Saturday, August 23, 2014

Come Fly With Me

William Stadiem starts his book, Jet Set, with the classic song by Frank Sinatra, only as Stadiem tells it Frankie wouldn't have been caught dead on a commercial airline, opting  for his dual-prop Martin 404 instead, although he later traded it in for a Lear Jet.  In fact, most of the "jet set" traveled in their private planes, shepherded away from the tarmac in a flotilla of limousines to avoid the unruly mobs waiting for their arrival.  Just ask the Beatles, who were literally assaulted on their first visit to New York in 1964.  But, even they weren't able to save Pan Am.

Nevertheless, the 50s and 60s were the heyday of commercial air travel, offering comfy seats, meals and an unlimited supply of booze in mini bottles to wherever you were going, whether it be Acapulco Bay or Peru.  For a few dollars more you could fly first class and be treated to unparalleled comfort, especially aboard the inaugural flight of the 747 in 1969 with its super bar and other luxurious amenities on trans-continental flights.  The ultra-sleek Concorde took to the sky the same year, offering flights across the Atlantic at supersonic speed, but it was a joint British-French venture.

TWA terminal 1956
Air terminals further evoked this spirit to fly, like Eero Saarinen's TWA terminal in New York, which after falling into disrepair has been refurbished into a luxury hotel for the new "jet set," recalling the past that Frankie sang of.  The glamour hasn't worn off completely.  Modern airports are as sleek and luxurious as ever, especially when flying first class, as many airports go out of their way to separate the one per cent from the 99 per cent, so that a well-heeled traveler doesn't have to brush shoulders with the middling class.

Unfortunately, for most of us it is a grueling wait in check-in lines, coupled with searches and small bag checks to make sure they don't exceed the size and weight limit.  You are lucky if you get a bag of honey-roasted peanuts anymore, which used to be standard on virtually all domestic flights.  Instead, you have to shell out cash for bottled water, as it seems nothing is "complimentary" these days.  On Ryan Air, you even have to scramble for seats, as only a select few are reserved.


Little wonder many persons feel themselves pining for the past, when flying was an event, and you even got a Pan Am carry-on bag, which I clung onto for years as a "toy bag."  Of course, there were a lot fewer air travelers back then so the airlines could afford such perks.  I was hoping for more out of the short-lived television series, Pan Am, a few years ago, but it met a similar fate to the airline.

Today, if you want to be pampered you have to fly to the Orient, where airlines still lavish a lot of attention on passengers, even those sitting in economy class.  It seems that in the East, there remains a wanderlust for the sky, where in the West we treat airlines like airbuses, literally calling them that in Europe.

Frank and Dean in 1965
American airlines have struggled to keep up, often merging with European airlines to maintain a world-wide net of destinations to keep in competition.  The glory days of flying appear to be over in the United States, unless you are fortunate enough to have your own private jet like Frank Sinatra had.


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