What we lose when airlines won’t let us look out the windows

by N. Gabriel Martin

The centrally-controlled dimming windows on newer airliners are an attack on human dignity, an affront to liberty, an insult to the sublimity of flight, and a curse against the beauty of our planet.

Now let me tell you how I really feel. I’ll admit that there might be more important things happening in the world than my inability to look out this window beside me. I can’t think of any right now, though.

No, right now all I can think of are the Greenlandic fjords and glaciers that Air Canada and Boeing are robbing from me. That’s because seeing sights like these are among the great privileges that the modern world has brought into our lives. Or rather, that it used to.

A lot of the talk about air travel is on the deprecating side, and to an extent I understand that. Like any travel, flying is difficult, and it’s gotten more difficult over the past decades as security has increased and low-cost airlines have introduced policies that are intended to inconvenience us (knowing that enough of us will upgrade out of frustration).

But all of those are trifles when compared to the miracle of flight! It is a miracle that I get to soar thousands of feet in the air, without any special training and without having to pay all that much (thanks to those low-cost carriers), while travelling hundreds of miles an hour and while gazing down at the landscape and the clouds.

Flying has allowed me to gaze down at parts of the earth I would not have been able to experience—the Rub’ Al Khali desert, alpine villages, a high peak in the outer Hebrides that scraped through the cloud like outstretched talons.

The splendours of flying aren’t limited to the landscape, either. There are the great puffy cumulonimbus clouds and the rosy fingers of dawn. At night you can gaze at the milky way, catch a glimpse of northern lights, and if you’re luck you might see a shooting star.

But my favourite views, the ones I never get tired of, are on the flight I’m on right now (from where I live in London back to visit family in Vancouver). The gentle green fields of England and Ireland give way to the forbidding Greenlandic and Nunavut glaciers. Looking down on the arctic I can witness a forbidding and inaccessible part of our earth. I don’t understand how that can fail to fill anyone with awe.

For the vast majority of us, the only other way we could ever experience sights like these is by facsimile. These are modern miracles too! The high-resolution video that Planet Earth and similar shows provide are breath-taking. In many ways, the views that they offer could be considered superior. They let us see the world clearly and close-up. That’s not something you get out the window of an airliner thirty-thousand feet up.

And yet, there is something that photos and video lack. Perhaps it’s the way that screens flicker in a way that our visual processing can only just recognise, or maybe it’s the aura of the real thing. I don’t know what it is, but there is something more to seeing things without the mediation of a lens.

Close-ups don’t always offer us the best view. Sometimes, the most striking view of things is from a great distance. The Canadian prairies with their checkerboard farm-land, a legacy of the great Dominion Land Survey of the nineteenth century and the Homestead Act, reveal themselves most clearly to a person in flight.

This is what’s being taken from us by these centrally-controlled dimming windows. The irony is that the new airliners that have these systems installed—Boeing’s 787s—are the most beautiful airliner ever designed. The wings have this swoop that makes every other airliner look like a bus in comparison. Their wings and enormous dual engines are striking from the terminal, the window, or from the ground.

I thought I recognised one above my flat in North London a few months ago. It was banking on its climb from Heathrow. I don’t know planes all that well, so I was surprised that I recognised it. But I did, as I confirmed using an app that lets you see what planes are I the sky.

It was the same flight I’m on right now, AC861: Air Canada’s flight from London to Vancouver. I was pining for flying then. I haven’t flown since before the pandemic, and I was homesick. I was also missing flight.

Now I’m on the flight. The windows have been locked at their dimmest setting for a couple hours and they’ll be locked for three more hours, I’m told. Five out of the eight and a half hours of the flight. Instead of the light of the sun streaming into the cabin, the light of row on row of video screens flicker away. Only a few other people have their reading lights on.

It’s only 6:30 in the evening, London time. I don’t feel like sleeping or watching TV. Still, the darkness of the cabin and the sensory-deprivation is making me drowsy. I still don’t feel tired exactly, it’s more like feeling drugged.

Is it outrageous if I say I feel I’m being drugged against my will? Well, that’s how it feels. And what’s worse is that it feels like the future; these are the newest planes, and this is what air travel is like now and what it’s going to be like from now on. Airbus has ordered similar windows for their new aircraft.

I’ve seen images of design prototypes from Airbus that promise planes without and windows at all. Instead, they will have a screen where the window used to be. This is being sold as progress, because it will give people the freedom to choose which camera angle they want to see. Never mind that it’s taking away reality and replacing it with an imitation. It’s dystopic, but of course in this very minor way which makes it silly to complain about.

The designers assume that we don’t care about reality. Maybe we don’t. When I asked a flight attendant if she could release the controls, the request seemed to strike her as unfamiliar. Maybe all of my fellow passengers are content to have the experience of flight taken away from them. Or, maybe they’re just going along with it because none of us have been given a choice.

I don’t expect anyone to care that I didn’t get to look out the window for a few hours. But I can’t help feeling indignant about it all and suspecting that there’s more at stake here. Something important is being lost when ways to find joy in what we are experiencing are taken away, and replaced with simulations.

For one thing, there is the irreplaceable reality of reality, that ineffable thing that even the most vibrant BBC nature documentary is missing. For another thing the screens we’re given in exchange isolate us. It’s not that air travel was all that communal an experience before, but I shared some of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen with the stranger sitting next to me. I don’t think I’ll be tapping my neighbour on the shoulder to point out something on Love Island any time soon.

I don’t know if there’s anything we can do to stop the greatest joy of the miracle of flight from being taken from us, but I know there’s something we can try. We can resist. Write to the airline. Ask your flight attendant to release the centralised lockout. For humanity’s sake ask politely and don’t insist too much. Those are not easy jobs that they do. But let them now we value it. Let them know that not all of us want to be anaesthetised until we get to our destination. Maybe if enough of us speak up we can reverse the airlines’ bizarre assumption that this is what we want.

For now I’m just hoping that they unlock the windows by the time we get to the Rocky Mountains.