The Dark Side of Airline Travel

The 7 coolest airplane interiors and how the designs spice up your flight
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What is it with dark airplanes? Those of us addicted to sunlight, open air and cloud-watching may have to establish our own airline. Or unionize in favor of at least a passenger area dedicated to open window shades. We might, I fear, find it slow going.

I am a confirmed window-seat person. I have nothing against aisle-seat people; endowed with a better-than-average (I’ve been told) bladder, I generally don’t bother them. Middle-seat people, unless they are part of a devoted couple, simply had the misfortune to book their tickets late; for purposes of this essay they count for very little. What power do they have, anyway, poor squished-in things.

On settling into my window-seat corner, the first thing I want to do is raise the shade. More and more often it seems there’s a rule against this until we are at least airborne. Which is OK with me; I’m a cloud-watcher, not necessarily a greasy-runway-watcher. So once we level off above the clouds I am eager to slide my shade up.

That’s when I get the frantic motion from the aisle-seat occupant who wants it shut. If window shades were open elsewhere in our sardine can I might be emboldened to resist. But no, a glance around reveals nothing but gloom. Every shade drawn tight. We might as well be in a submarine.

“Folks,” I want to shout, “it’s 10 AM!” But I do not. There’s enough hostility loose in the land as is.

So we travel across the country in darkness. Outside are rivers and plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, too many cloud formations to name. Sunsets. Weather conditions creating phenomena we may never again see. What can I say?

Naps, you argue. Well OK, I’m a #1 proponent of naps. But what’s wrong with eyeshades? We’re all masked up; we might as well be fully hidden from sight. I’ve tried napping on airplanes myself. You can take this to the bank: approximately 45 seconds into a deep sleep the captain will come on with some 80-decibel announcement about how grateful the crew is for our loyalty, and how he (it’s always a he; she-captains at least generally speak at an acceptable decibel level) wants us to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight. We are supposed to enjoy being rudely awakened just to be reminded we are being held captive in a dark-grey tin box for five or six hours? Lacking any other announcement excuse we will encounter rough air that mandates an interruption about tightening our seat belts. My seat belt was already tight.

 Small children whine loudly. Who can blame them? There’s no glimmer of daylight into which mommy can point to say “Look at the pretty puffy clouds.” Or even rain. We drought-weary Californians would so relish the sight of rain on the wings – but no, everybody wants to plunge westward in solemn gloom, back to the wildfires without even a small memory of possible salvation.

It’s enough to drive one to train travel. Or cars. At least you can’t drive a car with all the windows covered over. Uh, oh. I may have given the self-driving car crazies a new idea.

Finally there is the closing announcement. “We’re beginning our descent into San Francisco. Thank you for flying Shut-in Air.”  

Cloud Appreciation. It’s free!!

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Clouds around (& above) Salesforce Tower

Here is one universal, guaranteed, free way to lift your spirits in these often dispiriting days: look up. Stare at the sky. Notice the clouds. Once you start noticing clouds – which are up there just quietly asking to be admired, after all – your passport to lifted spirits is issued.

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Wisps around the Ferry Bldg

My passport number is #45,662. That is, this message comes to you from Cloud Appreciation Society member #45,662. My membership number came with an official certificate proclaiming that I joined this society on 13th May (it’s a very British society) and “will henceforth seek to persuade all who’ll listen of the wonder and beauty of clouds.”

So that’s what this essay is about. You can quit reading if you don’t want to be persuaded.

One thing the Cloud Appreciation Society brings you (via email) is the Cloud of the Day. Imagine starting your day – before you even look up, perhaps – not with news of wars and corruption and presidential vulgarity, but with the Cloud of the Day. Which on most days is stunning.

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Sunset from our window

I have been hooked on sunsets ever since moving into a seventh floor condo with one large window that looks directly west toward the Pacific Ocean. But my path to cloud appreciation actually started with the lovely, gently persuasive book A Sideways Look at Clouds by Maria Mudd Ruth. Ruth, author of the award-winning book Rare Bird, became curious about clouds on moving from the east coast to the rugged, foggy northwest. In Sideways she combines that daunting intellectual curiosity with a persistence few of us share. I mean, slipping into a frigid lake at dawn to experience fog? I have never met the author. But I’m a very longtime friend and fan of her famous father Roger, and her late mom was a poet – which leads me to understand that Ruth comes by her writing gifts honestly. The book is a winner.

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Clouds from airplane window seat

In addition to my Cloud Appreciation Society membership certificate and sky-blue cloud pin, I am now the proud possessor of the Cloud Selector wheel, identifying the 10 main cloud types. You thought there were just puffy white things? Wrong. The ten main groups are divided according to altitudes and shapes, whether they’re made up of clumps, continuous layers or wispy streaks. You probably know Cumulus (Cu.) The Cloud selector tells you what to look for: “Cauliflower tops, flattish bases, crisp edges;” typical altitudes (1,000 to 5,000 feet;) whether there’s precipitation (None, unless very large) and offers a picture just so you know you’re right. How better to be an instant cloud expert?

Cloud appreciation, though, is not about expertise; it’s about pure pleasure. Given the high cost of movies and ballgames, this space is pleased to recommend cloud-watching as a viable alternative entertainment. You can also buy A Sideways Look at Clouds for less than $20, or you can become a bona fide member of the Cloud Appreciation Society for $23.25/year plus a $13.29 sign-up fee. (You can also become a CAS Friend, for free, and receive their Somewhat Occasional Newsletter.) After that, you’re on your own.

The planet may be in a mess, but the skies above are filled with wonder. Cloud wonder.

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Clouds from the top of Post St, unspoiled by overhead wires even