Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Meaning of Life, Part 1:
Domestic Flying In The Seventies & Eighties

I had to look back over all my posts to confirm that I had not written down some of my fond memories of flying in the 1970s and early 1980s. Yes, those WERE the days. Things were never perfect, but compared to today, well...

My oldest regular flying experiences were just 30 years ago--hard for me to believe, as it seems like yesterday. Back then I actually looked FORWARD to going to the airport. Rarely did any of us "frequent flyers" (the term had not been invented yet) have any serious complaints about any airline or their service. It was mostly a pleasure, even in coach. Frankly, and I am sure this remembrance is not just romantic fancy, it never bothered me then to fly in coach.

I can mark the turning point, when things began to decline, to be the mid-eighties. My first real heartfelt letters asking why services seem to be degrading were to Delta's CEO Ron Allen in 1986 (and Ron kindly sent personal letters in answer, too, and even did things about my complaints). Since then it's been a steady decline to our current state of flying.

So let me describe an experience to give you a flavor of how things were before the mid-eighties:

TWA and United ran competing 6:00 PM departures way back when on 747s from JFK to Los Angeles, and even PanAm got into the act with their own coast-to-coast 747 evening flight. Originally, though, it was TWA versus United. Everybody who was anybody who had bicoastal business flew on one of those two flights, in First Class if possible.

Working for a company on 42nd Street in Manhattan and based in Munich, I had been in the European charter flight business in the mid-seventies, and I got to know a lot of airline executives and managers. Through them and through experience, I gravitated to the UA and TWA premier JFK/LAX flights whenever possible.

One Friday evening in about 1978 I found myself at JFK with a First Class ticket on the United 747 departure to Los Angeles at six o'clock. I was no stranger to the flight, but I didn't always fly First, either.

I was still puffing cigarettes at the time, and so asked for an aisle seat in the last row in First, which was for smokers. First Class on a 747 was then configured 2 x 2 in the nose, which tapered down to a point (Row 1); hence the term flying "sharp end" which originated with the widespread introduction of the 747 in the early seventies (the term was made famous years later by English author Martin Amis in his great book, Money).

United assigned me the last row aisle seat on the left side. There was a single middle row at the back of First Class positioned just behind the wedge-shaped shelf of magazines and flowers that divided the two sides of First Class seats as the "sharp end" of the airplane widened back of the taper.

It's hard to believe this now, but it was true in the 1970s: Those two back row middle seats in First Class on UA 747s were the sole seats in the smoking section where cigars were allowed by United Airlines to be smoked. So it was that a distinguished-looking, very well-dressed gentleman plumped down across from me in the aisle seat and lit up a most delicious, aromatic Cuban cigar during boarding.

As a long-standing fan of fine Cuban ropes, I enthusiastically turned to my seatmate across the aisle--and found myself face-to-face with David Frost. My praise of his cigar broke the ice immediately.

He had interviewed Nixon the year before, and after a few pleasantries, I asked him about it. He found Nixon fascinating, and so did I, as I had hated Nixon so vehemently through the sixties and seventies.

All this time, boarding continued, and copious quantities of fine French Champagne, or, alternately, the strong beverage of one's choice, was being served us in First Class. Frost and I imbibed heavily and quickly became chummy.

Still before takeoff, in fact even before push-back, all the First Class patrons were chatting and socializing. Back then we all talked to each other in First Class. It was de rigueur so to do, comfortably civilized and natural. No one retreated, as today, in a private cocoon of silence and solitude.

And everybody dressed well. Even for coach flights, I always wore a coat and tie, and usually a conservative suit. Dressing down was unheard of, and frowned upon especially in First Class by patrons and airline personnel alike. There were standards then: of service, of decorum, high standards for everything. People were civil and pleasant.

In the middle of a fascinating and animated discussion wherein David Frost was explaining how Nixon had trashed Henry Kissinger before, during, and after the famous TV interview, Frost suddenly excused himself to wander forward to the second row, left side, of First Class, and there did speak at length to someone in hushed and reverent tones. When he returned, I, emboldened by several glasses of French bubbly, asked who it was he spoke to.

Frost had been speaking to none other than Sammy Cahn, the engaging and brilliant lyricist, songwriter and musician, winner of 4 Oscars and widely known as Frank Sinatra's songwriter. I knew Mr. Cahn by reputation; he'd been raised in New York and contributed songs and lyrics to many Tin Pan Alley and Broadway shows before moving to Beverly Hills.

