In this book, the two writers explore various elements and facets of modern air travel. The design of the pocket-sized volume is unusual: it is reversible, each half reflecting the unique perspective of its author. Both men are professors in the English Department at Loyola University in New Orleans where they met. Checking In contains the observations and experiences of Schaberg, who once worked as a cross-utilized agent for SkyWest Airlines at the Gallatin Field Airport near Bozeman, Montana while he was attending graduate school. In Checking Out, Yakich explores his lifelong fear of flying. Schaberg and Yakich recently launched a website, www.airplanereading.org, on which they publish an ongoing anthology about air travel in their effort, according to the website’s mission statement, to take airplane reading “beyond throwaway entertainment or mere distraction.”
Schaberg describes in his narrative the myriad of duties he was required to perform as an airport employee, from arranging passengers’ reservations to checking in travelers for flights to loading bags into cargo holds to cleaning the crafts between flights. Schaberg’s prose, often about mundane airport items, is often lyrical, as exemplified in his detailed account of searching for FOD (foreign object debris) on the tarmac, where the most frequently found items were luggage zipper pulls: “There are probably millions of derelict zipper pulls scattered around airports all over the world, accumulating like an abandoned currency, waiting to be excavated by future archaeologists.”
Schaberg deftly depicts the widespread impact of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 on air travel, “commercial airlines had simply been grounded into the unforeseeable future”; on his job at the airport, “the terminal seemed at once totally chaotic and oddly frozen” ; on his university freshmen English students, one of whom insisted that “We [the United States] need to bomb people, NOW!”; and on him personally as an airport employee on his day off on 9/11, when the absence of planes was “a kind of kink in the muscle memory that any job creates over time: where Delta’s 737 usually flew overhead from Salt Lake City at noon, there was only silence and sky” and as an English teacher of college freshman studying Mark Twain’s “Two Views of the Mississippi River,” which seemed suddenly to demand a third perspective—an aerial view, similar to the reconnaissance images that bombarded us from our television screens from the war in Afghanistan.
In the epilogue, Schaberg describes meeting Yakich, who picks him up at the airport when he flies to New Orleans to interview for his job at Loyola University. Over lunch that afternoon, Schaberg shows Yakich an internet photograph of a recent jet crash, and Yakich subsequently suffers a panic attack.
The first part of Checking Out focuses on Mark Yakich’s shame—about his fear of flying, about his admission that he’d read only two different novels (one of them he read twice) by the time he was twenty-five years old. For years, he claims, he was ashamed of being a poet.
Yakich explains the duality of checking out: “the wonderfully strange, zoned-out feeling of actual flying” and “the persistent thought that the plane is going to crash and I’ll soon be checking out with the rest of the passengers in a fiery ball of metal and plastic.” He describes trying to overcome his fear through meditation, medication, and sublimation. In one moment of hopeless desperation, Yakich considers a final, drastic cure for his anxiety: running inside the terminal and screaming, “Bomb, bomb, bomb! until the authorities inscribe [him] into their special [no fly] list forever.”
Yakich sprinkles his narrative with enough dates, details, and facts about plane crashes throughout aviation history to give any reader second thoughts about flying. He threads references to poetry, books, films, music, television, and popular culture throughout his stories to add a deeper layer of resonance and another connection to the reader.
Yakich insists on reading meaningful literature while flying because he doesn’t want his “potential last thoughts to be the stuff of typical airport reading.” He explains his belief that reading is the only aspect of flying that he can control: “I feel that nothing bad will happen in-flight while I am reading mid-sentence, and yet I don’t like to prolong mid-sentence for fear that I won’t get to the end if something bad does happen.”
This book is compelling and thought-provoking and would make for an interesting in-flight read. The writers have provided an insightful look at aviation that travelers and aviation buffs will appreciate and enjoy, and it may make readers more selective about what they read on their next flights.