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Q&A with Christoph Niemann: The Absurdities of Air Travel

Award-winning artist, author and New York Times blogger Christoph Niemann recently turned his talents to the subject of travel, chronicling an uncomfortable transatlantic flight in his hilarious graphic blog, Abstract City. I asked Niemann, a veteran globetrotter who frequently flies between Berlin and New York, to tell us more about his thoughts on air travel. Your illustrations shine a humorous light on the petty annoyances of air travel. Do you think flying has gotten more irritating than it used to be?

Christoph Niemann: I hope that despite all the grievances I list in my blog, it is obvious that my main observation is how flying somehow turns us into self-pitying neurotics. As much as I dislike the boredom, the discomfort and the food, I still think it is amazing that I can hop on a plane and cross an ocean in a few hours for a few hundred dollars.

I am not sure that travel has gotten worse, but I am rather shocked and amazed that it hasn’t gotten any better. When you think of all the advancement in other areas (trains, cars, hotels), it is amazing that flying (at least in coach) hasn’t changed AT ALL. I don’t want to keep picking on Delta (the people who work for them are very nice), but they don’t even have seat-back monitors. How can I keep track of where we are if I am forced to watch “Pirates of the Caribbean” with the whole plane?

IT: On that note, do you ever fly first class?

CN: I think I have a secret sign on my forehead that says “DO NOT UPGRADE THIS MAN. EVER.”

I fly a lot and have a good number of miles on various cards. But they all seem conveniently expired or invalid on that particular day.

IT: What other elements of air travel do you find absurd?

CN: I could easily write a Russian-novel-length thesis about the Delta terminal at J.F.K. — from the ridiculous walk from the air-train to the terminal to the absurd check-in lines to the depressing disrepair of the whole facility. Then there’s of course the insanely terrifying flushing sound of an airplane toilet — though I wasn’t able to come up with a good metaphor for that.

IT: What inspired you to turn your talents to the subject of air travel?

CN: I am writing this on seat 12E on flight 97 from Berlin to EWR. My kneecaps are crumbling away, I have crumbs and stains all over my shirt and I can barely open my laptop at a 45-degree angle, which forces me to type vertically. This is all the inspiration I need.

IT: Does turning life into art help pass the time on a horrible flight, or does creativity flow best after you’ve made it home?

CN: I always try to get some work done on flights, and taking notes for the blog is certainly more enjoyable than studying the terrible ads for steakhouses and celebrity dentists in the in-flight magazine. But the real work happens back at the desk.

IT: Are there any destinations in particular that have inspired your work?

CN: The Berlin-New York flight is where I travel most often.

Just to end on a positive note: Berlin Tegel is my favorite airport! On a trip back from Switzerland last year it took me six (!) minutes from the wheels of the plane touching the tarmac to opening the door of the taxi.

Read more about Christoph Niemann’s work at

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