing off at the 9th hour on a flight from Hong Kong to New York City, go for it – nap it out, and hit the ground running with a refreshed and enlivened mindset.

Finally, look around you. Look around in the cabin, and you shall find many a face who is no less exhausted and burnt out. Look around in your workplace, and you shall find that the treadmill you are running on is shared by many who possess the same frustrations, grievances, and concerns that you have. Then you shall see, you are not alone. Whilst this mere fact of not being alone may not offer much positive reassurance, it should go at least some way in alleviating the sense of guilt and dejection you might otherwise feel – “Why is it that I always fail to get things done, and fail to fall asleep, on long-haul flights?”

That’s a good question, and one that everyone – not just yourself – must answer. We are not alone, and our strength comes in numbers.

Assistant Professor, HKU