Airline Tradition

A reader from India informs us that the Emperor Ashoka, the Air India 747 spoken of earlier, complete with its Moghul arches (Hindu temples — who ever could be so unenlightened, especially having been to the bloody Taj Mahal himself?) was destroyed in 1978 when it plunged into the sea off Bombay. I’ve read about this accident many times — caused when a very hung over captain ignored a very malfunctioning instrument and flopped his jet into the Arabian Sea — but never realized it was the same 747 from the picture.

A reader in Japan explains that many of the old Pan Am Clipper titles, the nautically-oriented ones in particular, are taken from the names of ships and racing sloops. This is interesting, if not surprising, but is yet to decipher the origins of “Neptune’s Car” or “Young Brander.” Anybody?

And, um, an outraged reader from Michigan calls me “a bonehead” for suggesting the width of airliner seats is reasonable, and demands the bankruptcy of each and every airline for wedging him into such a tiny space and expecting him to eat such crappy food. A similarly appalled e-mailer, commenting on my generally beholden observations, says, mockingly, “Oh yes, sure, I should feel so goddamn lucky to fly.”

Actually, yes, you should.

The Pilot, apparently, is shilling again for the “corporate bullshit airlines,” taken to task for daring to ask the public to, gulp, appreciate the chance to voyage across oceans and continents with all the circumstance of motoring your Subaru to Trader Joe’s.

I hate to say it, but the only reason you’re served an inflight meal at all, never mind one cooked to order, is because, to a large extent, the tradition happens to be a lingering ritual from earlier days. Am I suggesting elimination of galley carts and plastic trays? No, and I fully concede that nobody deserves the indignities of prolonged physical discomfort or rudely administered customer service. But service concepts should be moved away from anachronistic pretensions of pampering and toward something more modern and effective. For now the airlines, which are not the most imaginative animals, are yet to settle on alternate means of distracting or entertaining passengers (at least those in coach).

On a plane in the 1930s or 1940s you’d have had a big fat reclining chair, a sleeping berth, five-course meals served by a tuxedoed steward, and maybe an onboard lounge where you could sit with Farouk and read the New York Times. But in 1939 aboard Pan Am’s Dixie Clipper, it cost $375 to fly each way between New York and France. This fact seems lost on the Great Unwashed who, in 2002, can lug aboard their backpacks and flip-flips and traverse the Atlantic in a quarter-billion dollar jetliner for $249 in six hours.

If Mr. Michigan really wants to, he can revisit the glamorous indulgences of commercial aviation by buying himself a first or business class ticket, at a fraction of the cost 50 years ago. And he’ll get there four times as fast.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.