Wednesday, January 14, 2009

August 2008: The Friendly Skies

On the 15th of August, I was flying from Nashville, TN back to Chicago. I thought I was going to miss my flight as I got a later start to the airport than I had planned. It was an hour drive from our factory in Lewisburg to the airport and I would have 45 minutes to turn in my rental car and navigate my way through security and get to the gate for a 4:15 pm flight. It was tight but doable but there was no margin for error.

I was about ten minutes away from the airport on I-440 on the outskirts of Nashville. It was 3:15 and traffic came to a screeching halt. Immediately, I was worried about missing my flight. The worry intensified with each passing moment as traffic crept for about two miles until we passed a rather nasty looking two car accident.

It was 4 pm when I pulled into the Avis lot and turned in my car. Luckily in Nashville, the rental cars are in the parking structure right at the terminals. I still had a chance. I got into the airport and two escalators later I was look at the departure board and… was relieved to see that my flight was delayed an hour. Whew!

An hour later the plane landed, it was a regional jet. As soon as the plane was empty, we boarded the plane. We settled into our seats and then sat there… for an hour. The pilot welcomed us on board and informed us that we waiting to be refueled. We sat there without any air-conditioning since we were refueling or simply because we were at the gate. We sat in a full plane in the 95 degree and 90% humidity Nashville weather. It did not take long for it to get very hot and uncomfortable. I was dozing off in that heat induced sleepiness. In that twilight dreamy state my mind conjured up images from those war films set in tropical Asia where prisoners were tortured by being put in those cramped sweat boxes for days to bake in the hot sun. Mind you, my “torture” was only one hour and no where near as intolerable as Hollywood depicted the sweat boxes in those old films.

When consciousness and mental capacity returned when they fired up the engines cooled down the cabin, I could only think of one thing. Why did they board us and then fuel the plane? Why didn’t they simply leave us in the nice comfortable terminal while they fueled the plane and then board us?

Air travel, these days, especially air travel within the US, is simply a pain. The planes are jammed packed. Delays seem like the norm. Bad weather makes it even worse. The lines through security are a nuisance at best and more often just a different method of torture. Many of the airports are overcrowded but this often is the best part of the trip, assuming you can find a seat.

It was not always this way. It was more of a pleasure and more of a luxury then the crowded planes and multiple long lines make it today. The first passenger flights began in 1914 but were not profitable. Most airlines focused on carrying mail until 1925. That is the year that Ford Motor Company introduced the all metal Ford Trimotor. This twelve passenger plane could carry both people and mail. It made air travel potentially profitable. The introduction of the DC-3 in the 1930’s really had an impact. It brought the cost down to 5¢ per mile per passenger. It was still more expensive than train travel which was 1.3¢ by comparison. But, at this point those who could afford fare valued the savings of time and passenger air travel was here to stay.

Air travel back then was purely on propeller planes and the cabins were not pressurized. The seats were stiff and there was little legroom. Because the cabins were not pressurized the planes had to fly low and experienced more turbulence than today’s passengers experience.

Pan American Airlines became the first truly international carrier. Their first trans-oceanic flights used sea plane and could carry up to fifty passengers. Juan Trippe was the legendary founder of the airline. He had the legendary Igor Sikorsky, later of helicopter fame, design the S-40 and S-42 sea planes which Trippe designated as American Clippers to draw upon the image of the fast, at least in their day, Clipper ships of the 1860s that used to traverse the Pacific Ocean. Trippe was the nemesis of Howard Hughes, the founder of Trans-World Airline, as depicted in the 2004 film The Aviator starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes and Alec Baldwin as Trippe.

A typical flight from San Francisco to Manila on an S-42 took 59 hours and 48 minutes, almost 60 hours. The plane which had a range of about 3,000 miles had to make stops in Honolulu, Midway, Wake, and Guam. It sounds grueling but it was fast given the only other alternative was ocean liner which could take weeks by comparison.

The airlines tried to mirror the service and amenities offered on ship and, until the Hindenburg disaster, on zeppelins. Since there were no movies, no headphones for music, and very little room for anything else, this meant food, drink, and a handout of an amenities tote bag. In these early days of air travel, the airlines had the best wines and foods, often catered by the finest restaurants such as Maxim’s of Paris. The finest china and silverware was used. Pan American was, in fact, the first airline in the world to have flight attendants and serve meals in mid-air (1929). They were the first to have facilities on board to heat food (1935). They were the first to operate fixed schedules for international passenger and mail service (1939). They were the first airlines to offer tourist class or coach service for international flights.

To learn more about the Pan Am Clippers and the amenities, go to

When I started flying to Latin America back in 1990. I flew them from New York to Venezuela several times before they went out of business in 1991. For many years, Pan American was The Airline to fly to South America and the Caribbean. These routes were so important to them that they were the first airline to operate domestic non-stop service from New York to Miami (1946) to facilitate connections. In that same year, Pan Am created the Inter-Continental Hotel chain to provide high quality world class accommodations for their passengers. To this day, the Inter-Continental hotels are among the best places to stay in Caracas, Bogota, Cali, Lima, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Guatemala City, to name a few of the major cities in the region.

When Pan Am closed up shop, American Airlines bought up their routes in the Western Hemisphere. From 1991 until I left Colgate, I flew American for the most part.
Over my tenure in the Latin America Division at Colgate, I flew quite a bit and mostly it was business class. I amassed frequent flyer miles and was Platinum Executive for many years in the American frequent flyer program. I hit 1 million miles and was given Gold status for life. A few years later, I crossed the 2 million mile mark and was bestowed Platinum status for life. Basically, I was spoiled by larger seats, lounge/club privileges, movies, free drinks, and better food including hot towels and warm nuts.

