The image of travel: facts that don't fly

When it comes to travel, the entertainment industry has never really bothered to separate fact from fiction. Turn on your TV if you don't believe me. Or catch a summer movie.

See the film "The Terminal," for instance, and you might wonder if getting stuck at the airport is such a dreadful thing. (In fact, most experienced travelers would do anything to avoid spending even a few hours at a terminal).

Watch the A&E series "Airline," and you could be left with the impression that airline employees are just one big happy family who tell passengers jokes. (Actually, most airline workers I know are neither happy, nor allowed to kid around with customers.)

Sure, there's always been a disconnect between real travel and the fertile imagination of scriptwriters. But no one needs to be told that the bumbling innkeeper played by John Cleese in the series "Fawlty Towers" couldn't cut it in a real hotel. Or that Peter Graves' character in "Airplane" would never pilot any kind of commercial aircraft.

This is different.

This summer we're being spoon-fed a version of travel through our television sets. The silver screen looks almost plausible, but is almost totally detached from reality.

Consider the surrealism of Steven Spielberg's "The Terminal," which is arguably the summer's most prominent travel-themed film. In it, Tom Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, an Eastern European refugee stranded in a New York airport after a coup in his homeland renders his passport invalid. We know that living at an airport is possible, because it is based on the true story of Merhan Karimi Nasseri, the Iranian expatriate who has lived at Charles de Gaulle Airport's Terminal One since 1988.

But that's pretty much where the facts end and the fiction begins. "The Terminal" expects us to embrace the idea that airports are interesting, if not fun, places (after 9/11, they aren't).

And flight attendants who look like Catherine Zeta-Jones? Please. I haven't seen one on an American airline since 1977.

The film is also peppered with product placements for a bankrupt carrier, United Airlines. That may not seem odd now, but if United goes belly-up - after having another federal loan application rejected recently, it might - then all those references to the airline will seem as quaint as the nods to defunct Pan Am in Spielberg's other movie about travel, "Catch Me If You Can."

Unfortunately, reality TV doesn't do a much better job of showing travel as it really is.

"Airline," the series that follows ground crew and flight attendants as they do their jobs, doesn't go out of its way to show passengers and crew members at their best. But it sugarcoats air travel in a different way by focusing on one airline that happens to enjoy high morale and soaring profits.

Is anyone surprised that the number of job applicants to the airline in question triple the day after each installment of "Airline" airs on cable television? The show is a recruiting film for Southwest Airlines.

Little do those of us watching "Airline" realize that the vast majority of domestic carriers are money-losing companies where morale bottomed out a few years ago. Most airline employees I know - especially at deeply troubled carriers such as US Airways - are actually looking for a way to get out of the business.

It would almost be better for Hollywood to dish out more of "Soul Plane," the widely panned Snoop Dogg comedy about an airline that caters to the "urban crowd." Or "LAX," NBC's new prime-time drama starring Heather Locklear. At least we know those shows have nothing do with real travel.

But this summer we are being seduced by an image of the travel industry that almost could be real. And it's an artificial reality we want to embrace, because we've just lived through three years of fear and uncertainty when it comes to traveling.

We all want to have a terrific trip. We want to have our luggage checked in by a friendly Southwest ticket agent, to be fawned over by a Catherine Zeta-Jones look-alike, to stop over in a terminal where witty do-gooders like Tom Hanks live.

If only life could imitate art for a change.

Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine's ombudsman.

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