International Travel In COVID’s Wake

My apologies for the intermittent blogging lately. Between a summer study season on Cyprus and a bit more travel than usual, I found it hard than expected to keep up with my writing discipline. 

My trip home took two days and an overnight in Amsterdam. Everything went relatively smoothly other than the typical annoyance associated with travel. That said, after two years of staying home (or at very least not flying), I felt like I experienced travel in a different way.

Here are three, more or less unremarkable, observations.

First, I was struck by the number of times people told me staffing shortages led to delays, changes in policies, and a general sense of crowding. In both of trips through the Amsterdam airport there were long lines for food, to make it through passport control, and the hotel where I stayed had a “luxury buffet” instead of menu service because they were short staffed. In the Amsterdam airport, there were also signs explaining that the delays, long lines, and general crowding were the result of staffing issue.

I’m guessing that this is the results of COVID disruption in a general way and certainly don’t imagine to understand the Dutch economy or the economics of airport service industries (other than a casual chat with a bartender). That said, struggles with staffing seems to be something that is getting blamed for inconveniences across a range of different political and social contexts (if not different macro-economic contexts, necessarily). It is especially interesting to see how staffing issues shape the experience of travel since our experiences exist at the intersection of state controlled processes border control, security theater, and travel regulations, and the market as airports such as Amsterdam’s Schiphol lean heavily into retail shopping and dining and airlines themselves complicating the travel experience with delays and cancelations. 

Second, it was hard to avoid the feeling that something was off about traveling right now. It wasn’t just staffing shortages, lines, crowds, and delays, but how people moved through the airpots that threw me off. In the “before COVID times,” it felt like there was a rhythm to flow of people in large airports. It always struck me as remarkable that groups of individuals impaired to varying degrees with travel fatigue, jet lag, and urgency, nevertheless managed to flow around each other. People seemed to know instinctually how to keep moving and how to follow the currents of people through terminal buildings.

My travel over the last month made me think that something was off. I never recall encountering so many individuals and small groups who would stop abruptly in flow of the crowd in a busy airport. This added an unwelcome new complication to anyone attempting to keep moving while following airport signage or grabbing a glimpse of various flat screens with gate announcements and boarding times. If there is one rule to airport movement it is pay attention to the local flow of traffic and if you have to stop to look at your phone, watch, documents, or a monitor, find a place outside of movement lanes. This understanding seems to have broken down not only among individual travelers who created chaotic eddies of pedestrians that formed around individuals who simply stopped at the end of the moving walkway, but also groups who blindly queued up for coffee or sandwiches in lines that blocked main travel corridors through the terminal.

Obviously some of this awkwardness reflects travelers simply being out of practice navigating airports. I suspect staffing issues and changing COVID-related travel policies compound this by adding to general confusion and creating long lines that interrupt movement in terminals. I also wonder how the relaxing of social distancing policies has created some additional confusion as humans are returning to pre-COVID social practices of movement at different rates. Perhaps even the practice of wearing masks (which I whole heartedly support) changes how we perceive our environment similar to how wearing headphones in a museum makes it impossible not careen randomly through an exhibit space. 

Finally, I was struck this summer by how much airports serve as spaces of social, racial, national, and economic sorting. I know this is a known thing and I get that this is the primary function of borders and border controls. 

That said, I suppose that I needed a couple years away from airports to really SEE it again. This summer, I  spent a good bit of time in passport control lines designated for individuals with non-EU passports. The difference in the racial make up and even the economic make up of the EU and non-EU passport line was pretty remarkable. What made it all the more striking is the line for something called “Global Entry” which was about as white, unmasked, and efficient as you might expect for a private operation designed to make travel easier for, well, white, wealthy people to travel.

In my time hanging out in airports this summer, I also found myself paying more attention to who goes in and out of airport lounges, who walks confidently through priority boarding lines at gates, who is visible beyond the drawn curtains of first and business class (I ride economy+, for the record), who has to deal with random paperwork at the gates, and who travels with a sheaf of travel documents rather than a simple passport. 

Maybe this is simply an indication that I’m getting older and less tolerant of bullshit. Or maybe I’m just more attuned to bullshit because I haven’t traveled as much over the last few years. Whatever the reason, I found the simple routines associated with travel to be even more horrific and dehumanizing than I remembered them to be (and I’m an affluent white guy from a nominally “first world” county with one of the most powerful passports in the world). I realize that avoiding travel is simply avoiding these experiences (and in an of itself a sign of privilege), but traveling makes the horrors of our globalized society so intensively visible and inescapable that I found it soul crushing.

Like most people, I know the rhetoric of traveling opening our eyes and giving us new ways to understand the world, but I can’t help think that participating in the sorting rituals associated with air travel also reinforces social, economic, political, and racial difference and normalizes it. 

(And, yeah, I know people smarter, more socially engaged, and more aware than I am have been saying this stuff for about 50 years. I think, though, that the COVID travel hiatus has made this stuff more visible now, though even for “veteran travelers” who might be inclined to move through airports without noticing or thinking about this kind of thing.)