Whining About Air Travel
I disagree with Michelle Higgins. She is a whiner and a handwringer.
Getting on a plane is emphatically NOT “roughly akin to entering the ninth circle of hell.”
It’s a miracle.
The late author and critic Alfred Kazin said his idea of happiness was settling into an airliner seat with a book, a notebook and a martini.
Jet planes have taken me higher and faster and to places around the world only dreamed of by my grandparents—and usually for only a few hundred bucks.
If you want to spend $400 to $3000 or more an hour to fly in obscene luxury, plenty of airlines and private charter companies are happy to relieve you of your money.
The late Victor Kiam, president of the company that made Remington electric shavers, always flew tourist class. “The back of the plane arrives at the same time as the front of the plane,” he used to say.
I’m with you, Victor.
Until “Beam me up, Scotty,” becomes reality, flying is the only game in town if you want to get anywhere quick.
Enjoy your flight.
A Boyish Love of Flying That Lasted a Lifetime
My father, biographer and historian Alden Hatch, was born in 1898. When he was 4, he drank some unpasteurized milk and caught a dose of tuberculosis of the bone. After more than 20 operations, he was left with a shriveled leg and spent the rest of his life on crutches.
Obviously my father did not have a normal childhood. From the flap copy of his 1942 biography, “Glenn Curtiss: Pioneer of Naval Aviation”:
All his life, Alden Hatch has wanted to write this book. As a boy, he spent every possible moment on the Hempstead [Long Island] plains watching Glenn Curtiss, Captain Baldwin, Clifford Harmon and other pioneers experimenting with the “kites with gas engines,” from which developed the modern airplane. Those men got to know the eager youngster and were generally glad to answer his many questions and let him have the run of their hangars and tents. So Mr. Hatch has a first-hand acquaintance with the men and machines of which he writes. He knows every detail of those early aeroplanes, how they looked, how the controls felt, even how they smelt.
At the end of this story is a photograph of my father as a very young boy at the controls of an early Curtiss flier, as well as a hyperlink to his Curtiss biography, which has just been republished.
On the morning of May 20, 1927, my father woke up and looked out the window of his house on Long Island. He had planned to drive over to Roosevelt Field to watch Charles Lindbergh take off on his highly dangerous attempt to fly solo to Paris, but the weather was foggy and rainy, and my father assumed the flight would be scrubbed. He rolled over and went back to sleep. He regretted that decision all his life.
Our house on Long Island was one mile from the main touchdown point at Idlewild-cum-Kennedy Airport. When we were in the pattern, every two minutes a giant Jet plane would come screaming overhead at 800 feet, so loud that all conversation had to be suspended. My father loved it. “I can leave my house and be anywhere in Washington, D.C., in two hours,” he would crow with delight. “That’s progress!”
One of his favorite quotes was from Rudyard Kipling, who wrote, “but someday—even on the Equator—we shall hold the Sun level in his full stride.”
One of my regrets is that he never flew in the supersonic Concorde, a plane that fulfilled Kipling’s prediction. He would have adored it. But $10,000 for one way to London was out of his league.
For a guy who loved flight, he lived to see it all—from the Wright brothers and Curtiss to men walking on the moon and everything in between. He had a great run for his money.
We are Spoiled
If you think flying is rough today, consider a coast-to-coast trip in the 1920s.
The first successful airliner was the Ford Tri-Motor with its corrugated metal fuselage and three very noisy, 450-hp Pratt & Whitney Wasp engines. In the years 1926 to 1933, Ford built 199 of these crates. With a cruising speed of 90 mph to 115 mph and a top speed of 150 mph, it had a service ceiling of 18,500 feet and a maximum range of just 550 miles.
The Ford Tri-Motor had an unpressurized cabin and carried a crew of three and 11 passengers who sat in flimsy wicker chairs that were not attached to the plane’s floor and offered no protection, even against the most minor turbulence.
The bathroom of the Tri-Motor had running water, but at the other end of the toilet was a hole in the floor. It was an era when a human turd landing in the swimming pool or in the middle of a garden party was possible.
Travelers were thrilled to make it coast-to-coast using a combination of flight and rail in an unheard of 48 hours!
