Ralph Gardner Jr: What's The Matter With The View?

Mar 24, 2018

Fair warning – this is a rant. But not on the subject you might expect. It has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with politics. Though, come to think of it, the phenomenon I’m here to discuss may actually speak to a larger vitamin deficiency in our culture, a spiritual malaise of which our current politics is but a symptom.

I’m speaking about the propensity of many air travelers assigned window seats to lower their shades, starting even before the plane taxis on the runway, and for the entire duration of the flight.

There are, of course, legitimate reasons to deny the view. One of them is if you happen to be members of that benighted fraternity that’s terrified of flying. I applaud your courage for walking the flyway in the first place (it must feel like a gangplank) and stifling your sobs.

But my hunch is that those poor souls constitute a minority of travelers who block their view. And mine, too if I happen to be sitting in the middle or aisle seat.

Another excellent and even socially responsible reason for doing so, usually at the prompting of the flight crew, is so fellow passengers can sleep on an overnight flight or because it’s harder to watch your movie, toy with your company spreadsheet, or play your video games if the golden sunrise is striking your screen.

But I’m talking about passengers who gratuitously, seemingly mindlessly, lower their shades, those so aesthetically challenged that they’re unaware of the small but profound sin they’re committing against both humanity and nature.

Let me start with an explanation of where I’m coming from.

I will kill for a window seat.

Wait. Here’s another thing I’ve noticed lately. After you’ve gone to significant effort to secure a window by calling the airline in advance – my experience is that selecting your seat online is an exercise in frustration, most of them allegedly already reserved, perhaps even part of a conspiracy to get you to upgrade to one of those seats with extra legroom – or by using all your charm to cajole the check-in clerk to assign you a window (I realize this is a long-winded sentence for radio but bear with me) a fellow passenger approaches and with a kindly smile asks whether you might be willing to swap seats so that he/she can sit with his/her daughter, mother, best friend, etc.

Usually trading your window for one of those in the plane’s lugubrious midsection.

By the way, my answer is a sympathetic but emphatic no.

Why am I so intransigent on the subject? And, by the way, I’m one of those passengers whose consideration for my fellow passengers suggests I ought to be sitting on the aisle since I enjoy the use of the lavatory on several occasions during a trans-Atlantic or cross country flight.

You might go so far as to say it’s me, not the shade lowerers, who is most inconveniencing my fellow passengers since I shouldn’t be awakening my slumbering row mates, no matter how gently, to reach the loo.

I plead guilty, though the best-case scenario, of course, is to have an empty seat beside you so you can both enjoy the view and make undisruptive visits to the bathroom.

But returning to my main point. The reason, all else being equal, one wants a window seat is because both flight and nature remain miracles. We live on a lovely planet and examining it from the air offers a different perspective than the one we typically enjoy from ground level.

Here are some of my favorite sights, but feel free to substitute your own. Flying down the heart of Manhattan at night. Or during the day, for that matter. Crossing the Midwest with its great squares and rectangles of farmland. Absorbing the otherworldly landscape of the southwest, in particular the Grand Canyon and Utah’s national parks. (Why go to Mars when we have extraterrestrial scenery right here on Earth?)

Greeting the sunrise on flights to Europe. The snow-covered Alps at any time of day. Marveling at the vastness of the Sahara. Watching the frictionless flight of other aircraft as they pass below you, though not too close, of course.

Why miss out? Why deny yourself such beauty? And in exchange for what? The same game of Candy Crush you can play on the subway?

That may be the underlying problem. We’ve become so hooked on our devices that nature seems an unwanted distraction. The simple act of seeing anything that doesn’t unfold on a screen feels an unnecessary exertion.

But I refuse to submit. No matter how action-packed your video game or compelling the movie on your screen, you can always return to it. The view outside your window – the clouds and sky and effect of light -- will never be the same twice.

Catch it while you can. And if you couldn’t care less, please raise your shade and allow the rest of us to enjoy life on Earth.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.