Aviation, Infrastructure, and Temporality in Nepal: An Interview with Tina Harris

View over the Himalayas from a Dornier 228 turboprop. Photo by Tina Harris.

This post builds on the research article “Air Pressure: Temporal Hierarchies in Nepali Aviation” by Tina Harris, which was published in the February 2021 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

In the following author interview, Tina Harris thinks back on her work with aviation personnel in Nepal. As the global aviation industry plans for the future, projecting increased air traffic, opening new air routes, expanding existing airports and building new ones, Harris draws our attention to the material frictions which, on the ground and in the air, prevent global temporal expectations from being actualized. Aging infrastructure, rugged terrain, and rapidly changing weather conditions, she shows, make for uncertain navigation, both in space and in time. Harris also addresses the consequences of global temporal regimes on local lives: aviation personnel in Nepal stand at the crossroads of conflicting temporalities, which they are expected to reconcile. In this conversation with Céline Eschenbrenner and Joshua Liashenko, Harris discusses aviation and its possible futures, as they intersect with climate change, globalization, and the current pandemic.

Céline Eschenbrenner and Joshua Liashenko: This article is a bit different from your prior research. Why aviation? What are some of the themes you are revisiting here?

Tina Harris: My previous research was about border crossing and the way infrastructures, like trade routes, are built and harnessed to move capital to new markets. Later, I started paying more attention to the idea of volumetric sovereignty, and to questions like, How do maritime borders get secured? How is airspace negotiated? My mother was a flight attendant for Cathay Pacific Airlines in the 1970s. She was based out of Hong Kong and flew between Hong Kong, Japan, and Australia. My parents moved around Asia a lot, so growing up, I was familiar with flying and stories of working in the airline industry, and always wanted to learn more about the different parts—operations, regulation, flight crews, and so on—and how they work together. Aviation can provide great insights about the way international standards—about safety or air traffic management for instance—are created, implemented, understood, and dealt with in different places.

There is a lot of great work in geography on aeromobility (Adey, Budd, and Hubbard 2007; see also Lin 2018), and a few good books on aviation (Adey 2010; Bhimull 2017), particularly about flight attendants (Yano 2011; Evans 2013; Whitelegg 2017). But with a few exceptions (see Batteau 2001), there aren’t many in-depth ethnographic accounts of the practical experiences and challenges those who work in the industry—air traffic controllers, engineers, and ground operators—face. I am a bit of an aviation nerd and happily go through #avgeek posts on Twitter every day, so these stories are always fascinating to me. In working through the tensions of flying for work and the reality of the climate crisis, I am currently doing research for a new project that deals with “sustainable” technological fixes in the aviation sector, trying to figure out how and why these technologies are being implemented.

This being said, I wish I had known earlier how many years it takes to change research themes and that my insecurity about researching a new topic would eventually fade. It’s been a long process.

CE and JL: You mention in the article that you conducted fieldwork for this project in “bursts,” not unlike the working patterns of the controllers you spoke with. How did academia’s own temporal expectations shape your reflection on global aviation?

TH: Ooh, interesting question. During fieldwork, I kept thinking of the way people in aviation always need to navigate different timeframes, or timescapes (Adam 1998), but I never really thought about applying this to academic temporalities. As a PhD student in the 2000s, the expectation was that I had to “go away” for fieldwork for at least a year and not come back until I had “gathered enough data.” I spent eighteen months in the Himalayas, and I normalized this sort of fieldwork temporality for myself. When I started a tenure-track job, had a child, and then decided to work on a different topic, I sort of froze for a few years, thinking, How can I possibly do fieldwork now? I lost a lot of self-confidence.

