The food chain is a concept that was probably never intended to carry irony. Nevertheless, I’m on a plane tucking into poached salmon 30 thousand feet above the spawning pools where this very fish may very well have been born. The salmon is a cast member of a ‘restaurant-quality gourmet meal’ – a set piece choreographed as part of the in-flight services designed especially for ‘international business executives’ like me.
I’m on an Eos flight to JFK. Its one of these new airlines that have thrown out the riff raff, and become completely business class. Eos say, ‘With Only 48 Guests On A Plane Built For 220, Everything Changes’. It’s true. Everything is emptier, simpler and smoother
The frictionless experience begins on the ground. You are met at the airport door by Eos-ite, escorted swiftly through passport and security to a terminal lounge all in one queue-free sweep – as impressive as the one-take tracking shot in Orson Wells’ ‘Touch of Evil’. It makes Stanstead feel, for once, like the sublime aircraft hanger Lord Foster intended – long since buried by no-frills airlines and paranoid security concerns where the lines of leisure-wear snaking through the terminal are at least as architectural as the celebrated steel tree-columns. Eos is a design experience woven together out of various infrastructures: it integrates amongst other things, aviation, homeland security, venture capital, myths of luxury, etiquette in a seamless slick of experience.
Having slid through security checks, I slide into the Eos lounge, which at Stanstead is more like a well-stocked Portacabin: fruit salad, miniaturised Danish pastries, bottles of spirits present a time-scrambled buffet. Equally hard to believe are the scattered selection of magazines that sincerely believe that royal stepson Tom Parker-Bowls is where it’s at.
I watch an OCD bar tender who, despite the emptiness of the room keeps adjusting the stock and display as though edging towards a millimetre-perfect optimum: polishing glasses, moving bottled water to the front of the fridge, rearranging pastries, snapping magazines into alignment. All this adjustment creates a tremendous sense of comfort. Or to be more precise, it’s a sense of the mechanics of comfort.
This concern with a certain level of comfort characterises the Eos experience. It’s a kind of numb sensation of executive luxury that envelops you like a cloud as you cross the Atlantic. I’m in the midst of an elitist fantasy. It’s smooth, like movement in a dream and feels as though it isn’t really happening.
Flying is an act that’s closely associated with dreams, fantasies and imagination. The narrative of flying interweaves fantasies of freedom and utopia with sex and violence. From the Mile High Club to terrorism, flights threaten to take you somewhere other than shown on your boarding pass. Along with air-rage, perhaps there are whole ranges of above-the-cloud states of mind. Hijacking and hijincks might both be symptoms of this high-up state of consciousness. Perhaps, like vertigo, height temporary alters the functioning of the mind. A narcotic effect induced by temporary extra-terrestrial state.
Perhaps this is what has addled the 1970 incarnation of the Rolling Stones as they shake percussion in a kind of faux-primative-ritualisitc private jet gang-bang sex scene in their banned rockumentary ‘Cocksucker Blues’.
Perhaps it’s also what courses through the veins of hijackers as they unclip their seatbelts and head towards the cockpit door clutching a box cutter.
These beyond-civilised behaviour are heady with Futurist abandon. They are perhaps fulfilments of Marinettis dreams of machines and violence: where scenes of airplanes colliding with buildings and blowing themselves up on the tarmac are intercut with the sexual humiliation of groupies and fetish scenes featuring cat-fighting air hostesses.
These extreme forms of behaviour take place within an environment of tremendous control. Passengers – even international business executives like myself – give themselves up to trajectories defined by refuelling range, engine thrust, airspace rights, corporate policy, international agreements, health and safety legislation.
Going up into the air is a leap into utopia – faith in the science, or trust in something as mundane as the corporate responsibility of the airline. Flight takes you closer to whatever it is you might think is up there. And further away – at least for a time – from whatever is down there.
Risen far from geography, into my Eos executive-only bubble. I wonder what kind of utopian vision this could be. Looking around I see David Sullivan – Britain’s top pornographer – relaxing with champagne, his plastic lightsabre and military style coat is stowed in the locker above perhaps imagining the acts currently being performed in his name. Other executives adjust spreadsheets ahead of morning presentations. Their fingers quietly fiddling charts within the abstract terrain of Excel macros.
The plane itself is intentionally un-flashy. It’s visually mute and hardly memorable. Its significant characteristic is an hallucinogenic calm – like listening to Dido in a BMW on a clear stretch of freshly laid highway. Low-key executive: grey, slightly austere, tasteful, male and businesslike.
Looking up from my portable screen, the stewardess is mouthing something at me and smiling. I can’t hear a thing as I’m wearing a Bose headset with noise cancelling technology. I try to talk, but the headset cancels out my voice along with everything else. It feels like talking in a fishtank – yet I can’t work is preventing me place my aperitif order. Finally, pulling off the cans, I escape the white noise simulation of silence. I’ve been shouting ‘Whiskey and Ginger Ale!’ like a shell-shocked soldier who doesn’t yet realise he’s lost his lower jaw.
Increasingly the idea of comfort becomes unsettling: I find myself minutely adjusting the control panel in my suite-style chair. It wiggles like a leather caterpillar, folding its abdomen, raising its tail or lowering its head. At full stretch it becomes a slim bed that the stewardess makes up for me. The chair is a furniture hybrid of luggage rack, office cubicle, bed, car seat dentists chair, table and shelving system. It’s designed with the ingenuity of a Transformer with none of the thrill.
Perhaps it’s the cocktail of control and choice that is the source of the itchy, crawling sensation over my skin. This isn’t so much a utopia as a concentrated recreation of the modern business environment: both calm and disturbingly alienated. Instead of the kingdom of heaven, up here above the clouds Eos have built a metallic allegory for the pleasures and limits of late capitalist life.