I HAD A DREAM: HOW FLYING USED TO BE
By Martin B. Deutsch
June 18, 2009 -- I had a dream the other night.
This is neither big news nor an unusual occurrence, but I did retain a fragment of this nocturnal scene, which stood out with unusual clarity.
It seems I was checking in at an airport, an airport I did not recognize, and a young lady in what I presumed to be an airline uniform stopped me and said something along the lines that since I was holding an airline ticket in a silver folder, I was headed for the wrong line, and that first-class check-in was in the other direction.
There was nothing unusual about this, as I've already said, but once awake, on the road to being fully aware, I realized that there were several unusual elements to what I remembered. First of all, I had been directed to a counter by an actual person, a person who was polite and seemingly interested in making sure that I would find myself in the right place. And, I recall that she was actually smiling. I was also holding on to a real ticket jacket, not a flimsy piece of paper that would blow away if it wasn't firmly grasped or properly tucked away.
With airline service and personnel cut to the bone and just about everything else gone electronic, what I had encountered not only belonged to a dream, but also to a world that not only no longer is with us and will probably never again reappear.
In an age when the airlines are nickel-and-diming customers with add-ons that run the gamut from luggage charges to fees for onboard soft drinks and from ever more obscure taxes and security levies to odious fuel surcharges, the must-fly passenger is financially whipsawed from every conceivable direction. As a poorly managed industry looks to scrounge every penny from its customer base while providing less and less in the way of service and amenities, these are nightmarish times.
As a survivor of what will undoubtedly be judged the golden age of air travel, I can assure you that it wasn't always like this.
I think things began to go downhill, subtly at first, when the U.S. government in its absolute wisdom began deregulating the commercial airline industry in 1978. The brain trust in Washington seemed absolutely convinced that the way to pander to a wave of consumerism was to deregulate everything in sight. A hundred or more new airlines were launched in the euphoria that followed deregulation and not one of those carriers exists today. At the same time that start-ups were being created, a manic wave of mergers swept the established airlines, a disaster for both competition and the innocent community of air travelers, both business and leisure, that was unaware of what lay beyond the horizon.
When I was growing up in what we called travel publishing and trade journalism in the two decades before deregulation, flying was actually fun. It was an adventure. It was something that most would-be passengers anticipated with great pleasure. The late Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, a World War I fighter pilot ace who later ran Eastern Airlines, believed that it was a privilege for his customers to fly aboard his airplanes. Few other carriers believed that. And few passengers were ever treated poorly. Commercial air travel before deregulation was something to remember, something to talk about, something to brag about.
The product was diverse, there were a good many airlines from which to choose and the carriers ran a relatively high percentage of nonstop or direct flights between major cities. The airlines in those early years were further elevated in the minds of their passengers when both domestic and international jet service was launched late in 1958. You could now fly across the Atlantic in as little as six hours, and coast-to-coast across the United States in about the same period of time. (With ground delays and early check-in due to security concerns, lots of luck hitting those time parameters today.)
The new jets were not only faster, but also quieter, less prone to turbulence and vibration, more comfortable and more user-friendly than the prop-driven aircraft they replaced. In-flight movies also made their debut in those days as did audio systems with everything from rock and roll and pop to grand opera and the Grand Ole Opry, all at your seat with your own earphones.
Meal service varied by the airline, but even coach menus provided two or three entrée selections. There was even a time when the North Atlantic carriers indulged in a "sandwich war" in coach, each airline vying to offer more and better food without incurring the wrath of the Civil Aeronautics Board. (Alcoholic beverages were optional and there was a modest charge for them even in those halcyon days.)
Up front, the marketing gurus enhanced first class with innovative concepts such as the "21 Club" and specialties prepared at your seat from elegant serving carts. You could end with an ice cream sundae, topped by chocolate syrup or caramel sauce, plus whipped cream, chopped nuts and a maraschino cherry. Also up front were decent wine choices. The in-flight crew was invariably professional and usually (but not always) friendly. And, believe it or not, American Airlines and several other carriers even featured an in-flight piano bar.
The introduction in the late 1960s of the Boeing 747 jumbo jet added a new dimension of comfort, luxury and competition. Those big birds--the DC-10 and the Lockheed L-1011 as well as the B747--flew with great tranquility and carried their passengers and crews to every corner of a shrinking world with certainty and élan. To me, spoiled as I was, the ultimate symbol of travel at that time was Pan Am's Candlelight Dinner in the B747's upstairs lounge. You'd have thought that you were in an upscale restaurant in New York or Paris rather than 35,000 feet above the Pacific or flying down to Rio.
The next step, just before deregulation, was the debut of the Concorde supersonic jet. Those narrow-body, needle-nosed violators of the sound barrier connected the East Coast of the United State and Western Europe in just three and a half hours. With an admittedly tight 2x2 seating configuration, the Concorde offered speed and more speed rather than traditional first-class comfort. I used to call it luxury economy and it was a great experience. And, with the time difference, you could leave London and arrive in New York before you left. Confusing, yes, but that's how it was. And we loved it.
I could go on and on about the differences between flying now and flying in those good old days. And they were the good old days. But reminiscing won't bring them back. As I told you at the beginning of these observations, I'd had a dream, and that's just what it was, a dream.
The joy has gone out of the commercial flight experience today. Crass commercialism, if not survival, is what propels the airlines today.
And that's just how it is…
ABOUT MARTIN B. DEUTSCH Martin B. Deutsch created Frequent Flyer magazine in 1980 and was editor-in-chief and publisher for 15 years. He also wrote a column called "Up Front" for Frequent Flyer during those years. In a 50-year career, he created, published and edited dozens of other travel publications. Deutsch is based in New York.
THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Martin B. Deutsch in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Mr. Deutsch. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the permission of Mr. Deutsch.
This column is Copyright © 2009 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.