In Depth

Column: Election Night: The Plane Truth

I was flying over “ruby red” Utah last Tuesday when the television networks called the presidential election for Sen. Barack Obama. We’d already had our first beverage and snack service—animal crackers, Terra chips and a Doritos snack mix among the choices—and the JetBlue flight from New York to Oakland had been strangely quiet for the first three hours.

I was on a plane Election Night because I had to be in New York on Election Day. When I first realized the panel I’d be moderating at the Ad:Tech conference fell on Nov. 4, I did two things: I requested a vote-by-mail ballot and I booked my flight home on JetBlue. That’s because JetBlue offers seatback DirecTV programming on its planes, meaning I could watch the election results from an unusual perch: more than 30,000 feet above the very country whose political map changed as we flew over it.

After boarding the flight that left New York as the East Coast polls started closing, I jumped from channel to channel right away—CNN, Fox News Channel, Fox, NBC, CBS.

But I was one of the few on the flight who tuned in that early (the guy sitting next to me watched a Daniel Radcliffe interview at that time). Shortly after the networks called the first states of Vermont and Kentucky around 7 p.m. EST, I conducted a little recon, strolling up and down the aisle, checking out the channels other passengers were watching. But most weren’t eyeing the returns; they were fixed on episodes of “Family Guy” or Food Network shows.

As the evening progressed, more passengers flipped on their televisions. Still, there was no collective reaction—no dejected sighs, no hearty cries—when Pennsylvania went to Sen. Obama, a clear sign of the night to come.

Even when Fox called Ohio at 9:19 p.m. EST, the flight was still subdued. Were we all being too polite, too aware of reds and blues and not wanting to offend someone who had voted the other way if we cheered or booed?

Sure, the flight was from New York to the Bay Area, two of the most left-leaning destinations in the United States. But just because those places are “berry blue” didn’t mean every passenger was pulling for Sen. Obama.

Minutes before the West Coast polls closed, I decided to join some friends who happened to be on the same flight, Tim Shey and Rachel Garcia from Next New Networks.

As I made my way back to their row, I noticed most of the passengers had turned on their TVs. Most of them were tuned to CNN.

When the networks made the call at 10 p.m.—far, far above Utah for Tim, Rachel, the pilots, the flight attendants, the rest of the passengers and me—the plane did indeed erupt in cheers, claps and even a few sturdy hoots.

That’s when it felt like we were in it together, it being the odd experience of sharing something momentous with people who are mostly perfect strangers.

Three more times that night, the passengers cheered together—when Sen. Obama first took the stage in Chicago for his victory speech, at the beginning of his “Yes we can” refrain and when the speech ended.

And you know what I realized? That being without Internet access for six hours wasn’t so bad. And not for some touchy-feely “we are one” moment. But because for something this big, TV really does a better job.

For me, it did that job from 30,000 feet and cruising.