Come fly with me … please?
When Frank Sinatra warbled his ode to life at 30,000 feet, he could never have predicted the parlous state awaiting aviation, with fear crushing the fun, uncertainty upending party plans and PPE and social distancing spoiling any remnant of glamour.
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Ol’ Blue Eyes distilled the flying-is-cool zeitgeist when he recorded that chart-topper in 1958 and it persisted even through the 1970s hijacking scares as those who could afford to travel by jet donned their best suits, scarves and brogues in tingling anticipation of the gourmet food and abundant drink awaiting.
Come Fly With Me, Sinatra sang. And we did. From the 70s through the 80s, 90s and right up until 2019, when a record 9.1 billion passengers passed through airports, according to figures compiled by airports body ACI World.
Before the pandemic flattened us, the gradual retirement of the “Queen of the Skies” — the Boeing 747 that symbolized jumbo jet grandeur — spelled the beginning of the end of flying as fun.
The distinctive humpbacked plane democratized mass air travel when it was introduced in 1969, but only a handful are still carrying passengers. Boeing will cease production entirely next year with remaining fleets either scrapped or repurposed as freighters.
But the sweaty-palmed excitement of being pinned to your seat as its mighty engines ripped it down the runway will not be easily forgotten and its spiral staircases and martini lounges will forever speak of swish travel.
It’s generally agreed the golden age of air travel was the 1950s and 1960s when the idea of travelling in a track suit and flip-flops would have got you chucked in the cargo hold.
Those who could afford to fly before U.S. deregulation in 1978 would invariably dress for the occasion, and the service would reflect that cachet.
It made sense. Passenger airlines were initially competing with luxury trains and sumptuous cruise ships and the perks and pampering were every bit as important as flying times.
Indeed, many of the trappings of air travel — the term ‘captain’ and the dark-blue naval-inspired uniforms, for instance — were ocean-liner conventions.
And, oh, those perks.
Remember real cutlery? That was definitely a thing on early jetliners, presented alongside roast beef carved at your elbow, vegetables that didn’t taste of rubber and desserts that weren’t wrapped in cling film.
You had room to eat, too. Nowadays it’s like surgery. One wrong twitch of the plastic knife and a mushroom cap clips your neighbour.
Then there was the booze — vast gurgling rivers of it. So free-flowing was the alcohol that it was not unusual to see intoxicated passengers staggering into the arrivals hall, stylish if not sentient.
Casting a savvy eye over these bacchanalia were the stewardesses.
Yes, they were also responsible for everyone’s safety. And yes, it’s now horribly sexist to call them anything other than flight attendants.
Yet there’s no denying they were integral to the sexy marketing image. Physically fit women who met the strict age, height and weight requirements vied for coveted positions patrolling the aisles, despite the occasional wandering hands.
The “mystique” of the stewardesses extended to Canada, too. “At parties, the guys would be all around the ‘stews,’ ” said one former flight attendant, speaking to the Winnipeg Free Press. “The other girls would turn their noses up.”
While flight attendants went Hollywood, pilots became rock stars.
Look no further than Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can, which shone a light not only on dashing captains but arguably the world’s last glam carrier: Pan American World Airways.
Better known as Pan Am, it sold prestige with each ticket until, weighed down by its “bloated American glamour,” it collapsed in 1991.
Billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin brand has gamely tried to recapture some nudge-nudge frivolity with its risqué ad campaigns, but for most of us flying has become not so much grand adventure as grinding ordeal.
Glitz may have gone the way of pillbox hats and cravats, but there have been some immense improvements since the golden age.
For starters, we no longer step off the plane smelling like active volcanoes thanks to the ban on smoking.
And entertainment, which used to consist of scribbling out complimentary postcards in between raiding the drinks trolley, has become an extension of our streaming-and-scrolling living rooms.
The biggest advances have come in speed and affordability — a one-way trip from New York to London in the 1950s could take up to 15 hours and set you back the equivalent of $3,000 — and in safety standards. In the 1950s, the odds of a plane crash were about one in 50,000, compared to about one in 50 million today.
Any glimmer of post-pandemic glamour will likely be linked to hygiene, not Hermès. Industry observers predict on-board air quality will be promoted over enticements like chef-prepared meals.
And flight attendants will become more standoffish as they fixate on health and safety. Bad news for the 50s lecher.
All that glitters is not lost, however. At New York’s JFK Airport, romance is lavishly preserved at the 1960s-inspired TWA Hotel, an ode to martinis, rotary phones and beehive hairdos that served as the terminal for Trans World Airlines from 1962 until it went bust in 2001. It features 512 rooms separated by jetway corridors and a museum showcasing exhibits on TWA and the jet age.
“It’s a full-blown fantasy of Eisenhower- and JFK-era air travel,” says the New York Post of the hotel, which opened in 2019. (twahotel.com)
At the Sunken Lounge, hostesses in period uniforms serve nostalgic flyers with themed swizzle sticks as a restored 1958 Lockheed “Connie” aircraft — now a bar itself — beckons from the tarmac.
The hotel’s signature cocktail is a medley of vodka, Prosecco, lime and St-Germain liqueur and will set you back US$16. Its name? What else, baby? Come Fly With Me.
— Andre Ramshaw