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 Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch

martin OH, WHAT THE JET AGE HATH WROUGHT

BY MARTIN B. DEUTSCH

May 1, 1988 -- What is the opposite of an inaugural? A termination? A shutting down? An epilogue?

Word games aside, I remember when I was cutting my teeth as a trade journalist, the airlines were in a growth pattern, shedding glamour in their wake like a vapor trail. The carriers ran an intoxicating and addictive business, characterized by new addictive business, new ideas. The hallmark of their explosive relations ploy that gained even greater momentum with the coming of the 1958.

(So I sound like someone who’s both smitten and jilted? You be your mileage accrual…)

My first inaugural experience, so to speak, was on May 12, 1956, when Cubana de Aviacion penetrated New York-Havana market with a prop-driven Lockheed Super Constellation. On October 12, 1958, I was aboard the first BOAC Comet between New York and London. We made the flight in record time: six hours and eighteen minutes. The jet-imposed change in lifestyle we were about to undergo was further brought home by the fact that BAOC, grounded by a stroke after we arrived, ultimately shipped us home from London on a Boeing Stratocruiser, a lumbering comfortable double-decker with a lounge downstairs. The flight ate up something like twenty-two and a half hours; I remember we stopped in Goose Bay, Labrador, maybe even in Iceland first. We played poker for eighteen hours in that lower lounge, and hobnobbed with Trevor Howard and Juliette Greco, on the their way to open the film The Roots of Heaven. (That stratocruiser service was Pan Am’s.)

Two weeks later, on October 26, Pan Am launched its maiden transatlantic jet operation, New York-Paris, with a Boeing 707. (I missed that one.) But on December 5 of that year National Airlines leased a Pan Am 707 and introduced the jet to domestic skies, commercially speaking, between New York and Miami. The celebrity with us on that one was Gypsy Rose Lee, the renowned stripper. She did not perform.

The parade of inaugurals went on and on. They blur in time and memory, although some of them still stand out.

In the early 1960, TWA brought movies into passenger cabins. That first dinner-movie flight to nowhere out of New York’s Idlewild Airport featured a terrible flick. I recall the name of the movie, the story and the lead players, but decency seals my lips. I sat next to a famous war correspondent and columnist, Inez Robb. When a stewardess asked during the showing if I wanted anything, I said yes: two aspirin and a parachute. The quality of inflight films hasn’t much changed in the intervening years.

In June of 1966 Olympic Airways launched jet service between New York and Athens, via Paris and Rome; United used a DC-8 stretch to fly nonstop from New York to Honolulu; and Japan Air Lines kicked off New York-Tokyo by way of San Francisco and Honolulu; and we may also have touched down at Wake Island to refuel. In 1986 I was on the first delivery flight of a 747 from Seattle to New York—the aircraft designated 004 was destined for Pan Am.

I missed out on the Concorde inaugurals, but even before these sleek needle-nosed pioneers pierced the sound barrier commercially, I visited Bristol in England and Toulouse in France to look over the SST prototypes.

But nothing is forever, and what goes up must come down. A peculiar and unfocused new force, deregulation, comes upon the scene, courtesy of giant academic brains and trendy political pressures (i.e., consumerism). Airlines come and go; they merge or disappear. Competition and costs force new corporate policies. Hard-nosed realities settle in, the romance fades. Convenience is replaced by hubbing; gracious service gives way to a no-frills mentality.

And now, the disease spreads to Europe.

British Airways has gobbled up British Caledonian; soon, Europe will follow Uncle Sam’s lead in embracing mega-carriers. Bigger is better, at least for now. Anyway, the reason for this column lies in the fact that I never flown British Caledonian. No reason: jus the confluence of schedules and destinations. In early February, I flew BCAL 747 from Gatwick to Kennedy, so I’d catch the experience before it was gone.

Fine airline. Pleasant and professional people on the phones—at London’s Victoria Terminal for a fast early check-in (then a thirty-minute train to Gatwick), at the airport, and in flight. Excellent airline meal, a splendid tradition afternoon "Tea," a comprehensive cosmetic kit, crisp cabin décor, and a moronic movie. No sign of a letdown in service or morale over the impending shutdown.

A young ground hostess in the Gatwick lounge said of the merger: "It’s better than losing my job, but I’m sad to see the airline go." The word sad was one that kept cropping up.

BCAL probably had another seven weeks to fly when I flew; it had an enviable reputation as a feisty and innovative airline, but was just too small for today’s environment. A Scottish symbol that has always decorated BCAL’s livery and promotion, a highly stylized lion ("The Lion Rampant," as one crew member called it), was a fitting one.

What is the opposite of an inaugural flight?

This column originally appeared in Frequent Flyer magazine.

Copyright © 1991-2007 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.