Time Travel

With the end in sight for the flying hippopotamus, Tom Eaton peels back the layers of life’s greatest luxury.

The Airbus A380, floating through the skies like an immense hippopotamus paddling through a pond full of lilies, will soon be gone. Production will end by 2021.

For travellers used to seeing iconic aircraft in harness forever – incarnations of the Boeing 747 have been airborne since 1969 – the impending end of the A380 feels startlingly sudden. But not even a record-breaking giant that can carry 800 people 14,000 kilometres without breaking a sweat can outrun change.

When the A380 was dreamed up in the late 1980s, it was to serve a “hub-and-spoke” conception of air travel, whereby huge aircraft would deliver huge numbers of passengers to huge airports like Dubai, from where they would get onto smaller aircraft and fly to smaller destinations.

But even as the A380 was lumbering off the drawing board and into the sky, those smaller, twin-engined passenger jets were extending their range, efficiency and operational agility. By the time it entered service in 2007, the A380 was almost obsolete. Today the hub-and-spoke system is surrendering to convenience, as passengers board smaller, more plentiful aircraft to fly directly to where they want to go.

The bottom line, in other words, is the bottom line: the impending death of the A380 is, as always, about money.

Still, I can’t help but see something symbolic in this behemoth, shuttling vast crowds to shopping centres in a desert, being replaced by smaller machines that go straight to more interesting places. The future of travel, the doomed A380 seems to be whispering to us, is a shift from the immense and impersonal to the small and specific.

The whispers get louder when you consider a curious coincidence. Airbus’s announcement came in February, but it was in March that the death notices began in earnest, with some of the A380’s most high-profile operators cancelling orders or revealing they were selling parts of their fleet – almost 50 years to the day since the maiden flight of another iconic airliner: the beautiful dream that was Concorde.

The fastest airliner in history was retired in 2003. Now we are losing the biggest. After almost a century of flying further, faster, in ever greater numbers, these two classics seem to be admitting that travel isn’t always about speed or scale.

Indeed, getting there slowly is often half the pleasure.

If I’d flown into Transylvania, for example, I would never have experienced the deliciousness of spending half a day on a ropey train rattling relentlessly eastward into the wilds of Romania, racing a setting sun to my destination; slowing to a hissing halt God  knew where, enveloped in Gothic darkness, complete with theatrical, creeping mist; clambering down out of the train directly onto rusting tracks – there was no platform, and the station building, we were told, had recently burned down – before being approached by a cadaverous host who fixed me with a watery eye and croaked, with a tone that brooked no argument, “You are Thomas.”

I know that this sounds like the setup for a joke and that I am about to tell you how dreadful it all was. Those memories don’t fit with our collective idea of inspiring, meaningful, luxurious travel. And yet that journey wasn’t a joke and it wasn’t dreadful. It was utterly wonderful. And part of what made it so wonderful was that it unfolded slowly, at a human pace, and on a human scale.

Indeed, to travel like this is to remember an obvious truth about wealth and luxury.

The most valuable thing on the planet isn’t money or the material things it can buy.

It is time.

It’s not accidental that we talk about “spending” time, as if it were money. Because deep down we understand that to spend time profligately – to waste it in delicious immobility, burning up the tiny amount we’re allocated at birth, simply gazing at the horizon or reading book – ah, that is the greatest luxury of all.

In a culture of bucket lists and frantic itineraries and FOMO, it can feel like a waste of precious time to spend two or even three weeks in one place. And yet spending time – letting it trickle through your fingers like sand on a beach – can be one of travel’s most intense pleasures.

When we allow time to spill over new places, they transform. The public becomes personal. The epic becomes intimate. The beach you discovered on the first day becomes, by the fifth day, your beach. A small supermarket, at first just a place to buy milk and bread, becomes a daily conversation in good-natured, broken English as the proprietor tries to teach you the local names for your groceries. A feral cat, at first nothing but scenery, becomes a pest or pet.

When you travel at a slower pace and on a smaller scale, even the weather becomes an event, as the sun-blasted, retina-scorching white-and-blue of the travel brochures is softened by the shadows of clouds and then transformed by rain, peeling back the superficial Instagram glamour to reveal something more intimate and therefore more beautiful.

The paradox of speeding from place to place in the hope of seeing more is that we end up seeing less. Some, who stumble through the great places of the world with their eyes locked on the pictures they’re recording on their phones, see nothing at all.

No, the way to experience more is to slow down and scale down.

I recently stood under the dome of St Peter’s in Rome, and later gazed up at soft rain drifting down through the roof of the Pantheon. Both were beautiful; but no more than the evening I spent in a Yorkshire pub, barely big enough to seat 10 people, smelling somewhat of the wet dog that snoozed in the corner, the décor unchanged since the First World War, except for a sign reading, “Like us on Facebook in return for nowt”.

It couldn’t have been further from Row 88 of an A380 bound for Dubai.

It couldn’t have been more perfect.

Image: ©iStock - 685693526

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