The romance of commercial air travel

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Remembering the distant sound of a single engine airplane passing overhead when I was a little boy growing up in a small town in upstate New York. It was the sound of possibility, travel, adventure and the wider world.

I spent much of my boyhood building model airplanes and hanging them with thread and thumbtacks from the ceiling of my room. My favorite TV show was “Twelve O’Clock High”.

Once, when I was eleven, I chanced upon a P-51 Mustang, my favorite WWII fighter plane, at the local airport, and was able to check it out up close.

When I was seventeen I took my first international flight from New York to Stockholm on the stylish (for its time) European airline SAS.

I remember how excited I was to arrive at Kennedy airport and board the plane (a Douglas DC-8).

I remember not quite believing the impossible physical event of such a massive structure actually reaching one hundred eighty miles per hour and lifting off the runway.

Years later when I lived in Minneapolis, a guitar student who was an A&P (airframe and powerplant) mechanic took me on a guided tour of the Northwest Airlines maintenance hangar at Minneapolis International Airport.

I got to walk on the wings and snoop inside the fuselages of Boeing 747’s and Douglas DC-10’s, examine imposing Pratt & Whitney, General Electric and Rolls Royce fan-jet engines in various states of re-build, learn just how powerful they were (incredible!) and learn fascinating facts like how much a new coat of paint weighs and how many tons of extra fuel were consumed on an average flight as a result of the added weight.

What impressed me most on this tour was learning about the maintenance and safety procedures: how regularly engines were removed and rebuilt, engine mounts inspected and mounting bolts replaced, how often fuel sytems, avionics, navigation, landing gear, emergency escape slides and every other part and system making up the complicated entity of an airplane were inspected, tested, serviced, overhauled and replaced.

I may not have ended up being a pilot, but for the past forty years I have lived a life of air travel.

The air travel experience has changed with post-911 security procedures and the advent of discount internet airlines with their open-seating policies, excess baggage charges and excess weight charges.

But has it really changed that much?

What’s different today?

The biggest change I find is not the flying experience. That has stayed largely the same, except planes are now smoother, quieter, faster and more energy-efficient.

Increased security hassles, increased passenger volumes resulting in more waiting in lines, longer journeys (on foot and via moving walkways, trains and buses) to the gate, and the overall treatment of customers comes to mind.

There has been a downgrade in individual customer attention and pampering from airline staff that was once the norm.

The customer experience at airports now can feel rushed, rude and take-it-or-leave-it, highlighting inexperienced, poorly-trained and underpaid staff with alarming people skills taking no responsibility for, and showing no involvement in, the quality of your travel experience.

But has the glamor and romance of air travel really gone away?

Or has our bubble simply been burst as we all find ourselves — airlines, airports and passengers — having to deal with the same nervous, stress-filled world of rising fuel and operating costs, rising taxes, charges for services that were once free and taken for granted, and ever-more-complicated and costly security equipment and procedures?

To some extent, this has effected my sense of the magic of the air travel experience.

But I still find it magical — even after checking my luggage, paying the excess weight and excess baggage charges, getting my boarding passes, dropping off the guitar(s) at the fragile zone and showing my boarding pass, joining the security line, showing my passport and boarding pass there, answering security questions, removing my jacket, belt, shoes and pocket items, putting them on the security belt, going through the security scanner, recovering my belongings on the other side of the security belt, and putting jacket, belt and shoes back on and pocket items back in my pockets — to sit down with a drink and wait for boarding time.

(Ahhhh. That wasn’t so bad. I can do this.)

After all, I will soon be sitting in a plane that accelerates on the runway, lifts me up into the sky and delivers me to an impossibly faraway place where adventure awaits.20111113-165014.jpg

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7 Responses to The romance of commercial air travel

  1. devon michelle perry says:

    I love air travel!! love love love it! Even Heathrow. the mother of all airports, is exciting to me! (But then then large array of food, drinks and trinkets to buy make my green eyes sparkle. Life is an adventure, and I can’t wait to once again travel “to the far side of the world”/

  2. I have always romanticized flying too, but there is an irony to it as well for me. As a kid I had a similar fascination and intrigue every time a plane flew over head I was immediately drawn to it. But I was raised by a single Mom and we were very poor, flying was for the rich only (In my mind anyways). But I had an angle, At 12 years old I decided that Air Cadets could be my best chance to get to fly, besides a high ladder, I have never really been off the ground up to this point, so the adventure awaited. I spent enough time in cadets to finally go up in a glider, I became a leading cadet, which allowed me certain privileges. And one of those was to grab the yoke in mid flight and give it a go. So on my big day I was in full uniform adorned with my new “Leading Cadet” propeller badge. Feeling extraordinarily proud, I hopped in the glider, we climbed to just over 5000 feet and I discovered I have an inner ear imbalance, and I got sicker than I have ever been, not wanting to look weak in front of my superior, who was flying, I had managed to keep most of the business to my self, but when I landed I basically pored out of the cockpit. I could not stand, so I just lay there. In my moment of confusion, and nausea, I saw a plane fly over head, and for a brief moment I had complete clarity, I looked up and I still loved it. After two ear operations my inner became better, flying is more tolerable, and even after all these years later I still always look up, I have flown a few times since and carry gravel. But that thrill, and adventure is always part of it and I guess it always will be. Even in my sleeping dreams, the most common theme, is of my flying around. Funny, no motion sickness there LOL

    • fretgenie says:

      A heartbreaking story, Wayne. At least you gave it a go. I never really had the time window (or the budget) to learn to fly, though I do think about it once in a while and may still try it. Thanks for sharing your experience.

      • Wayne Janssen says:

        Your welcome, I hope you get to fulfill your dream of flying it sounds like an itch that needs to be scratched. 🙂

  3. Kevin Ferris says:

    Preston my friend, I know you’ve heard this a bunch from me, but if you can possibly make it to Alaska on your next U.S. tour, I’ll take you flying and even let you have a go at the controls. We can do this while listening to Coltrane and make it a memory worth saving. P.S. Don’t forget to bring your lovely bride!

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