By Christopher Rice
Originally published on Advocate.com September 15 2009 9:00 AM ET
I ’ve stopped confessing that I’m an airplane nerd at dinner parties because another guest usually tries to engage me in conversation about how the forthcoming 787 Dreamliner will utilize more composite fibers than any aircraft in history, and I drift off. “Well, actually,” I manage to interject at the first appropriate moment, “I’m more into the cabins.”
Strange look. “The cabins?”
“You know. The seats.”
My fellow geek usually gives me a slight, condescending smile. To him, the tufted fabrics and burnished woods inside the first- and business-class cabins of wide-body jets are inconsequential; I might as well be obsessed with lavatory design. But I can’t bring myself to care about engine thrust and the fuel efficiency of winglets, even though both topics dominate the discussion boards of the aviation websites I visit with compulsive regularity. (I once made the mistake of referring to these sites as “airplane porn,” only to have a table full of gay men perk up at the prospect of a site devoted entirely to gay porn shot inside of passenger airplanes.)
In my defense, it’s not like I didn’t try to go the traditional geek route with this one. I’ve got several pieces of a 10-by-10-foot scale model airport sitting in the upstairs closet (right next to that electric griddle from Mom I still haven’t taken out of the box and some gifts from exes I can’t bring myself to trash), but the thing takes up too much space, has too many moving pieces, and it’s all gray.
At times, social disapproval of my interest has bordered on all-out class warfare. After I made a guy I was seeing sit through a slide show of first-class cabins on major international carriers, he tartly replied, “I see. So it’s all about privilege and wealth!” No, I insisted. The hours I spend on Airliners.net is not equivalent to time spent drooling over those shows on the Travel Channel that count down the top 10 hotel rooms so expensive most people would have to sell their car to be able to afford them for one night. It is not a mere yearning for opulence that holds me in thrall when I spend an afternoon studying the muted tones and impeccable lines of the new Cathay Pacific first-class “suite.”
In my opinion, there is something deeper and more exciting at work when a major airline fills the noses of its largest planes with a series of cells that look like a special commission Gucci might have completed for Bellevue Hospital. While most of these contraptions would look absurd sitting in someone’s living room, send them hurtling through the air at 500 miles per hour and they become art. I call it the design of defiance. Opulent furnishings take on a special significance when they are surrounded by a thin skin that separates luxuriating passengers from a potential drop in pressure that could snap their necks if that skin were breached. Some people might call this whistling in a graveyard. I prefer calling it needlepoint inside a tornado.
So yes, my obsession is a gay one, if there is such a thing, but not for the obvious reasons. Forget the slick ballet of flight attendants responding to a passenger’s every request with a smile, and forget their impeccable uniforms. I couldn’t care less. But a defiance of nature’s most basic constraints and an insistence on bringing beauty and detail to places of industrial sterility are widely acknowledged components of a gay sensibility, and those traits define the premium cabins of most major airlines to a tee.
But that’s not to say my obsession is not without its pitfalls. Just for starters, giving away large portions of space on gas-guzzling jets to seats that fold out into 6-foot-6-inch–long beds isn’t exactly the greenest of choices. Good thing I’m just looking at pictures of flat beds and not designing them myself. Then there was the morning when I sat down across from a friend and thought to myself, Her dress is the exact same shade of purple as the business-class SpaceBed on Singapore Airlines. That was what our president might refer to as a “teachable moment.” Perhaps my obsession had gone too far. Fine. So I’ll temper it. But I’m not switching to another one. I’m perfectly happy to remain on the design-oriented, leather-cosseted fringe of airplane geekdom. Just don’t expect me to have an excited conversation about wingspan with any of the other geeks.