Bitch, Bitch, Bitch!
In her screed on the horrors of flying tourist, which took up three full broadsheet pages in last Sunday’s Times, Michelle Higgins whined about the many cutbacks in services and charges for what used to be free.
How dare Northwest save itself $2 million a year by doing away with free half-ounce pretzel snacks on all flights less than two hours in duration, she shrieks! Imagine the greed of American Airlines saving $600,000 by no longer supplying pillows, eliminating hot meals altogether and replacing the galley with four seats for a net gain in revenue of $64 million. On top of that, American has the temerity to charge $5 for a snack box and $2 for a bottle of water. Outrageous!
An Unworkable Business Model
Over the long haul—from the inception of commercial flight in the 1920s to the present—airlines consistently have lost money. Anyone who invested in an airline was a fool.
In the early days of commercial aviation, to get people up in those “kites with engines,” it was de rigueur for all airlines to include many extra comforts in the price of the ticket—blankets, pillows, hot meals, free snacks, nonalcoholic drinks and loving service by good-looking, unmarried flight attendants. On long-distance flights, movies and stereo were added and a number of airlines sprung for individual in-flight foldout entertainment centers.
Today, with the price of oil at $100 a barrel (up from $25 just four years ago) and discount airlines pounding down the price of tickets, the game has changed. Eight percent of United’s business and first-class passengers are responsible for 36 percent of its passenger revenue. This means that those of us in the back of the plane have to “make do.”
We arrive at the same time as the high rollers in the front of the plane.
A Major PR Challenge
“You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube,” said Richard Nixon’s gatekeeper, H.R. Haldeman.
Charging for food and drink, eliminating pillows and blankets, forcing passengers to see to their own needs and comforts—this is the equivalent of putting the toothpaste back in the tube.
What the airlines have to do is change the flying public’s thinking—get travelers used to the idea of moving from a prix fixe deal to buying services à la carte.
In these columns, I have quoted many times my very first mentor, Evelyn Lawson, who said, “The secret of successful public relations is to let people in on what you are doing.”
That also means being honest—telling it like it is. If you fake it or lie, customers will resent you. It’s the cover-up that will get you, not the occasional screw-up.
Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer articulated how to do good PR with their classic song recorded by Bing Crosby:
You’ve Got to accentuate the positive,
Eliminate the negative,
Latch on to the affirmative,
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between.
To do good PR—like good direct marketing—spew benefits, benefits, and benefits.
The Upside of Flying
* Flying commercial is the safest way to travel—far safer than driving.
* It took my great-grandfather, A.S. Hatch, three weeks to get from New York to England on a Liverpool packet in 1849. My grandparents did it in a week on the RMS Lusitania 60 years later. Last week, my wife Peggy and I flew to London from Philadelphia in 6 hours. Okay, this was not grande-luxe travel. But it was a lot more comfortable than three-weeks of pitching about in the North Atlantic on a wooden schooner or bouncing around in a Ford Tri-Motor with a barf bag at the ready.
* And flying is cheap. Our itinerary this week and next: Philadelphia-London-Munich-Philadelphia, a total of 8,238 miles. Our cost per person: $670.44 or roughly 8.1¢ a mile. Maybe you can beat that, but not by much.
* If you want to get uptown cheap, take the subway or bus. To do it quicker, hail a taxi. For free drinks, onboard stereo and deep, soft seats for sleeping or canoodling, spring for a stretch limo. Same thing with flying.
The Downside of Flying
* Flying is such an incredible deal, everybody’s doing it. The airlines are flying at near capacity, which means some inconvenience. At the same time, the airlines are making money so the costs are not out of sight and lots of choices are available.
* In her Sunday Times harangue, Michelle Higgins whined about one flight where the sound had conked out on the movie headphones, another trip where a guy could not get his seat to the full upright position and a third where the sign indicating the lavatory was in use was not working. With 64 million takeoffs and landings every year in the United States, an occasional snafu occurs.
For the most part, flying is remarkable. And the glories to be had when you arrive (1) are worth an occasional inconvenience in the journey and (2) are not possible any other way at the price.
Enjoy your flight.