I decided to do fieldwork in shorter “bursts,” once a year for several weeks or a couple of months, spread out over a number of years, sometimes bringing my son with me. I might be sacrificing depth for breadth doing so, but my priorities have shifted. My friends and colleagues from Nepal and the Himalayan region, as well as those who have worked there for a long time are far, far more knowledgeable about the changing sociopolitical situation than me, and I defer to them for more in-depth contextual analysis. When I did talk to aviation personnel about their lives, what transpired is how much of our present is structured by temporal projections beyond our control: long-term aviation plans for 2050, five-year national development plans, dissertation fieldwork grants for twelve months, monthly rosters for cabin crew, air traffic controllers with two hours on and two hours off, cleaners who have a thirty-minute turnaround time to clean an entire aircraft. You have to fit your (working) life into these frameworks. What if something goes wrong—as it often does—and life doesn’t fit? It’s like what Sarah Sharma (2014, 139) said about having to match the rhythms of a capitalist work ethic, where people are “left to recalibrate themselves to serve a dominant temporality.”

And now that I think about it, ever since I started working closer to home, here in the Netherlands, I have been reconfiguring my fieldwork temporality again. My short “bursts” now consist of heading out to interviews (or doing them on Zoom) between dropping my son off at school and picking him up, on days when I don’t teach. I cram in one or two meetings or interviews a week, spread out over what I hope to be at least a couple of years.

For those who haven’t seen it yet, the wonderful Patchwork Ethnography project directly addresses how researchers have had to deal with different kinds of expectations when it comes to ethnographic work. They have facilitated some amazing conversations about methodological approaches and ways of collaborating that really push against the temporal demands of anthropology and academia in general. I’ve learned a lot, especially from all the students involved.

CE and JL: How did you approach collaboration with the Nepali aviation community? How did you navigate discordant temporal regimes?

TH: I suppose there were two paths to collaboration. The first was that I knew aviation-related friends of friends from a previous research project. With them, it was fairly easy to jump into fun conversations at get-togethers or over coffee. The other path was that I contacted a few people whom I hadn’t met before but who I heard had a good overview of the entire sector. One of these collaborators was a brilliant young person who was looking for a new job in the industry, so it was good timing. We spent time visiting people in a range of positions within the community—managers, officials, pilots, cabin crew, engineers—and we both learned a lot. However, while the age range of participants was from twenty to eighty years old, most of the immediate community that I spent time with were in their twenties and thirties. Honestly, I had a lot of fun. I think that the sense of humor in aviation is a bit similar to that in hospitals; it can be a bit gallows-y and dry, perhaps because the pressure is extreme when it comes to safety concerns. Many of these friends in aviation were looking for more opportunities to have conversations with other workers in similar functions beyond Nepal, so I have been applying for funding for small workshops since then. I did receive a small grant in early 2020 for a project that would bring two air traffic controllers from Nepal to visit and chat with air traffic controllers in the Netherlands, but sadly the pandemic made it impossible for it to happen.

As for discordant temporal regimes, I think we all thought the time of the global, such as visions for technologically advanced airport operations by 2050, was ludicrous. This became especially obvious when we talked about the future of international aviation while sitting in an airline office where the roof was leaking and the printer had been broken for weeks, or when we listened to an engineer talk about the near-impossibility of ordering replacement parts for an aircraft. Similarly, when you are in a mountainous region where the weather can turn on a dime—blue sky one hour, blizzard the next—and you are faced with angry passengers who need to make their connecting flights to get back to Delhi, discordant temporalities abound. But navigating the time of the nation was more complex. While I have spent quite some time in Nepal, I did not grow up there. I can write about it, but I certainly haven’t experienced political change and five-year plans, and the devastating 2015 earthquakes, and now, COVID-19. While I tried to capture bits of the broader picture in the piece, frustrations with the state’s temporal expectations are entwined with longer social, historical, political, and economic trajectories that are better explained by excellent Nepali scholars and scholars of Nepal (Seale-Feldman and Upadhaya 2015; Adhikari and Gellner 2016; Shneiderman et al. 2016; Le Billon et al. 2020).

"When you are in a mountainous region where the weather can turn on a dime—blue sky one hour, blizzard the next—and you are faced with angry passengers who need to make their connecting flights to get back to Delhi, discordant temporalities abound."

CE and JL: You mention how local weather and seasonal patterns also contribute to the disruption, in Nepal, of global standardized temporalities. Can you tell us more about weather and seasons as forms of local infrastructure?

