Air travel today (part 1) – Yesterday vs. Today

Recently I came across some old photos of the lounges – yes, lounges – found years ago on widebody airliners.  Along with those, I  found some old TV commercials which advertised those lounges.  Sadly, I am too young to have ever enjoyed those sorts of amenities – growing up, we loved to go hang out at the airport and watch the planes, but we didn’t have the resources to afford a ticket.  Most of my flying these days is on modern jets – an increasingly unfortunate reflection on the status of the business.  On a recent American Eagle flight out of White Plains, NY, my comfy window seat was “stuck” in the reclined position, and the overhead bin above my seat was taped shut, a sign advising that it was out of service.  On an earlier Eagle segment that week, there was no soap in the lav – rather a bucket of wet wipes tossed in the sink.

I often wonder if airline flying has taken a step forwards or backwards over the past eighty years.  In the 1930’s and 40’s when passenger airlines were first born, the mighty DC-2 and DC-3 prowled the skies.  They were slow and those big radial engines were loud (I imagine earplugs were a part of the amenity kits back then.)  But flying was an event – enjoyed mainly by the rich.  People dressed their best for a flight and the passengers were treated like gold (often treated to low-altitude passes of famous landmarks en-route).

Over the years as the jet was introduced, airliners became faster and nicer.  The flight attendant was introduced – young, sexy and classy to be sure, but their primary function was to make sure the passengers’ every need was met.  Hot meals of lobster tail, chicken cordon bleu, and a glass or two of wine were the norm… all served on fine china with real silverware and cloth napkins.  Hot towels, coat check, lounges, and even piano bars were among the other amenities offered to airlines passengers.  Those tickets cost a fortune, and dressing up was the expectation.  Flying was an experience to behold – as much a tribute to the wonder of it all as well as a sign of respect for the multi-million-dollar machine and the highly trained pilots who commanded it.

What happened?   Today’s airliners are packed with as many seats as the airlines can safely install.  Amenities are scarce.  Gone are blankets and pillows, and you’ll pay to check that second bag now.  Flight attendants are often surly (seriously, I just about tipped the guy on my last O’Hare-Lexington flight just because he was nice!) and even coat check is a first-class feature now, if they remember.  You want food?  You’ll pay for it – I actually got excited about the little snack box on a recent Miami-Port au Prince flight, and the only place you’ll find fine china these days is at flea markets.  (I have a very nice set of Delta china on my bookshelf right now.)  On many routes flip-flops and tee shirts outnumber the business suits, and increasingly you’ll find useful amenities such as power ports, lavatories, and galley coffee makers inoperative.

It’s actually rather embarrassing that in the country that basically invented commercial aviation, we have to look at overseas airlines to learn how to do things right.  Look at who’s winning the awards these days for primo cabins and best flying experience.  Singapore Airlines, Air France, Royal Jordanian, Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong), Lufthansa (Germany) and Emirates.  Many of the entertainment options being installed on US airliners now have been used to years overseas, ditto with the lie-flat beds and mini-compartments being installed in business class cabins on the major US carriers.

Today’s jets are sleeker, faster and quieter than ever before.  By all measures of common sense, air travel should be getting better rather than worse.  However people are demanding cheaper and cheaper flights.  (The Concorde was the odd exception.  They were fast, but surprising cramped inside.)  Flying has lost its mystery and prestige in this country.  We want one thing – to get from point A to B as cheaply as possible.  And for reasons unbeknown to me, the airlines are happy to oblige us.

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