I arrive at Houston Intercontinental airport for an 8AM flight to Denver. Although I have Global Entry, which allows me to utilize the TSA Pre-check lane, the line through security is moving as slow as molasses and takes half an hour to get to the security checkpoint. Then the dreaded high pitch beep of the metal detector rings loud for all to stare and wait on me as I’m patted down by a disgruntled and exhausted security worker. Once he is done violating my dignity at 6:45 in the morning I head to the United Club to seek some solace, coffee and a quick bite to eat. However even in the one area of the airport where there may be some reprieve I find none, the food left out for us “Club Members” is stale and the coffee, burnt. To add insult to injury all comfortable seats are taken by shabby jet-lagged travelers or families whose kids are turning common areas into playgrounds, so I’m forced to take residence center stage at a particularly awkward table next to the oatmeal bar. All I can think is -
“what happened to the allure of flying commercial?”
Take a step back in time to 1970, Pan-Am took a giant leap towards a more accessible world with the inauguration of the “Queen of the Skies”, the Boeing 747. The 747 was a game changer, an aircraft so iconic and extraordinary that it has remained in production for almost half a century. Embarking on a flight from New York to London was far more than just a couple movies to watch and a decent meal.
These were the days when the world was excited to fly.
The 747 boasted not only incredible leg room and seat breadth, but style, luxury and an experience worth talking about. Upper cabin bars, full in-flight dining, couches and lounges galore and service far beyond today’s standard complementary smile and ounce of pretzels. Flying was a highly anticipated experience as much as it was a necessity. So much so that in one year’s time from the adopting of the 747 Pan-Am alone transported 11 million passengers over 20 billion miles. People were excited about air travel, airplanes and were simply enjoying the act itself, flying.
Ultimately rising oil prices and the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 caused a fundamental shift in future of commercial aviation. Because the fare was no longer set by the federal government there was far less focus on airline differentiation on the basis of service or amenities. The establishment of a free market led to lower barriers to entry for new competitors, increased air travel, established new routes, and decreased the average fare enabling more Americans to be able to fly. This was the beginning of the end of the “Golden Age of Aviation” and legacy airlines like Pan American Airways.
Today, most legacy airlines were forced to close their doors or be absorbed by newer more lucrative providers and dreams of the luxurious facets of commercial flight are just that, dreams. It’s a sad reality, but most Americans have become desensitized to the extraordinary feat of being 7 miles in the air at 614 miles per hour. The airlines know this and have listened to what we want, not by what we have said, but what we will pay. They have added more seats per aisle than ever thought possible, with most airlines opting for ten abreast high density configuration for long-haul aircraft. Seat sizes themselves have shrunk to accommodate the airlines attempt to capitalize on economy seating to only 17 inches wide, for reference the average stadium seat today has remained an uncomfortable 19 inches. This being said some foreign airlines like Emirates still have the luxuries and level of comfort comparable to those of the height of jumbo jet travel, at a cost –double the time and money.
It’s hard to distinguish what was the height of international travel from what the airlines have become today. We line up like cattle when our boarding group is called and eagerly push people along so we can be at ease in our seat with luggage stowed. We choose having TV monitors to distract us from the lack of leg room. We put on our headphones to establish a barrier between us and the man whose torso is protruding over the armrest onto ours. The airlines have met us where we are willing to pay and we have come to accept the terms.
Where has the allure gone? To private aviation. Those, like me, understand that although the 747 is retiring and airliners are becoming sardine cans, the experiences and capabilities that used to be common on the legacy airlines are still available. What is often thought as a luxury left only to the “Zuckerbergs” of the world is far more economical and accessible than ever before. Manufacturers in private aviation HAVE listened to our concerns and responded with aircraft operating at significantly lower costs, full air-frame parachutes and comfortable luxurious cabins. Whatever your travel prerequisites are there is a solution in private aviation for you, whether it is aircraft ownership, a jet card, membership program, ad hoc charter, fractional ownership or holding a lease.
I arrive at West Houston Airport for a 7 AM flight to Denver and put in the access code to the gate. We park the car next to the plane in the hangar where the pilot Jack greets us and helps with our bags. Five minutes later, we taxied out and were wheels up for Denver. All the while discussing new market potentials, playing a game or two of cards and never having to distract myself from any of the nuisances that I had with the airlines a year prior.