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THOMPSON: What happened to the golden age of flying?

April 17, 2017 - 12:10 PM

 


OPINION


I don't fly as much as I once did...maybe five or six commercial flights a year. But, during the 1970s and 1980s, I practically lived in the air...on average about 100 flights a year. Like many who toiled during those times, regardless of the business...it was done face-to-face. Usually that meant flying. And, boy, was it fun.

I remember vividly my first flight in the late 1960s. Anyone reading this who is 50 years old or younger is probably shaking their head in disbelief. Today, a trip to the proctologist sounds better than going to the airport...any airport. But flying was once as glamorous as movies like "Catch Me If You Can," made it seem.

A product of the so-called Jet Age - an amorphous period from roughly 1952 through today - I enjoyed most of commercial aviation's heydays...the fifties, sixties and seventies. It was exciting to fly. Yes, exciting...and certainly glamorous, sexy and captivating.

Keep in mind that few people in Canada or America had actually flown by the end of the 1960s...about 15 per cent. It was, after all, new and expensive. But the allure of flying was very much in everyone's mind. Even cars - the heartthrob of the fifties - took on flight-inspired names...Studebaker's Starliner, Oldsmobile's Rocket 88 and Ford's Thunderbird...complete with winged or jet-like hood ornaments.

When I first started flying, I dressed like I was going to a cocktail party....with a measure of style and class. A blazer and tie, if not a suit. No one - and I mean no one - dressed down.

I learned early on...dress well and be friendly. In fact, be charming. It paid off...on numerous occasions I landed a seat in first-class, upgraded by a friendly ticket agent or flight attendant. Actually, they were called stewardesses in the 1970s...invariably single...often pretty...and flirtations were common.

No harsh judgments, please, it was the tenor of the times. And while I find some of that era's social mores patently absurd today, as a young man I never questioned why all the stewardesses looked like former cheerleaders and prom queens.

The coast-to-coast flights - New York or Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles or San Francisco - were always good. But the flights to Europe - Paris, London or Frankfurt - were nothing short of luxurious...the stuff of movies.

My first flight to Europe was on a Trans World Airlines (TWA) Boeing 707. Then Boeing introduced its bigger, faster 727, which became the aircraft of choice for airlines. But it was my first flight on a Pan Am World Airways Boeing 747 - the world's first wide-body jet - in 1971 that made me feel like James Bond.

Exuding every bit of charm I could muster at the ticket counter, I snagged a first-class upgrade. The leather seats in first-class were huge. Leg room? You could dance between seat rows! There was a lounge...a bar...with a piano. Champagne...the good French stuff flowed freely...and at no extra cost. We dined on filet, Caesar salad prepared at your seat, chocolate soufflé, all on real china. Seriously. If this was the good life - and it appeared to be - sign me up, I thought.

My fellow first-class passengers weren't snooty. In fact, they were fun, witty, well dressed and dripped of culture...and let's face it...wealth. I'm not sure, but I think most others actually paid to fly in first-class. I wasn't wealthy, but I decided first-class fit me like a glove.

But was it really cost prohibitive to fly in the 1960s and 1970s...even in first-class? My research shows that some writers in recent years have stated unequivocally that flying back in the day was so much more expensive...only the wealthy flew. That's not true, at all.

An apples-to-apples comparison rather than an apples-to-oranges comparison that some writers have made, reveals that flying today is more costly than ever.

Why? Flying is now unbundled. We face a host of fees that never used to exist...change fees, baggage fees, excess-baggage fees, priority seating fees, priority boarding fees and even beverage and meal fees. All of these services or privileges were once included in your fare. The "fare" you pay online or through a travel agent today doesn't reflect your total cost of flying.

Understand that while airlines care about fares, they care more about something called PRASM...passenger revenue per available seat. For example, last year alone, airlines made more than $7 billion on baggage and change fees.

And don't think there weren't some bargain fares around in days gone by. I routinely paid $30 on the Eastern Shuttle for one-way flights between Washington, D.C. and New York City in the 1970s. Californians used to pay $10 for flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco on People's Express in that era.

So, when Airlines for America, a much sexier name for the trade group formerly known as the Air Transport Association, spins the public relations story that flying today is cheaper, writers shouldn't buy into it without question. Flying today isn't the bargain we bargained for. 

Also, some writers have accepted the "fact" that flying today is safer than in the old days. Well, yes and no. There were 394 air accidents in the 1970s versus 269 air accidents from 2000 through 2009. There were more incidents, but survivability is no better today than it was nearly a half-century ago.

My take? Flying was once easier, more luxurious, more fun, more exciting, sexier and more glamorous and just about as safe. But it's more costly and inconvenient today. How did all this happen?

Well, it started when U.S. President Ronald Reagan signed the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978

Those who remember Reagan should appreciate the "well" at the beginning of this sentence.

And as always, deregulation solves some problems and brings about others. Point-to-point air travel is more difficult if not impossible today. More people than ever drive a couple hours to a "hub" airport and fly to another hub or "spoke" airport, then drive another hour or two to their "final destinations." Hundreds of smaller airlines and their routes are forever gone.

Here's another takeaway. Late last year, my seat mate on a flight to Florida wore an ill-fitting tank top, sweat pants and flip-flops and smelled like he had just mowed the lawn. He ate sunflower seeds, spitting hulls in and around the seat. He was not charming, witty or fun. A college aged girl was nearby, replete in - and I'm not kidding - the bottoms of a pair of pajamas and a too-loose-fitting top.

I realized then that flying today is like a Greyhound bus with wings...and that risks offending Greyhound since the bus seats are bigger, more comfortable and with greater legroom than most fliers will ever experience. I don't ride buses much, but I can't imagine Greyhound passengers dressing down more than what I see on every flight.

Finally - and this is simply a pet peeve - I'm weary of people crowding aboard with luggage that should be checked...and with too many items. Bad enough you look like an extra in "The Walking Dead," now you hold up boarding and on-time take-offs with everything you own packed in luggage, backpacks and shopping bags.

Solution: Charge $25 for any carry-on beyond a purse or small backpack and a computer bag per passenger. I'm tired of watching someone barely lift a piece of luggage and shoehorn it into an overhead bin.

Last year, on a continuation flight from Amsterdam to New York and then Tampa, a United Airlines flight attendant told my wife, Bonnie, as we sat in our seats that the flight was fully booked. She grabbed Bonnie's fur coat from the overhead bin, explaining that "you'll have to put this under the seat in front of you so passengers who haven't checked bags can use the overhead bins for their carry-on luggage." Bonnie shot her a look that might have turned the flight attendant into a pillar of salt, and said, "Put that coat back. My luggage is checked and paid for and that's my only carry-on. Don't fight me on this." 

I smiled, and soon drifted off to sleep...dreaming of what flying once was and how I loved it.

– Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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