As big-city satellites, airports have, over time, colonised new realms and come to symbolise the nomadic and hurried, harried life. Our duly documented and scanned society in perpetual motion has seen distances diminish before our very eyes. But our desire to put the whole world on an LED screen has only exacerbated our frustration. The image of closed, deserted and silent airports causes greater anxiety, if at all possible, than when they’re jam-packed with frequent flyers – the type played by George Clooney and Vera Farmiga in Up In the Air.

These travellers possess an impressive collection of plastic cards that confer all manner of petty privileges. They’ve got the routine down pat, they know the airports in and out and are past masters in the art of enduring long queues, long waits for luggage – and impatience itself. They move through impersonal, plasticized no-man’s lands or “non-places”, as French ethnologist Marc Augé calls them, meta-cities whence to set forth on the highways of the sky. Despite their impersonal air, the immaculate floors of Singapore Airport and Ted Stevens’ stuffed bears in Anchorage, Alaska, insist on each airport’s idiosyncrasy. At the airport, vital issues are temporarily relegated to the backdrop, as every action converges on a single, solitary purpose: getting there.

Cloud of ash an apt metaphor

But now and then a volcano coughs up some lava and stains the sky with ashes. The airspace contains particles of rock, crystals and sand. Precious few things are at once as sophisticated and damaging as the pyroclastic matter spewed forth by the foul-mouthed Icelandic volcano. Europe’s skies are closed, millions of human trajectories cancelled. Even the high and mighty have been humbled by the blast: Angela Merkel had to sleep in Portugal; a number of world leaders missed Lech Kaczynski’s funeral (as though he’d suffered a second air fatality); finally, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark was left holding a whole batch of royal petits foursat her 70th birthday party.

It is estimated that by 2020 there will be over 200 million flights a year. The overpopulated skies will be streaked with an infinitude of beautiful white vapour trails – the lines you show kids when a plane flies by as if it were an angel passing overhead. But these trails are simply air pollution, which contributes to global warming – and absolutely must be contained. Just as we need to humanise the flight rituals in this society midway between the heavens and the earth, a society which, despite its hygienic efficiency and its control towers overseeing the universe, is paralysed today by a spongy mass of volcanic ash. This cloud of ash is indeed an apt metaphor for the gaseous times we live in.