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Design

The Rise and Fall of the Exuberant Airline Map

A new book reveals how airline flight maps have evolved over the past century, from exoticizing to stylish to more basic.
A vivid pink-and-yellow Air India route map from 1962 features a range of animals and stereotypically attired figures, as well as city landmarks such as the UN Building and Big Ben.
A vivid pink-and-yellow Air India route map from 1962 features a range of animals and stereotypically attired figures, as well as city landmarks such as the UN Building and Big Ben.Courtesy of Air India

Who among us hasn’t killed time at 30,000 feet tracing the arcing lines of an airline network map in an in-flight magazine? These sterile maps are in fact the descendants of a raucous cartographic genre that has historically stretched the limits of what maps are for.

Less a tool for navigation and more an introduction to a radically new, globe-girdling mode of transportation, airline maps tapped into the romance of flight and the technological innovations that enabled its expansion, all while attempting to reassure potential passengers that soaring through the heavens in a metal tube was a safe and convenient way to travel.