The all but empty cabin is dim, lit only by a soft blue glow coming from recessed lights overhead and the bright green LED aisle markers on the floor at each seat. Outside of the plane—over the Philippine Sea, several hundred miles to the east of Taipei—it is a sunny two o’clock in the afternoon, but inside the confines of this composite tube of humanity it might as well be two o’clock in the morning. The crew has the temperature turned down and the only sounds beyond the quiet rush of cool air is the periodic rattle of the overhead bins when we hit a patch of chop, and the infrequent hum of human voices from the three flight attendants on the other side of the heavy curtain separating the forward galley from the cabin.
We are mid-trip, playing passenger, as our crew deadheads north to Japan to catch another flight home after dropping of an airplane just north of the equator for some scheduled maintenance. Because of COVID, the normally busy airways transiting Asia are all but devoid of planes, and our journey home is requiring us to take two flights with multi-day stays between them. Prior to boarding this plane, I’d spend 37 hours pacing the tight confines of a hotel room, unable to leave due to quarantine restrictions with the monotony broken only by sleeping and ordering food to be delivered. We’ve been told that Japan, although still very restricted, will at least allow us briefly out of our hotel for food and exercise. As I breathe deeply in the pressurized cabin through the filtering cloth of my mask, I try to remember what outside air tastes and feels like. Other than the masked, 20 second walks to the van from the airport and hotel and back, it’s been almost two and a half days without it.
The windows on the Boeing 787 we are riding on don’t have actual shades. Instead, the sealed panes are filled with an inert gas that, when an electrical current is applied via a control at each window, dims and blocks a large part of the spectrum of light. This not only saves on the weight of the window shades but also lets the flight attendants set all the windows simultaneously via a single control, overriding the need for the “window shades open please” mantra they have had to repeat prior to every takeoff and landing. The other benefit of this system is that while a dimmed-out window doesn’t allow any visible light in, you can still see out of it, although the world takes on a purple, hazy moonscape quality, especially over layers of clouds.
I lean back in the comfort of my seat and stretch my legs out in front of me. Due to a rarely triggered contractual provision, the company was required to put us in business class for this particular flight, and although it is a relatively short six and a half hours, I’ve made the most of it. The seat I’m in is set slightly off the axis of the airplane, pointed about 25 degrees outwards, so the window is partially in my line of sight, without the need to turn my head. Despite the huge entertainment screen mounted in front of my seat, I’ve spent most of the flight (when I wasn’t eating or sleeping) staring out the purple filtered viewport at the world passing by.
Unseen by me as I look eastward, off our left wing Taiwan has long since dropped over the southwestern curve of the earth. The two pilots upfront are probably just now seeing the first hints of their home islands rising out of the sea at the horizon’s edge. I look away from the window as I sense an increase in noise and movement around me. The business class cabin—designed to hold 36 passengers but currently just seating my crew of four plus one other passenger—is starting to wake up from its daytime slumber as the flight attendants turn on the overhead lights in preparation for a final meal service. I look back out the window, but with the internal lights on, the boundless purple planet-scape scrolling by has faded away, leaving nothing more than a softly blurred reflection of my tired, masked face looking back at me.