TH: I am just scratching the surface here, so if anyone reading this has more insights, please feel free to get in touch. I guess it is more of a heuristic; if infrastructure is something that is supposed to enable other things to move, weather—even with all its changeability—can do this as well. Pilots rely on wind and jet streams to get them to destinations faster, and such “weather infrastructures” are calculated into estimated arrival times. Flying is about knowing which kinds of clouds (cumulonimbus!) cause more turbulence, and which kinds of clouds tend to gather in certain parts of the world. Air works in different ways downwind of mountains, and these “mountain waves” create turbulence, so the air masses form part of the atmospheric infrastructure. The monsoon can act a bit like this as well; certain activities such as fishing or traveling along certain routes are enhanced (or limited) during such seasons (e.g., Kyana Dipananda in my department is writing about the rainy season and fishing knowledge in Indonesia). But it’s no secret that people are finding these sorts of underlying weather infrastructures much less reliable these days due to the climate crisis; rainy seasons are more erratic, and according to some seasoned pilots, they are experiencing a lot more turbulence.

CE and JL: Near the conclusion of your article, you mention climate change’s impact on aviation. To what extent does concern for the environment factor into Nepali discussions about infrastructure improvement?

TH: There is some brilliant work by many colleagues working on infrastructure in Nepal who have written about how the environment is factored (or not!) into community and policy discussions on dams (Pigg 2019), roads (Gurung 2021), and other infrastructures (Wong 2021). While many of the discussions are about road and dam projects, there are of course plenty of other examples in aviation. Contestation over the building of new airports, or the expansion of existing airports, is a huge issue, especially since Kathmandu is currently the only international airport in operation in the country, and there are several other airports vying to be the “second” international airport. Take for instance plans for Nijgadh airport in Bara. Some aviation personnel have claimed that it is the most logical choice for the next international airport in Nepal and that it would adequately alleviate congestion at Kathmandu. There is no mountainous terrain there, and plans were originally proposed in 1994 or 1995. Yet millions of hardwood trees would have had to be felled, wiping out a serious chunk of biodiverse forest close to the Terai, a haven for elephants, tigers, and other endangered species. The hardwood trees are also valuable. This prompted journalists and others to question whether this airport was really just a logging concession.

As a passenger, qualms about flying due to heavy carbon footprints tend to be more of a middle-class conversation in many parts of the world, and in Nepal, there are a few environmental groups that put cutting emissions by flying less on the agenda. However, one thing that I touched on, but didn’t go into tremendous detail, in the article is the importance to the aviation industry of migrant worker mobility. Due to few employment opportunities and dwindling agricultural resources, exacerbated by the earthquakes of 2015, young men (and some women) from villages often find work outside of Nepal and send remittances home. While neighboring India is the most common destination, many also find work in the Gulf States or Malaysia, particularly in construction or domestic labor. Others have discussed these issues in more detail (Malla and Rosenbaum 2017; Baniya et al. 2020), but my point is that there is simply no way to travel from a small village in Nepal to Qatar or Saudi Arabia except by air. At the moment there is no choice but to fly for economic survival. So I am slightly uncomfortable when the message of “everyone should just stop flying” is applied globally and uncritically. There is a music video, Suna Saili, by Hemant Rana, that depicts the despair of a young man with limited opportunities in Nepal who has to leave his loved ones and board a plane to go work in the Gulf.

CE and JL: In a different publication, you build on the notion of lag to suggest that borders as representations cannot physically be reached but are continually aspired to. How does lag or lagging behind manifest in this article?

TH: I’m really glad you asked this. It’s an implicit connection, so it’s nice to have an opportunity to talk it through here. The publication that you mention was about military bordering at border posts in some of the highest borderlands in the Himalayan mountains. These territorial borders (of which several sections are violently contested) cannot be physically guarded—at least by humans—because of the severe effects of altitude, blizzards, and other weather phenomena. There is always a gap, or more accurately a lag, between what can physically be conquered and what is aspired to by the state. Even with transformations in technology—better clothing, drones, and so on—it will still be a while before states can guard their borders, if at all.

