of a Continental Drifter
with Jim Benning
Jim Benning talks with the author and flight attendant about the
buzz of airports, the hum of airplanes and the joy of flying.
/ February 11, 2002
Elliott Hester has written eloquently about the highs and lows
of travel through the eyes of a flight attendant. His articles
have appeared on Salon.com
and in National Geographic Traveler. He writes a column, "Out
of the Blue," that appears in nine U.S. newspapers, including
the San Francisco Chronicle. His new book, Plane
Insanity: A Flight Attendant's Tales of Sex, Rage and Queasiness
at 30,000 Feet, recounts memorable stories from 16 years in the
business. "Flying gets in your blood," he writes. "It's
like malaria." I talked with Hester recently about flying,
writing and the infectious nature of travel.
World Hum: I love airports. I get a buzz just walking into one,
even if I'm there only to pick up a friend. You spend more time
in airports than most people. Do you know that feeling?
I know exactly what you're talking about.
There's no place in the world like an airport. It's the only place
you can go where there is so much colliding of cultures. For that
reason, some of the best people watching to be had is in airports.
Miami, where I live, is great for that. There are so many people
from so many different countries: Venezuelans, Bolivians, Americans,
Canadians, people from Argentina and Europe. You can sit there
and watch for hours. There are also a zillion beautiful women
at the Miami airport. But mainly there's just a really interesting
mix of people. You can tell a lot about a city by visiting its
At O'Hare in Chicago, for example, you see
a lot of men wearing business suits and ties and women in business
attire. Chicago is a conservative city. Whereas in Miami, you
won't see people walking around in business suits. In L.A. it's
a little more hip, more casual. An airport is kind of like a barometer
of the city around it.
Do you have a favorite?
I like Heathrow. It's the busiest airport
in the world, and it has an amazing confluence of people. It's
more interesting than Miami. There are people from literally every
country in the world flying through Heathrow. I find that the
people who work at the airport at Heathrow are amazingly friendly,
too. You might not get that at JFK. In the summer, when I was
there, there was a British Airlines employee hunched down over
a computer terminal. I said, "Excuse me," and he looked
up and smiled. It was so pleasant. He probably answers the same
questions a million times a day, yet he was happy to help me.
You write in your book that flying gets in your blood. "It's
like malaria," you say. What is it about flying that's so
Flight attendants almost never quit before
retirement. The way we live becomes something that we can't live
without. Being able to fly anywhere on your time off is addictive.
I'm so used to jumping on planes. If I wanted to come see you
tomorrow in Los Angeles, I'd just check the computers to see when
the flights leave. I love that.
Have you always loved to fly?
Always. Ever since I was a kid. I flew for
the first time at 14. I remember my first airplane ride, sitting
near the back of the airplane. I couldn't stop smiling when the
plane took off. It was this wonderful feeling of leaving and going
someplace else, someplace mysterious. To this day, I'm still fascinated
by the fact that you can be in one climatic region at two in the
afternoon and at six you can be in a totally different climate,
a totally different place. It's just a mind-boggling experience.
The name of this site was inspired by a passage from a Don DeLillo
novel, about a guy boarding a plane: "He will feel the systems
running power through the aircraft, running light, running air.
To the edge of the stratosphere, world hum, the sudden night."
There's a unique feeling of electricity on planes, a "world
hum." Do you feel that?
Yeah, there is a certain feeling of electricity. The systems running
power. It often lulls people to sleep. Sleeping is the most popular
activity on planes. You hear the sound of the engine on takeoff.
But after a few minutes, it becomes like white noise. There's
a cocooning effect. I love that about airplanes.
Has that magical quality about travel ever worn off for you?
No. But there is a grind to it. The flights
were always fun, and the layovers were exciting. But now it's
getting to be a bit more mundane. I've been to all the destinations.
The way the industry has changed has made it more difficult to
have a good time, too, because the layovers have shrunk. Before,
the layover was quite lengthy. You could get into a city, go out
to dinner, see a bit of the place, go out to breakfast and then
leave. Now, airlines are so economically conscious that the planes
are always moving. We have 10-hour layovers. You're flying in
on the last flight of the night and out early in the morning.
