Robin Amster | February 25, 2016 12:30 PM ET
Looking Back Can Make Flying Cool Again
Now that flying has become a stressful, mundane and all together tiresome exercise—for most of us anyway—it’s easy to forget what a revolutionary and glamorous thing air travel once was.
It’s also fun to take a look back at commercial aviation’s early days. Why? Aside from those of us who just plain love history—the history of anything and everything—communing with what used to be might just blunt some of the awfulness of flying today.
Okay, wishful thinking, but still . . . Some of “what used to be” is pretty scary, some of it impossibly glamorous, and all of it fascinating.
Fantasize about those early days while standing on that long, long line at security—yes, even if you have TSA Pre-Check—waiting to board and take a seat that’s an assault on your knees, your back and the blameless laptop you’ve scrunched down under the seat in front of you.
There are worse things to think about.
Consider these facts—and thoughts—from a recent New Yorker article by Nathan Heller which, in turn, drew on some fascinating takeaways from several books, among them, The End of Airports, by Christopher Schaberg (Bloomsbury, 2015), and Naked Airport, by Alastair Gordon (University of Chicago Press Books, 2004).
Commercial aviation was the “afterglow” of the air battles of World War I, driven by a new and novel technology. By the Armistice of 1918, France, Britain and the U.S. had collectively produced close to 200,000 aircraft along with the pilots trained to fly them.
The Europeans—not the Americans—realized that the new technology could be marketed as a “privileged experience,” not just as a means to transfer cargo and ordnance, says Heller.
Alastair Gordon writes that the flights of the 1920’s—costing 50 percent more than first-class tickets on trains and ocean liners—could hardly be called luxurious. The cabins were “as temperate as a meat freezer, and skull-numbingly loud,” Heller says.
The first commercial flight from New York to Los Angeles in 1929 was a 48-hour journey that included a combination of train and air time because passengers were loathe to fly at night.
Gordon gives us one passenger’s description of how the passengers in the boarding area felt: “Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine was a bluebird of happiness in comparison.”
Yet commercial aviation took hold, of course, and Heller writes that by the thirties the development of airports had become a “cause” for people who believed that urbanism defined the future.
At that time, New Jersey’s Newark Airport—having pioneered air traffic control by radio—was the area’s most advanced, and the unofficial hub for New York City.
This did not make New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia happy. “Newark,” he said, “is not New York.”
New York’s own airfield was a shabby affair located on the far edge of Brooklyn. The Mayor managed to obtain $27 million from the federal government and used most of it to dump trash and dirt on Flushing Bay’s marshlands, the site for a new airfield that was to be named, fittingly, La Guardia Airport.
By the time LaGuardia left office in 1946, a second airfield, called Idlewild, was under construction on Jamaica Bay to accommodate the overflow from LaGuardia Airport.
Some twenty years later in the early sixties, the jet could make the trip to any global destination in one day. This was the advent of commercial aviation’s glory days where “jet setting” became synonymous with glamour and “jet lag” became a side effect—a chic, sought-after side effect—of flight.
The airports—at that time—kept pace with flight’s glam aura.
The famed architect Eero Saarinen’s Idlewild Airport—since renamed Kennedy Airport—was the height of cosmopolitan sophistication and high technology in the sixties.
And Americans embraced flight—even those who had never flown. As former Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce said at the time, “American postwar aviation policy is simple: we want to fly everywhere.”
We now live in an age in which we can do just that. So next time while you’re waiting to get through security or jammed into your seat in coach; when your flight is delayed or even cancelled, think about how cool flying was.
And maybe still is.
More by Robin Amster
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