With all of the travelling I've been doing recently I've had a lot of time to observe and think about the people around me. Whereas airports and other public places bring random people together with only a by-chance location in common, the airplanes themselves have a much more focused audience. This is especially true when the plane is full of people travelling to their final destination rather than making a connecting flight. And, despite the small and obscure transfer desk at the airport, Albania is the end of the line for most passengers. The final leg of our most recent trip had us flying from Pisa to Tirana on a discount airline. I'm not sure if it was the discount airline or the fact we were flying out of Italy but the experience, from the passengers to the airline itself, was noticably different than flights from Munich or Vienna (the two main transfer points for flights coming into Albania). From the time we all queued (well, in reality it was more of a clustered mob than a line) at the check-in counter my first thought was that we certainly were a motley crew of passengers and this thought was repeated for the remainder of my trip.
Perhaps it was the combination of the discount airline's promotional airfares and the relatively recent (2010)implementation of visa liberalization for Albanians wishing to travel abroad, but the flight seemed to filled with many first time flyers. From babushka wearing grandmothers to suave young men sporting colorful skinny jeans and dark sunglasses with cell phones plastered to their ears, they were easy to spot. Too many pieces of checked luggage, overstuffed or oversized carry-on bags (you have to love the way discount airlines actually measure, weigh, then turn away anything that doesn't fit within their established parameters), and yes, even the people who decided to walk across the tarmac to another waiting plane rather than board the shuttle bus with the rest of the Tirana flight were some of the things that gave them away. This really did happen, causing Italian security personnel to have to chase them down and bring them back to the waiting bus while explaining that the plane in the distance was not their flight. (It was clearly the wrong airline too but that is another story). The same people crowded onto the flight and started filling seats ala Southwest Airline's, but not this airline's, opening seating plan. The handful of business travellers and those of us who are more experienced travellers, quickly took our assigned seats, opened up our reading material, and tried to block out our surroundings. Lacking any reading material (even the free airline magazine that should have been in the seat back pocket was missing), I looked around at my fellow passengers and wondered what was bringing them to Albania.
I would guess that half of them were clearly Albanians returning to their motherland. It wasn't readily apparent but perhaps they had been away for a few days or a few years. I really couldn't tell. A few others looked like business travellers, and I would guess that we were the only ones who readily looked like Americans. I knew why we were on the plane but what about everyone else? There was the Nordic complexioned grungy young man toting a backpack who I can only assume was coming to Albania to do some off the beaten path exploring. (His hiking boots and battered Lonely Planet guide to the Balkans gave him away). There were multi-generational families travelling with young children, single men trying too hard to look cool, a few impecably dressed women travelling alone, and us; two middle aged tired Americans sad to see our long weekend away ending. All in all we were a plane filled with odd couples. I can only imagine how comical we must have looked as we came pouring in through the door towards passport control. But I would hazard a guess to say that this sight was not unique to our plane or even the Tirana airport. Every day across the world with only a destination in common, thousands of mismatched strangers fill planes and jet off to foreign lands. Regardless of the reason for the travel every time a plane takes off everyone on it ends up in the same destination. And that is what we all have in common.