It's getting to the point where you don't even have time for dinner.
Do you have any favorite routes?
I'm an international flight attendant. In
one given month, I might be flying to Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo
Brazil. The next month I might be flying a hodgepodge, maybe to
Jamaica or Mexico City. I like a little variety. I've flown to
all the destinations we service, so for me it's all about time.
My writing has become very important to me, so I try to work my
schedule around that. The European trips don't work for me anymore
because of that.
Has flying changed much since September 11?
Right after the skies reopened after September 11 there was a
tremendous feeling of camaraderie. There was a tangible feeling
of togetherness. I donít think it was that way before September
11. Quite often, it was an us-against-them ordeal. The crew versus
the passengers. September 11 taught us that if anything happens
to one of us, it happens to all of us. Flying on a plane is the
only situation in society where the public has no access to police
or security. Every cruise ship has security people. At a bar or
nightclub you dial 911 and the cops show up. So case after case
has proven that flight attendants and passengers have to step
up to the plate for security.
Terrorists like to target planes. What do you think planes represent
in our culture -- what do they mean to us as a society -- that
makes them such compelling targets?
I don't know exactly why they choose airlines.
I really don't think there's going to be much of it anymore. I
think they'll shift their focus to less-protected areas. Take
the fallout from the shoe-bomber. Now you have to remove your
shoes to go through X-ray machines. I've gotten to the point where,
when I travel as a passenger, I wear slip-ons.
Let's talk about your writing. How did you get started?
It started as a hobby in 1995. I wrote about
the places I flew to, like the Caribbean. Then I sent out my first
newspaper story. I sent the same story to 80 newspapers. I sold
one: to the Boston Herald. From then on I started to sell more
stories. Then I sold a piece about an experience on an airplane.
I sold it to eleven or twelve newspapers. I went to a travel writer's
conference and met Don George, who edited the travel section at
Salon. He's a really good guy. I owe him a lot. I wound up writing
a column there. Online publications have really helped make my
life easier as a writer.
Publicity, for one thing. I decided when
I was writing for Salon to start collecting e-mail addresses from
the people who wrote to me. I would e-mail them a link to my latest
column. It helped me get a large number of hits. I was stockpiling
these e-mail addresses for two reasons, for columns and for my
future book. My list grew to 5,000 people. When my book came out,
I sent a note to all those people with a link to my Web site.
The morning I sent those out my book was ranked 20,000 on Amazon.com.
That evening, it went as high as 243. The Internet has been an
amazing marketing tool.
Wow. What makes for a great travel story?
I can only tell you what works for me. As
a reader, when it comes to travel, I want to feel like I'm there.
I want the writer to reel me in so that I can see or smell or
taste everything he or she is talking about. The least attractive
stories do more telling than showing. I try to write vivid stories.
The best compliments are when readers tell me, "I felt like
I was there with you." That's what makes a really good travel
story. You don't necessarily have to go into detail about culture
or place. It depends on the type of story.
I love those stories, too. We link to them on our weblog when
we find them, but they're hard to find. Most travel publications
don't publish many, do they?
No. Most magazines are advertising-driven.
They want information. The in-flight magazines are -- I don't
want to say the worst -- but they cater to the business traveler.
The business traveler wants facts. How is the peso against the
dollar? Where are the best hotels? Those utilitarian pieces are
quite different. That's what was so great about Salon. There are
a few newspapers that run essays once in a while, and I write
for them. But unless you're a star writer like Bill Bryson, it's
You're a star now. Any plans to quit your flying job?
Flying does get into your blood. The last
couple of years I've been flying part-time. That makes it more
attractive, so I can write. I still get all of my benefits. So
I have no plans to leave my job. It's perfect.
Other than your column, what are you writing these days?
I'm writing a second book. Years ago I took a leave of absence
and took an around-the-world trip. I flew from New York to Tahiti,
Australia, Singapore, Bangkok, Nepal, Indonesia, all through Europe
and back to New York. That trip is what turned me into being a
writer. So my book is about that experience. I'm going to write
about the first trip through the eyes of an older, hopefully wiser
Jim Benning is the co-editor of World Hum.