December 14, 2019

Flights from fancy

Posted on 18. Aug, 2012 by Stephan Helgesen in Economy, Social/Cultural

There was a time when flying was downright exciting, even romantic. I’m not talking about the 1950s here, but just 30 or 40 years ago.

That was when we still thought it was proper to dress for the occasion instead of donning jogging suits and looking like fugitives from a Richard Simmons exercise video. Men wore suits and ties and ladies, dresses. My how times have changed.

I took my very first flight in an experimental airplane in Rockford, Illinois at the first Experimental Aircraft Association fly-in in 1959.  The plane was a home-made two-seater, just big enough for a pilot and a passenger that sat immediately behind him. I wore a Milwaukee Braves baseball jacket, cap and my favorite P.F. Flyer tennis shoes.

When the engine turned over I was immediately struck with a feeling of enormous excitement and total fear. Hearing the rapid whoosh of the propeller blades and feeling the whole plane shake as if it were a ride in the fun house we taxied down the runway. It made quite an impression on this lad whose bedroom ceiling was festooned with model airplanes. At last I was an aviator!

Well not quite, but I was an aviator’s passenger at least. That was the beginning of my true love of flying which is why it’s so sad to reflect on my love/hate relationship with it today.

Like many businesspeople, flying became part of my job. For 30 years I flew to the world’s capitals on at least a dozen different carriers. Two stick out in my mind: Pan Am and Aeroflot for two very different reasons. Pan Am was America’s gold standard and never failed to live up to its advertising.

I once turned down a ticket on the British/French supersonic Concorde and instead opted for a first-class ticket from Paris to New York on old Pan Am. The service was just that great!  It just so happened I was seated next to a fellow with Rastafarian dreadlocks. A few minutes later I learned he was a member of the reggae band, Bob Marley and the Wailers, who were on their way to NYC for a concert.

I remember my fellow first class passengers being a bit squeamish when the band, dressed in camouflage clothes and wearing dark sunglasses, boarded the plane in Charles De Gaulle Airport (this was when skyjacking was at its peak).  After admitting I didn’t know a thing about his band, he began to sing a few of their best-known songs with a strong Jamaican accent. The time passed all too quickly and so did the champagne.

This was not the case a few years later when I boarded an Aeroflot jet in Moscow bound for Europe. It was a surreal experience. After what seemed like an eternity we reached cruising altitude. The German gentleman next to me wanted a whiskey and pressed the stewardess’ call button. At the forward galley, the curtains parted and a stout-looking Russian flight attendant peered out looking very irritated.

With an almost olympian stride she arrived at our row, and just as the German was about to give her his order she reached up and shut off the call button and in one motion sprinted back to the galley.

Astonished, the man looked at me and then decided to press the button again, thinking it must have been a mistake. The whole process was repeated and afterwards the German looked mortified. I remember snickering under my breath and thinking that would never ever happen on an American airline. How wrong I was.

Thirty years later, Americans were shelling out $15 for a checked bag, forced to buy overpriced sandwiches to stave off their hunger, paying a surcharge for a little more legroom and were subjected to the third degree by the TSA even before they got on board!

Oh, to return to the days of PanAm and civility! At this point I’d even take Aeroflot.

- Editor

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