Window seat or aisle? Ever since I was a small child, there’s been only one answer. Sure, the aisle is a bit roomier, and it’s easier to get up to stretch your legs. But for me, it’s all about the views, especially those entrancing last few minutes before touchdown.
It’s how the details of the world are summoned again, how gracefully scale and shadings resolve into trees and fields and subdivisions. It’s the steady, lyrical motion of a silvery wing over a new place — an entirely unique geography and history that appear simply and perfectly beneath you.
As a teenager, I was so enamoured with landings that I would choose soundtracks for them. Years later, I left a career in management consulting to become a pilot.
Friends and family were anything but shocked by my career change. But they’re often amused to discover that when I fly as a passenger, I still ask as energetically as ever for a window seat. I explain that idle contemplation is a pleasure reserved for the fortunate travellers back in 5A or 24F.
Cities with views
While all frequent fliers will have their favourites, some cities are perennial winners. Passengers flying to San Francisco, for example, are regularly treated to marvellous views of its bridges, hills and microclimates. If sister cities were chosen from above, San Francisco would be paired with Lisbon. Note the 25th of April Bridge: you won’t be the first to see its striking resemblance to the Golden Gate.
But of all the world’s cities, I nominate London as offering the finest in-flight entertainment for window seat passengers. Prevailing winds and Heathrow’s location west of central London mean that arriving passengers are usually granted soaring views of the ‘mighty imperial city’. Day or night, follow the trace of the Thames and you’ll spot every iconic landmark: Tower Bridge, St Paul’s, the Tate Modern, the Eye, Big Ben.
Another favourite arrival is Milan. Milan is so close to the Alps that many flights from the north and west start their descents while directly above the mountains. You’ll see the texture of the glaciers and peaks so iconic that you’ll find yourself reaching for some milk chocolate.
Many of the world’s worst airports also happen to offer particularly amazing approaches.There’s no more unfortunate example than La Guardia. Despite its abysmal reputation, flights into La Guardia regularly offer breathtaking views of New York City. If you come in over the Upper Bay of New York Harbor, your arrival will start, aptly enough, with a view of the Statue of Liberty. Manhattan by night manages to at least look like what it so often claims to be: the capital of the world.
Note the topography of Manhattan’s skyscrapers, how Lower Manhattan and Midtown are entirely distinct skylines. Find Times Square by the stadium-like metallic light that pours upward into the night sky and spills like water into nearby neighbourhoods. From there follow Broadway as it angles across the grid. And look directly down as the glowing streets flip past like pages in a book.
An early evening approach to Los Angeles is one of my favourite airborne scenes. Watch American history and geography unroll below you: the snowy agricultural grids of the Midwest, the jagged Rockies, then the vast deserts that resemble images sent back by a Mars orbiter.
The city looks like an ad for a computer chip, a kinetic vision of light and energy spilling over the continent’s edge. The skies above Los Angeles would offer a truly cinematic experience. But wherever you’re flying, ask for the best seats in the house.
And the best seat is...
The left side is almost always an “A” seat; the right side varies by aircraft type. Check www.seatguru.com to be sure.