There used to be an expression “riding the rail” for people who traveled a lot by train. Just thinking of that brings nostalgic and romantic images of the golden age of train travel where everyone rode in the Pullman cars up and down the rail lines. By the time I first started to travel this country air fares had come down enough so that “riding the wing” was affordable every now and then.
My first commercial plane ride was from Norfolk VA to Jacksonville FL in the summer of 1964. The difference in the plane fare for a 2 hour flight and a ten hour train ride was small enough to entice me to splurge and after seven weeks at sea, I was ready to be home and sleep in my own bed. Besides, I was already dressed for it. I disembarked the USS Little Rock in my dress blue Midshipman’s uniform so I just hopped the Navy bus from quayside to Norfolk International Airport a scant 5 miles to the southeast of the Navy Base.
The first thing that I noticed at the arrival at the Delta Gate at the airport and joined the line of folks purchasing tickets was that I was right in style with the other passengers. My uniform jacket and pants were right in key with the business suits and dresses of everyone else. Even the kids were dressed to the nines. It seemed that taking a plane ride was quite the deal. The only negative experience of that trip was that smoking was allowed on planes back then and the concept of a smoking section was still years off in the future. But despite that, everyone was on their best behavior and each passenger was treated as a favored guest by the airport and airline staffs. This was about a year before I would actually begin the process of learning to fly, so I was eager to jam myself into a window seat so I wouldn’t miss anything.
Between that first airline flight and the year 2000, I sporadically flew on airlines on longer trips. Most of the shorter air trips I flew myself, especially once I had my instrument rating and was less dependent on good weather to make the trip. I remember how things changed during those years; clothing became more casual, and smoking became more restricted. First came the smoking sections near the rear of the aircraft. I am not sure why the rear was the smoking section. I suspected it was because cabin air generally was forced through the aircraft from front to back. I’ve seen diagrams of cabin air flow that seem to confirm that theory.
During this period of time, flight security was becoming more and more important as terrorist airline hijackings or skyjackings began with the Cubana Flight 455 in 1976 and became more common. Air Marshals came along in 1970 and carry-on baggage screening in 1972. Around this time, the great airline consolidation began that eventually got us to the situation we have today with crowded airplanes and the cattle car mentality.
There were a few airlines that bucked this trend unsuccessfully. One of these was Air South which operated from 1994 through 1997. I had the pleasure of flying an Air South flight from Raleigh, NC to the airline’s base here in Columbia, SC. This was the second leg of a trip that started in Washington DC and I was traveling with some fellow data processing managers. As I climbed the stairs on the outside ramp into the Boeing 737 to the astonishment of my colleagues, a beautiful blonde air hostess called out my name and gave me a big hug and kiss at the top of the stairs. After we were seated, my friends wanted to know why I rated such treatment. I told them that I thought it was because there was so much competition for seats and the airlines were trying everything to get us to fly with them. It wasn’t until near the end of the flight that we spilled the beans that we were old friends who used to work together at SC Educational TV.
In October, 2000 I began MY road warrior phase with a flight to San Francisco for my company orientation. Soon after that I was flying several times a month to far flung destinations all over the country; Seattle, Ann Arbor, Montgomery, Des Moines, New York, Chicago, San Diego, New Orleans, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and Atlanta just to name a few. By the time 2005 came around I was flying weekly out to San Diego, even over the destination of Katrina a day after landfall and, quite unexpectedly over the remnants of Rita as it churned northward a month after Katrina. Even from 40,000 feet you could see the destruction below.
By this time, all the genteelness of air travel was gone. Folks dressed up less for airline travel than they did for bus travel back in the sixties. And we were packed into the airliners like cattle or sardines. If you had carry-on luggage and were planning on using the overhead bins you had better have early boarding status or you were in trouble. Back in those days, general boarding was from the rear of the plane forward and many of the early boarders would stuff their luggage in the overhead bins nearer the front of the plane in order to make it easier to get their luggage on the way out. If you were later boarding, quite often you would have to search for an open overhead space past your seat. This almost guaranteed that you would be one of the last to get off the plane since everyone behind you would have to get off before you could make your way back to retrieve your luggage. If you were on a tight connection, this was often disastrous; as the airlines quit waiting for connections in their busy hubs. It got so bad that I insisted on 90 minute turnarounds if I could get them when scheduling multiple leg flights. Can you say, “Moooo!”
It wasn’t all bad. I learned how to cocoon myself from the insanity of a busy airport with a good book and my airline flying years were one of the most prolific reading periods of my life. I also learned to seek aisle rather than window seating in order to make it easier to get on and off the airplane. But my love of watching out the window never left me. One Thursday afternoon, after a particularly difficult week in San Diego, I was too tired to read and too agitated to sleep. I wound up as the sole occupant in the last row on the 1011 headed to Atlanta. So I grabbed a pillow and blanket as we departed Westward off of Runway 27 and looped to the south and then to the east over the Pacific. The whole flight, I lay there watching America pass underneath the silver wings. It was a spectacular day with few clouds across the southern tier of the country. From the coast, through the desert, the badlands, the barren oilfields of Texas, and Oklahoma, then the farms and forests of the southeast after we flew over the Mississippi glistening in the late afternoon sunlight and began our descent into Atlanta right at sunset. Even today, that flight sticks out in my memory as one of my favorites, cattle call and all. Oh MY!