The idea of lag dovetails nicely with this article. In global aviation timeframes, there are goals, such as to be emissions-free and fully automated by 2070 or similar goalposts set by international standards organizations and airport authorities. At some airports—not just in Nepal!—the lack of resources or simply the reality of having to implement new procedures and methods causes a sense of “lagging behind” such goalposts, a lag which technologies such as AI and automation, some believe, can address. But then the goalposts get moved—climate policies change, technologies may not work—and so do future timeframes and goals.

"There is always a gap, or more accurately a lag, between what can physically be conquered and what is aspired to by the state. Even with transformations in technology—better clothing, drones, and so on—it will still be a while before states can guard their borders, if at all."

CE and JL: Based on the multi-sited nature of your fieldwork, did you notice any differences in aviation personnel’s experiences across Nepali airports? Was the infrastructural lag more apparent in Kathmandu, or did people in smaller rural airports share similar conditions?

TH: Aviation personnel (perhaps with some exceptions like pilots) tend to move around within the sector. Some people I spoke with are not in the same places anymore. Controllers, for example, are posted at different airports around the country, so they get to know the quirks of each, as well as different aircrafts, airstrips, and environmental conditions. The same goes for those in ministry or aviation authority positions, where people get shuffled around due to organizational restructurings and changes in government. In one sense, the sector and routes are limited enough that they can become familiar with airports in a few different parts of the country. But there is a stark divide between resources and technology allocated to airports in urban and peri-urban centers like Kathmandu and Pokhara, as well as some of the airports that cater to trekking tourists like Jomsom and those in more rural or semi-rural areas. There is certainly a sense of infrastructural lag between these two sets of airports, as well as between Kathmandu and other Asian airports along flight routes—Bangkok, Dubai, Doha, or Kuala Lumpur, for example. But I don’t think it’s more apparent in Kathmandu.

CE and JL: Given the “(re)valorization and (re)strengthening” of manual piloting skills, do you see Nepali pilots potentially being internationally sought after due to their abilities and experience being viewed as an asset in the aviation industry?

TH: On aviation forums, there are pilots who mourn the disintegration of manual, “stick and rudder,” or hand flying. I’ve read stories of first officers completely terrifying the captains sitting next to them by merely suggesting to turn off the autopilot. I get the sense that some airline companies and regulators actively discourage pilots from practicing manual flying, which is perhaps due to safety and legal concerns. But for some pilots, these restrictions are part of the inevitable path to automation and pilotless flying, which will eventually push them out of jobs in a currently precarious industry. There was something I read where a pilot claimed—joking but not really joking—that all pilots would just be rebranded as “systems managers” and no one would have any hand flying experience anymore. But perhaps it’s just the older pilots who worry about the new generation and skill loss, and this is where some of the praise for hand-flying pilots in Nepal comes in. Because a lot of flying in Nepal is by visual flight rules (VFR), their skills never get rusty. But oddly, some new technologies lead to less automation. For example, there are some new technologies designed to lower emissions in flying; this means pilots have to constantly change altitude and speed in order to create a flight with the least emissions. Whether this technology will be tested in Nepal is yet to be seen.

CE and JL: How do you see the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the aviation industry’s temporal expectations and the local lives of Nepali personnel?

TH: The industry has been shaken to the core by the pandemic—which is what certain people want, especially those who are committed anti-flying activists—leading some aviation personnel to say that now is a great time to think about cutting down on routes and changing airlines’ environmental policies. Yes and no. I’m a bit cynical. These are massive corporations in financial survival mode, so environmental impact is not the main priority right now. But it’s there in the future plans, and the pandemic has created more space for the industry to rely on “fixes” to stay afloat in the future: innovations that are supposed to kill two birds with one stone, both cost-cutting and environmentally friendly. More importantly, however, the second wave of COVID-19 has hit Nepal hard. As of May 2021, people are just trying to cope with sourcing oxygen for ill relatives and surviving in this situation. Something like only 2 percent of the Nepali population has been vaccinated so far. These immediate events are more crucial right now.


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