Upon coming to Sanford Brands two years ago, my travel frequency did not change but the trips have been in the large part domestic and for shorter duration. Bluntly, domestic air travel has pretty lost any cache of privilege and luxury.

The first flight I remember was in 1958. I was five and it was just before going to kindergarten. My paternal grandmother, Agnes Gavoor, came to visit in Detroit and I was flying back to spend like a month with her and my grandfather in August before beginning my education. We flew from Detroit to Boston. We flew on American Airlines. I am not sure but it was probably a DC-7 or a similar four propeller engine plane. It was very excited about flying.

My parents took us to the airport. We parked the car. My Dad carried the little luggage we had to the terminal. There were no extendable handles or wheels, we basically had suitcases. There was only one terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport and it was brand spanking new. It was built for the future, so it was incredibly spacious. There were essentially no lines. It was quite civilized and very easy. There was no security check-in. The would be Middle Eastern and Cuban terrorists who led the wave of hijackings that caused the time draining and yet oh so necessary screenings were probably just a few years older than me at that time. We checked in our luggage and carrying nothing (NOTHING) but my Grandmother’s purse, we all (even those who weren’t flying) walked leisurely to the gate to await boarding. There were plenty of seats in the waiting area. There was a small newsstand and one restaurant in the airport. It was really most civilized.

Of course, on the plane the flight attendants, then called stewardesses, were very nice to me. I got spiffy metal wings that they pinned onto my shirt. They took me up to the cockpit and pilots talked to me. It was very cool. I had a window seat next to my grandmother. I knew I liked flying. I knew I would somehow, at sometime, be doing a lot of it. It was romantic, cool, and exciting.

Whenever my grandmother came to visit, we would meet her at the gate. Whenever she left, we would walk her to the gate and wave as the plane was taxied to the runway. There was never an issue in those halcyon days of air travel. Even in the early days of security checks, it was no big deal for anyone to go through the magnetic arch to go to see someone off or meet someone arriving. There was never a very long line at these early check points. The readers were not set as sensitive as they are now. You simply put your change and keys in a dish that didn’t even go through the x-ray. I rarely recall the alarm going off.

I was not the only one fascinated with air travel. The whole country was. It was fostered both by cheap airfares due to cheap fuel and the changing and expanding business landscape of the eighties and nineties. Companies were becoming less regionalized and quickly became more national and international in scope. This meant putting people on planes to visit plants, suppliers, and customers. Quickly the term Road Warrior was adopted from the Mel Gibson film of that name for the class of business people who travelled somewhere upwards of 50% of their time. As the increased travel overwhelmed the baggage handling systems, people began to carry-on. Bags now have wheels and extendable handles. They are designed to fit into the overhead bins that planes were retro-fitted and retro-fitted again with even bigger ones.

New airports sprung up in Denver and Atlanta, becoming regional hubs. I have never been to Denver, but I remember when I first flew to Atlanta in the 1980s. It reminded me of going to Detroit Metropolitan Airport in 1958. It was huge vast and relatively empty. It was a pleasure to use. In the 1990’s and now the 2000’s, Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport began to rival and eventually passed Chicago’s O’Hare as the busiest airport in the United States. The once vast and easily navigated airport has become overcrowded and burdened with long security lines. The trams which transport people to the concourses used to be a breeze, now you jockey and jostle for position like on New York subways at rush hour.

I like to get through security as quickly and easily as possible. As a result, I shed all metal and stow them in my briefcase even before I get into line. I have a well practiced routine for this ritual. I try to wear slip on shoes ever since Richard Colvin Reid tried to ignite his explosive laced shoes on December 22, 2001 causing everyone now to have to shed their shoes.

I am still amazed at people who wait until they get to the x-ray machines and only then begin to shed their bodies and clothes of the various cell phones, beepers, pens, watches, chains, keys, change, incredibly large belt buckles, glasses, and who knows what. Most times it is comical. I just shake my head.

Since 9-11, people do not carry on quite as much. I think the federal regulations really limit the size, or rather over-sizes, of the bags that can be carried on. I used to be amused that the last person on a full flight would get on carrying what always seemed like a huge hockey bag chock full, bursting at the seams. More often than not, the person was sitting in the very last row of the airplane. They would bump everyone in the aisle seats as they make their way to the rear of the plane. The part that really amused me was the look on their face when they open every single overhead bin that had just been closed before they boarded. They get this bewildered astonished look that the bins were all full on a totally full flight with only one unoccupied seat.

What is amusing me lately in this era of very full flights and minimal service and amenities is a pathetic throwback to the days of luxury and privilege in air travel. United Airlines has a Red Carpet lane at each and every gate. Delta has a Breezeway lane. These lanes are dedicated, reserved for their first class passengers. These lanes are cordoned off opened only for these premier passengers. Each has a colored mat, red for United and blue for Delta. Look at the photo and read the text on Is there anything more ridiculous than this in these modern times? I cannot imagine having the “privilege” of walking on these colored door mats does anything for their customers.

Whenever I travel, I remember the words of my friend and former Colgate colleague, Manuel Arrese: “When I travel I am like Gandhi.” You cannot let long lines for ticketing, security, customs, and passport control as well as extremely crowded planes, delayed flights, and cancelled flights get to you. He is right you have to emulate the patience of the Mahatma. I keep working at this Manuel, I really do.

Perhaps if I could just walk on that red carpet, serenity would be mine…

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