BOAC, Braniff Air, British Caladonean, Continental Airlines, Delta Airlines, NorthWest Airlines, PanAm, Safety Briefings, Sully, TWA, United Airlines
Apart from the memories of specific venues, performances or events, I have also been thinking a lot about how the travel experience has changed over the years. I have already hinted at some things in various blog posts, but here are some of my memories and observations.
I am not one of the rose-tinted spectacles brigade that remembers the days when you dressed up to fly, gentlemen in their trilby hats and women in their pears and chic suits. By the time I first made a transatlantic crossing the rabble (in which I include myself, I should say) had been allowed in and it was a case of anything goes. Although I love looking at images of that golden age of travel, both by air and sea, it seems a different experience to the ones I had. My only regret is that I never got to make a champagne toast to the speed of Mach 2 on Concorde, which was still in service when in 93, and had a further 10 years ahead of her (with a year’s hiatus due to the tragedy in Paris). I was always just a normal passenger.], who turned right when boarding a plane.
So, what has changed over the years?
Firstly, there was the suitcase – with a handle, to carry, or at least to put on an airport cart that required a coin to release it from a stack of other carts in the way you collect a supermarket trolley now. The experienced traveller would have the correct currency available, or would tip a porter at the curbside to take the luggage to check in. As the years passed I began to look on enviously at passengers who had cases with two wheels on one edge of the case so that they pull their own bags, and when I eventually got such a case, I looked on with envy at those who had cases with 4 wheels, which seemed to glide much easier across the floors. I assume that his innovation (and I hope that the man who invented wheeled cases has received all of the awards and rewards that he deserves), caused the end of carpeted terminal buildings.
On domestic flights in America there was an option to check in and leave your baggage at the curbside where you got out of your taxi, and entrusted it to a guy in a cap, hoping it would get onto the same flight – it often didn’t. But international check in was more complex. You had to make sure you had your passport, of course, and your ticket – yes, a real cardboard ticket, which you presented to the representative of whichever airline you were booked with, and woe betide if you’d left your tickets at home. Today, the flag carriers still exist, BA, American, United, Delta, but I often think back to those trans-Atlantic airlines that are no more: BOAC, British Caledonian, Braniff Airlines (the ‘flying carrot’ ) Laker Air, TWA, PanAm, Continental, NorthWest and I am sure many many more. At the desk the agent, in a stylish uniform featuring a cap or hat, would hand you your boarding pass and only then would you discover what seat you were travelling in – no opportunities for checking in online and choosing your own location. The agent would ask you about your luggage – had you packed it yourself, had the case been in your possession since you packed it, and had anybody asked you to take anything aboard? It was only checking in for this year’s tour that I realised that this isn’t a question anymore, and I am not aware of when it ceased being asked.
Today, once you are checked in and your bag has disappeared into the great black hole of airport baggage handlers, and to be fair the success rate of getting it to the same destination as you is very high, one moves on to security, where you are asked to divest yourself of items of apparel, including shoes, belts, jackets and watches, before being intimately screened by a large machine, and then probably being patted down by a blue-gloved agent, as your bags are being scrutinised thanks to the wonders of x-ray. The security checks of old were much less extreme and a lot seemed to be left to the trust that the officers had in the passengers. This, of course, was lampooned in ‘Airplane’ as various terrorists complete with ammunition, bazookas, rocket launchers and guns, happily stroll through the gate, while two agents wrestle a helpless elderly lady into handcuffs. It is extraordinary to think that prior to the horrors of 9-11 friends and well-wishers could come to the gate with you (maybe not on international flights, now I think about it,) and American airports were more like bus stations in those days, crowded with people lingering to wave goodbye or waiting to hug hello. On one tour I got off a flight to discover a group of costumed Victorian characters waiting at the gate to welcome me to their city through the medium of song!
The design of the planes has not changed a great deal of course, but what was available onboard has. Back in the 90’s one movie would be shown, on a screen at the front of the cabin, and you hoped your headphone socket worked, and that there wasn’t a particularly tall person sitting in the rows ahead of you. A further development was little screens which dropped down from the ceiling along the cabin (all very James Bond), meaning that you had more chance of seeing the film, and then – oh, goodness what a moment of excitement, you got an actual screen in the back of the seat in front of you, and you could control it from a handset that unclipped from the screen unit with an extendable leaded that snapped back into place if you let go, and from which you could even make astronomically expensive phone calls! Nowadays not only do most planes offer inflight films, with a HUGE catalogue to chose from, but many airlines have apps from which you can watch films using the plane’s wifi connection, if the particular aircraft doesn’t have built in TVs
One aspect of flying that has never changed has been the safety briefing – yes, we are still told, and shown, how to fix a seatbelt together, and how to undo it again, as if we have never been in an car before. Over the years some airlines have tried to make the briefing funnier by employing comedians to record them, with suitably ribald asides, but basically they are the same. I remember one larger than life flight attendant giving the briefing telling the passengers that ‘all smokers on this flight will be pleased to know that there are 2 smoking areas on this aircraft – one on the end of the left wing, and one at the end of the right!’ I do always look for my nearest exit (sometimes behind me), and having watched the film Sully a few times, I am less snippy than once I was about the idea of placing a life vest over my head and tightening the straps around my waist when flying at 35,000 feet
Preparing for international arrival is much easier now than it used to be, because there is nothing to do! I used to have to fill out various immigration and customs documents requiring my passport details, which I had inevitably left in the overhead locker – my preference for a window seat meant that I would have to ask my row companions if I could get out to fetch it (unless I could find a moment when they both required the lavatory, as they are still reassuringly called on planes, at the same time ). I would often also find that my fountain pen had reacted badly to the changes of air pressure, and that when I took the lid off to fill in the forms my fingers would get covered in ink, which stain would remain for a few days like a strange tattoo.
Yes, a lot has changed about air travel, and even after all of these years I still love it and find it exciting
Tomorrow I shall move onto driving, hotels and keeping in touch…..