United pushed back from the gate dead on six o'clock, much like Swissair (Swissair was renowned for leaving and arriving exactly on time), and pretty soon we were rumbling down the runway. There were no lengthy waits on New York airport taxiways in those days.

When the plane was hardly airborne, the bell dinged for the seat belt light, our signal to move around. I got up at once and went straight up the spiral staircase to the First Class lounge in the bubble of the 747. Waiting for me was a UA Flight Attendant whose only job was to serve the upstairs lounge patrons. She offered more Champagne, and I said yes. She then took my dinner order after I indicated I'd rather eat upstairs than at my seat down below.

The second person bounding up the classy spiral staircase was Mr. Sammy Cahn, and I invited him to sit at my table. To my happy surprise he accepted, and thus began a six hour conversation about his life in New York theatre, Hollywood, and the many entertainers he had known. We drank Champagne, fine red wine, and V.S.O.P. Cognac all the way to Los Angeles and enjoyed a fine six course meal that would have easily met today's Singapore Airlines standards.

I only wish I'd had a tape recorder to capture Mr. Cahn's stories, which were worthy of a documentary. He regaled me with stories about New York in the thirties and forties, about buying his Beverly Hills house for $25,000 in the fifties and marveling at how it was now (in 1978) worth a million bucks. He said that despite making his living in Hollywood that he just couldn't give up his Manhattan brownstone because it was where his heart would always be. Mr. Cahn admitted to "coming home" to New York at least once a month whether he really had business there or not because the city felt real to him, whereas Los Angeles always felt like the Tinseltown it was reputed to be.

Upon arrival to LAX (on time, by the way), First Class was allowed to disembark (née, "deplane") ahead of coach, and by the time we made it to baggage claim, our luggage was already spinning around the carousel. David Frost was met by a private car, and he cordially bid me farewell. Mr Cahn and I chatted curbside until his car arrived. And, already a bit hungover, I made my way to the LAX Hyatt for a restful evening.

That was the way it was.

What is so different now at the airports and airlines, other than the obvious labored and extreme diminution of service? Stress. Uncertainty. More stress. Indifference. Ignorance. Hostility. Isolation. Extreme stress. Suspicion. Kafkaesque circumstances. A certain desperation among those in thrall to the current system.

I called this column "The Meaning Of Life" not to be frivolous. It was the civility and the humanity--the lack of stress and the certainty of being treated like a human being--of that era thirty years ago that made flying pleasurable and memorable. It wasn't so much the trappings of a private upstairs lounge with overflowing Champagne glasses (though all that certainly helped).

Wistfully I remember, and of late, for the brief few months that I am not traveling quite as much, I've come to realize how much happier I am away from the commercial flying experience. Life has meaning only when people treat each other with respect, dignity, and humanity. It was once that way at the airports.

To be continued.


Blogger bob said...

Ah, the good old days! I agree it was still a hassle at times but at least it was civilized. When did it become a "crime" to greet your fellow passengers?

My friends don't belive me when I mention the trans con 747 flights. It is a crime that the airlines now consider a 737 to be a large trans con aircraft!

One of the classiest flights I had was in the early sixties. Boston to Philadelphia on a clear Friday evening in a DC-6! Eastern, I believe. We sat in the rear lounge (Coach Class had their own lounge!) drinking $2 bottles of Scotch as we slowly cruised over Manhattan! It was just gorgeous!

That was the last main line prop plane I flew on with the exception of the Electras on the Shuttle.

Well I have to dash. I must catch a RJ (YUK!) for a Tallahassee - Houston run!

10/11/2007 11:35 AM  
Blogger hulananni said...

Life has meaning only when people treat each other with respect, dignity, and humanity. It was once that way at the airports.


If only everyone worked on this principle....but I don't see it terminals, on planes, and vehicle road rage.

10/11/2007 12:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Twas a great post. I didn't fly until the age of 10 in 1980, so I've never known anything but the deregulated skies.

I think this country could use a good dose of civility in many places, not just the airport. But oh how I wish flying today was as you so aptly described a time gone by in your post.

10/11/2007 8:51 PM  
Blogger Mr. X said...

Hey Will--

Thanks for the recommendation on Amis' "Money." Excellent read. It read like Bukowski with a bank account.

11/30/2007 10:06 AM  

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