Saturday, June 28, 2008

Coffee,Tea, Or Me?

I hate to say this, but if I can get there by car, that’s how I’ll do it. The airline industry is seeing prices that are about to explode and service that is going down to nothing at all. Air travel used to be a luxury and a fun experience. It was a bank and shoal of time when passengers were well dressed (this meant no pajama bottoms) and on their best behavior. Today barely a day goes by without an incident of air rage, in the terminal or on-board causing flights to be diverted. Our options are now: cattle car or royalty.

My introduction to air travel came in the 1960s. It was a period that started with the turbo-propeller aircraft, saw the introduction of the transatlantic jets, and ended with the new generation of jumbo airliners, led by the Boeing 747. There was the promise of major advances in every aspect of air travel, including capacity, range, comfort, operating efficiency, safety, and costs. Boeing, Douglas, Convair, and Lockheed are the darlings of my remembrance of things past. By the time I had taken my first flight, nearly two-thirds of the American population had never flown.

My brother was particularly enamored with flying and started a life-long hobby of collecting OAGs (Official Airline Guides) as a boy. In fact, he would plan and schedule all flights for family vacations, even though he was not ten-years-old yet. We would make the observation deck at any airport a mandatory obligation. A meal at an airport restaurant was a coat-and-tie affair.

Do you remember any of this? Observation decks were actually how most families would observe planes—from the ground.

In the sixties, air travelers were still mostly wealthy people and business people on expense accounts, who flew repeatedly. Most Americans could not afford to fly, to see their loved ones in other cities, or to visit exciting vacation spots. I was fortunate in that my family got to go on vacations. It was an economic stretch for my father, but he felt that it was worth the debt. He was right; I remember every minute of those experiences.

The family would go up to Toronto, from Cleveland, to board an Air Canada Vickers Vanguard (Turbo Prop) en route to Antigua, with a refueling in Bermuda. It was a long flight, but I have many fond memories of those incredibly gorgeous Air Canada stewardesses. Yes, I may have been a tot, but I still knew a good thing when I saw it.

Here’s a life-long kudos to Air Canada. You had the best stewardesses ever!

Since those days, air travel has rapidly expanded to cope with the increasing flood of travelers. Many of the airports have become miniature cities, containing shops, restaurants, and even places of worship. There is a whole industry of hotels enveloping these mega-ports. At the modern airport, Americans spend around 3.7 billion hours stuck in traffic, burning gasoline whose price has soared by 60 percent. Security lines snake endlessly, runways are choked, and delays are common. Experts predict that, with the population climbing well past 300 million, the demand for travel will only grow.

Back in the 60s stewardesses had to be single, attractive, and thin. Today, as anyone can tell you, flight attendants tend not to be any of these things. Does anybody remember a book called Coffee, Tea or Me? The Uninhibited Memoirs of Two Airline Stewardesses. It was considered racy at the time. My brother got hold of a copy and we would surreptitiously share it. Of course my imagination put the faces of the lovely Air Canada Girls into the characters of this classic piece of literature. I wonder if I re-read this as an adult—would it lose its prestige? I guess some things are better left alone.

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