Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch



December 15, 2005 -- From the dawn of the jet age to airline deregulation and now the era of terrorism. That is the ultimate birds-eye view of my 50 years in travel journalism and publishing, a personal milestone I reached without the slightest desire to acknowledge on Tuesday.

This exercise in self-indulgence begins on December 13, 1955, the day I was hired as a reporter/editor on a modest monthly trade journal that covered travel to the Caribbean and Latin America. It was a decision that I've rarely second-guessed, although I turned down a pre-reporter news-clerk job at The New York Times and a reporter's slot at the old New York World-Telegram and Sun.

Why? I guess I was seduced by the lure of travel, a lure that's persisted to this day.

(Let me mention here that time and memory are capricious forces, although most of my recollections are on-target, or acceptably close to the truth.)

My first assignment that involved a flight was on May 12, 1956, when Cubana de Aviacion introduced its New York-Havana nonstops on Super-Constellation props with the dolphin–shaped fuselages. I lucked into an exclusive interview with Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, an occasion that would almost cost my job since I kept referring to the former Army officer as Juan Batista in the article I wrote. Both Batista, at least until New Year's Eve, 1959, and I, survived.

In a stroke of brilliant timing combined with good fortune, the founder-owner of the monthly where I worked combined two trade journals into the industry's first weekly and promoted me to managing editor. The date was October 24, 1958. Two weeks earlier, October 12 (perhaps in salute of Columbus), BOAC operated the first commercial jet flight from New York to London and I was a press guest.

The BOAC Comet made the crossing in a record 6 hours and 18 minutes. The Jet Age had arrived, although the British-built Comet would soon fade from sight. BOAC, predecessor of British Airways, went on strike after we arrived in London. Four days later, the press party flew home on a Pan Am Boeing Stratocruiser, a lumbering prop relic with a first-class lounge downstairs and four sleepers above the seats up front. The flight made stops in Iceland and Labrador, devouring about 23 hours in the process. We played poker in the lounge for 18 hours.

Two weeks later, Pan Am would launch Boeing 707 service on the New York–Paris route. I missed that one. But in early December I'd be aboard the first domestic jet flight, a New York-Miami run. It was operated by National Airlines on a leased Pan Am 707. Heavy stuff.

Besides changing our travel habits and igniting an unforeseen tidal wave of travel at home and abroad, the Jet Age pretty much spelled curtains for the transatlantic steamship trade. (The notable exception was summer crossings by Cunard.) This also led to the emergence of mega–passenger ships built solely for cruise commerce. These ships helped cruising evolve from an activity confined to the wealthy to a mass-market vacation powerhouse.

During the last five decades, counting dozens of overnight inaugural voyages, I've sailed on more than eighty cruise ships, as well as an ocean crossing on the Queen Elizabeth 2. Over these same years, I was also on hand for many coveted hotel and resort openings. I've set foot on every continent except Antarctica and every major country and flown around-the-world itineraries at least three times.

At about the time of the jet introductions, I was sent on assignment to Jamaica, where I spent several days at the tony Bay Roc resort in Montego Bay. Many years later, in 1981-1982, this property would be purchased by Gordon "Butch" Stewart, a local entrepreneur. He renamed it Sandals Montego Bay and it became the foundation of his all–inclusive Caribbean hotel empire.

On New Year's Eve, 1959, I was in a Havana deserted by tourists as Fidel Castro entered the city. (That's the scene vividly depicted in The Godfather Part II. No one asked me to be in the film.) I'd flown from New York to Mexico City via Havana on Cubana. On all four flights, Batista security police sat cradling automatic weapons at the cockpit door. It was a harbinger of things to come….

The year 1959 was also a watershed year for travel agents in the United States. A Federal judge eliminated the "need and sponsorship" clause, imposed years earlier by the airlines to control and limit the number of travel agency locations. At that time, there were less than 3,000 approved agency sites in this country; the number surged after the removal of "need and sponsorship." By February, 1995, when the airlines began to dismantle the traditional commission structure, there were 34,500 traditional travel agents and they wrote 80 percent of all the airline tickets issued. Today, with commissions gone, at least up front, about 20,000 surviving agencies write a guesstimated 70 percent or less of the airline bookings. Those numbers will continue to decline as the Internet adds muscle and versatility. But travel agents will survive in a society that craves personal attention and service.

In late 1969, I was aboard the first Boeing delivery flight of what is still my favorite jet, the handsome and comfortable 747. It was a Pan Am jet that flew from Boeing's Seattle headquarters to Pan Am's hub at Kennedy Airport. I met Juan Trippe--Pan Am's legendary chief executive--only once: Several years earlier, he was hosting a lunch in Manhattan with Bill Allen, chief executive of Boeing, to unveil the 747 project.

In June, 1967, I was in Atlanta for the opening of the first Portman-designed "atrium hotel," the Hyatt Regency, when the phone rang in my room. It was the director of U.S. public relations for El Al Airlines. He was calling to tell me that the Six-Day War between Israel and it's neighbors had ended. El Al was resuming service that evening from New York to Tel Aviv and I was invited. I packed, flew home to New York, repacked and caught the flight to Israel. I spent ten days there and that would allow me to sense what would inevitably continue to face that troubled region: hatred, violence, terrorism.

This visit would also reinforce a strong belief that I have developed in my travels and one that I continue to espouse: You can't divorce tourism, or any form of travel, from the day-to-day political landscape.

A note to readers: This is the first of a two-part column. The second part will appear next week.

Copyright © 2001-2005 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.