Our relationship with travel looks different these days. But for one writer and his son, the thrill of flying never gets old—even when it’s just make-believe. By Howie Kahn
Daddy, can we go to the airport?”
“When are we going back to the airport?”
“Is it time for the airport now?”
This is the daily inquisition from my aviation-obsessed four-year-old son, a cavalcade of questions he fervently hopes will result in his greatest bliss: taking flight on a commercial airliner.
Sometimes Henry’s queries—preludes to longer sermons about Dreamliners and Concordes, tail configurations and retired logos—are tender and wide-eyed. Other times his questions grow louder and more urgent. Loaded with longing, they hit me like jet thrust.
The prolonged pandemic marks Henry’s first time being “grounded.” Not flying registers as an unfair punishment for my voluble and passionate boy. He used to go to the airport frequently—enough for it to seem like a regular treat. He visited grandparents and great-grandparents; he saw the US; he hatched dreams of even more distant locales as we looked studiously at the routes in the back pages of in-flight magazines. “Let’s go to Tokyo Narita,” Henry would say, making the airport itself the ultimate destination, as usual. “Let’s go to London Heathrow, Daddy. Let’s go to Paris Charles de Gaulle.” Back then, there was nothing restricting our bookings, our freedom of movement, or our ability to get on any variety of plane.
“I miss the Airbus A321,” he’ll say, holding up a model plane from his collection. “I miss the 767-200.”
“The Collection,” as Henry calls it, forms the basis for his fascination with flight. It started with a single Air France pullback plane, a chubby, plastic, mechanised miniature from the airport newsstand. I bought it in Paris a couple of years ago in the hope of setting a precedent: every time I would travel for work without Henry, I would bring him back an aeroplane. I was up in the air often enough to feel heartbroken about being absent, missing moments of growth and consequence. Wheeling my bag out the door, I was often begged by my then-toddler, “Daddy, stay home!”
Henry had already started to love flying by then. From his very first flight at three months old, he’d been transfixed by the spin of turbine blades, by the expanse of wings, by the thrill of rising above cities, oceans, and clouds. I thought the promise of a new toy could give him something to look forward to, a reward for my absences. Soon Alitalia, SAS, and Delta joined the fleet.
I’d FaceTime Henry during the trip to show him which plane I’d picked out and tell him who I’d met, what I’d eaten, where I’d been. The planes would be an ongoing introduction to geography, culture, and the marvel of travel itself—that you can just get on board this machine and end up on the other side of the world! To Henry, the idea was literally a novelty. To me, it’s never stopped feeling like one. I wanted us to bond over a shared and perpetual sense of wonder.
As we stayed home in New York throughout the spring of 2020, sticking to short car trips after that, Henry’s fascination with how we once went places became both increasingly granular and increasingly broad. Aviation vlogger Sam Chui’s YouTube channel took Henry on the longest flight in the world (Newark to Singapore on Singapore Airlines: 18 hours and 30 minutes ) and the shortest (Westray to Papa Westray, in Scotland’s Orkney Islands, on Loganair: 90 seconds).
City in the Sky, a favourite three-part PBS documentary, played in our home on a continuous loop, so much so that Henry began to lionise a senior Lufthansa A380 pilot, Captain Joachim Schwarzenberg, and memorised the sequence for one of the most difficult landings in the world, at Paro, Bhutan—where only a couple of dozen certified pilots, all considerably older than four, are even permitted to make the attempt. Thanks to an episode of Ask the StoryBots, an excellent cartoon in which tiny robots explain the workings of the world, Henry came to understand the forces of physics that put planes up in the air in the first place. “Thrust, drag, weight, and lift,” he’d sing with conviction.
And though we were grounded, the longer we stayed home together, the more The Collection grew. We resorted to online shopping for our comforting dose of the now-distant outside world. Aer Lingus, Etihad, Qantas, and even bygone BOAC, a precursor to British Airways, managed to land in the living room. Dozens of planes amassed—a proud, international display. We couldn’t go to JFK, our local, so our home became the airport in miniature.
One morning, Henry scattered jigsaw pieces about the floor, between his Boeings and Airbuses. The puzzle, once completed, would make up the seven continents. “Daddy,” Henry said, “let’s put the world back together. Let’s land all the planes safe at home.” His play suggested hopefulness—that this era would end, that routes would resume, that we’d all return to the sky.
We completed the puzzle. Iberia touched down in Barcelona. TAP Air Portugal in Lisbon. Emirates in Dubai. Henry landed one final plane, from KLM, in Amsterdam, and looked up at me: “When are we going back to the airport, Daddy? Can we go back now?”