Mile-high schlub

By JAMES PARKER  |  May 21, 2008

4) The room
So much more room, back in the Golden Age. People were slenderer then, of course, in the days before we all got fat-assed from too much blogging, but planes were also bigger. The average economy seat was a wide and cushioned throne, like Captain Kirk’s chair on the bridge of The Enterprise, and came equipped with footrest, back-scratcher, cigar cutter, a selection of toothpicks, and a mahogany-handled bell with which to summon the stewardess.

5) The hook-ups
Before the advent of the headphone set and the little screen on the seat-back, flying was a social experience. And more often than not a sexual experience, too. Swinger-dom ruled in the galleys and bathrooms, and in that thrilling, lint-y space beneath the seats. Simpler times: I like you, you like me, let’s get it on behind the drinks trolley. Of this attitude nothing remains, although the culture of the mid-air liaison is commemorated in a mini-generation of children with names like Boeing and Transatlantica.

6) The animals
In the Golden Age of Air Travel, you could take your pet on board the plane. That’s right: whether it was a kitten or a Komodo dragon, if it had had its shots, it was welcome. Small mammals wandered the aisles receiving tidbits and tributes. Coming down over Jakarta once, I woke from a booze-clouded nap to find myself being regarded steadily by an enormous Irish wolfhound, who had taken the seat next to mine — such was the dignity of the animal that I blushed, and apologized.

7) The access
Who wouldn’t the captain allow in his cabin, back in the Golden Age? The door was wide open, and the hand of the stewardess was ever-beckoning. Children, soldiers, nuns, surly young Che Guevara types — everyone got a chance to sit on the captain’s knee and shoot the shit. “Whatever you do, don’t press that button! Ha ha!” What an atmosphere inside the cabin! The captain smiled and sipped his coffee (brandy-boosted, of course). Mike, the co-pilot, was often asleep. Were we moving at hundreds of miles per hour? It didn’t feel like it. Zeppelin-like, the great plane nosed grandly through slow-motion skies. Sweet.

8) The muzak
Herb Alpert doing Simon & Garfunkel, Julio Iglesias doing Prince, nameless orchestras swooning through “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The pre-flight sounds of the Golden Age, piping from crappy miniature speakers, were a permanent invitation to the great lounge-scene in the sky. They helped set the mood. Nowadays it’s all ambient-world-electronica and shoe-store music — you’re lucky if you get a bit of Celine Dion.

9) The smoking section
Now that smokers have become the lepers of the First World, it’s easy to forget the time when every plane in the air was basically a 300-foot cigarette with wings. True, Golden Age smoker/fliers were nominally confined to a section at the front of the plane, but in practice there was near-ubiquitous lighting-up; even if you didn’t smoke it was considered a courtesy to the other passengers to carry a pack or two on your person, in case somebody might be running short. Great times — long-haul travelers could acquire a “nicotine tan,” and tobacco-throated babies cried out in the voices of old men.  

10) The no-bumps
Golden Age flying was smoother, and I mean physically smoother. The skies were like butter, and the clouds, tricked out in sunset pink, had Charlie’s Angels hairstyles; from take-off to landing, the clean, untroubled trajectory of a long-haul Golden Age flight might best be compared to the effects of one of the mellower psychedelics. Turbulence, as everyone knows, was not invented until 1995, so if your plane bucked or jinked sufficiently to spill your drink, it was probably because the captain had handed over the controls to a visiting six year old.

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