Fear of Not Flying: Perspective From a Grounded Frequent Flyer

Posted on February 9, 2021

In the 2009 American comedy-drama Up in the Air, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a frequent flyer who extols the virtues of traveling for work. Living free of burdensome relationships and material possessions, Ryan’s entire lifestyle centers on his quest to earn 10 million frequent flyer miles with American Airlines.

frequent-flyer

He is thrown an unexpected curveball when recalled to his company’s offices where a young, ambitious new hire, promotes cutting costs by conducting business via videoconferencing. This leads Ryan to begin questioning his lifestyle and philosophies. Eventually the new approach fails and Ryan returns to his “comfort bubble,” back on the road, but as a changed man.

A Sad “Goodbye” to My Frequent Flyer Status

I am certainly not a Ryan Bingham. I have, however, spent huge chunks of my life on the road traveling for business. And whether I wish to admit it or not, that is part of who I am both personally and professionally.

So much so that I recently suffered a short bout of acute anxiety over losing my hard-earned frequent flyer status (the absolute highest my airline of choice offers). Why do I think some of you reading this can relate?

Fortunately, my airline of choice has made it abundantly clear that I will be very well cared for until normal travel patterns resume. Given present circumstances, however (the COVID pandemic), I think all of us can draw important analogies to the movie.

Reflecting on What Truly Matters

Much like one of the central themes of the film—change—I believe the pandemic has accelerated important socio-economic changes that, in many cases, were already underway. The way we work, work-life balance, the way we educate our students, the way we work out, shop, watch movies, care for the elderly and, to a very large extent, how much we adopt technology have all been pushed to the fore during the pandemic. That isn’t even all of the changes and arguably society wasn’t ready for most of them.

And while cutting costs is not the reason this happened, the pandemic, and the changes it forced on everyone, has given each of us a golden opportunity to evaluate virtually everything in our lives. What were we doing before that really added value? And over the course of the last year or so, what did we truly miss?

In the movie, Ryan ultimately draws the conclusion that he uses travel as an escape. His job (terminating employees), taken with his travel, allows him to conveniently avoid personal relationships and he is happy (he thinks) to get back to it. How ironic is it that this individual uses travel to avoid personal relationships? The movie tragically ends there, with Ryan a very lonely man.

I want to believe this is where Ryan and most of us differ. Ours is a people business. It is always going to be a people business. Relationships matter and, in a number of subtle ways, relationships make our work infinitely more meaningful and satisfying.

We need to understand our clients, what motivates them, what they need and why they need it. And they need to understand the same from us. While one of the permanent changes likely brought on by the pandemic involves our working differently to achieve better balance in our lives, I am equally convinced another involves our using travel time more wisely to make absolutely certain we foster and deepen personal connections. That is a very good thing.

Recognising the Need to Reconnect

In his book Lost Connections, author Johann Hari discusses the isolating effect of over-reliance on technology and its impact on mental health. Hari argues that the disconnecting aspects of the technology revolution are akin to an environmental change and a prime cause of depression and anxiety, both of which were rising during the COVID crisis.

The REALISATION of how important personal connections are is indeed one of the real silver linings of the pandemic. I do miss travel, but not just for the sake of travel. Free of my frequent flyer anxiety, I look forward to once again connecting and collaborating. I look forward to injecting as much value in my work as I can through stimulating personal interaction with others. This is why we need offices with people in them. And this is why the airline industry will bounce back.

Text: Jeffrey Bruno, President and Chief Underwriting Officer, Global Aerospace

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