Mile-high schlub

We recall the 10 things we miss most from the Golden Age of Air Travel
By JAMES PARKER  |  May 21, 2008


Look your children in the eye, globetrotter, and tell them the truth: the Golden Age of Air Travel is over. Terrorism, fuel prices, chronic overcrowding. The industry is taking a beating — and the beating is being handed on to you, the passenger. Why, just this month, United, American, and Northwest airlines, among others, started charging passengers fees for checking in a second piece of luggage, a service that, since commercial flights began, had been free! Airlines are crumpling left and right, going bankrupt or getting taken over: soon there will be only one enormous air-cruiser, piloted by Richard Branson and Rupert Murdoch, that goes ’round and ’round the world in stinking bus-like laps.

To fly anywhere at all is to put one’s dignity at risk: a New York City man is suing JetBlue for $2 million, claiming that a flight attendant deprived him of his seat and then confined him to the toilet for three hours.

Are we not the lucky ones, we who flew in the glory years? Yes and no. The young can submit more or less equably to the brutish conditions that now prevail — they have known nothing else. We, meanwhile, are pining for our vanished luxuries, weakly protesting each new symptom of decline. So join us now, with misty eyes, as we roll out our fondest memories: the 10 things we miss most from the Golden Age of Air Travel.

1) The hijackers
If your plane is hijacked in 2008, start bumming: chances are you’re being conscripted into the auto-immolating global jihad, and it’ll all be over in about 20 minutes. The Golden Age hijack, by contrast, was a protracted and lavishly psychological affair, often featuring an epic standoff in an exotic locale — Portugal, maybe, or Uganda! It was post-’60s radical theater, with chic, hard-faced women waving German handguns and men in khaki jackets making preposterous demands on behalf of organizations you’d never heard of. One of the “gang” was always sweaty and troubled looking, and you could wear him down by offering him some of your peanuts.

2) The airports
What happened to the airport? A Xanadu of leisure in the ’80s, it has become a totalitarian sausage factory. It seemed at one point as if the whole world was about to become an airport: sculpted, light-filled, flavored with the delirious scent of jet fuel. Now the airport is like the world — only worse. Those huge halls and concourses where the international playboys used to roam are stuffed with defeated-looking punters, standing in their socks, holding little plastic bags with toothpaste in them. And if you have a beard, you will be arrested.

3) The Captain
Pilots were pilots in the Golden Age: not the harassed airbus drivers of today, but true aristocrats of the sky, seven feet tall, Ted Turner–esque, monologue-ing their way back and forth across the Atlantic. Ping! “Ah, ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Those of you in seats numbered D, E, F, if you’d like to turn to your right and look out of the window, you’ll be able to see a school of whales off the coast of Newfoundland. . . . Quite a sight, huh? And that one in front? That’s my ex-wife! [chuckles]” All the stewardesses were in love with the captain, who, apart from being a very charming alcoholic, was additionally a great martial artist and philosopher.

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