Unlike our children, who take air travel for granted, most of us over-50s remember a time when air travel was not the norm. When I was a child, many of my friends still took trains to travel to Florida. Many people still took ships to Europe.
I attended many a bon voyage party my grandparents threw on ships docked on the piers of Manhattan, bound for Italy. It was a great occasion for us kids. We got to go aboard a giant steamliner like the Leonardo DaVinci, and explore the ship from stem to stern while our parents sat around tables in the restaurant enjoying pastries and coffee. In the security-obsessed world of today, no one would dream of allowing non-passengers to roam aboard (or letting their children wander a ship alone, for that matter). And that’s a shame.
It’s also a shame that family and friends cannot go to the gate to see us off at airports anymore. When I took my first flight nearly 50 years ago, we just walked onto the plane with no security of any kind. When we walked aboard, we were greeted warmly by stewardesses who treated us as if air travel was something special (as it was for middle class folks). There were even commemorative pins for kids enjoying their first flight. Stewardesses brought all the food and drink you could want. And there was room to stretch, because the flights were rarely full. In fact, when flights filled up, they often rolled out another plane. No one ever got “bumped.” Flights were canceled only due to mechanical or weather issues.
Contrast that with air travel in 2014. This year I have taken eight flights in six months and have had one flight canceled, and another delayed seven hours.
United Airlines was the culprit last month when my flight from St. Louis to Newark was canceled on a clear, sunny day without any reason ever given. And then to add insult to injury, they rebooked me to fly from St. Louis to Chicago, and then Chicago to Boston (and then Boston to Newark), and acted as if I should be thankful they had provided a plan for getting me home. They wanted to turn a three-hour flight into 13 hours, and have me be happy about it.
My point is that air travel just isn’t what it used to be. Now I know that makes me sound like an old curmudgeon. I remember laughing when Burt Lancaster’s character in the film “Atlantic City,” says to a young friend, “Look at the ocean. The Atlantic isn’t what it used to be. You should have seen the ocean years ago.”
But I don’t think even air travel executives would deny that the experience today is not what it used to be. They would probably blame economic factors like fuel prices and security factors like TSA regulations for the difference. But the truth is that air travel today is about as enjoyable as riding a bus. And far more expensive.
That is why when our pilot friend Brian offered to take us for a ride in his four-seater plane recently, my wife and I accepted immediately. The plane was at the Provincetown, Massachusetts airport where Brian had flown it from his upstate New York home. Pat and I arrived with Brian at the airport, and you could see immediately a return to the early days of commercial aviation. The airport personnel treated everyone as special. There was no TSA security. Brian keyed in a code to open the gate and we walked to where his plane was tied up. Brian opened the door, and we got in.He meticulously checked the plane out, and gave us safety instructions, and then we were off. As we cruised over Cape Cod, I thought that this is the way travel should be. No lines at the airport, no taking off your shoes, no being patted down. We could just enjoy the ride as human beings, not just butts in seats.
More than a half-century of commercial aviation has taken all of the charm, and most of the civility out of air travel. When only rich people traveled regularly by commercial airlines, everyone who traveled received top-notch treatment. Today, when everyone travels by air, it’s just transportation. The airline slogans bear this out. In the 1930s, Delta Airlines’ slogan was “Speed, Comfort and Convenience.” By 1984, the slogan was “Delta Gets You There.” I rest my case.