Does Luxury in Flight Exist Anymore?

A British writer laments the absurd aspects of modern-day commercial air travel, while longing for golden age glamour.

Ever since man first looked to the skies, he dreamed of flight. He dreamed of liberation from what the poet John Magee called “the surly bonds of earth”—of steering into the air itself and larking among the birds.

Caelum certe patet, ibimus illi” is the motto from the Roman poet Ovid emblazoned on the side of a balloon that took off from London’s Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in 1836 with the hope of crossing the English Channel: “Surely the sky lies open: let us go that way!”

So, after Icarus, after Leonardo da Vinci and his designs for flying machines, after Montgolfier, Nadar, Kittyhawk, the Hindenburg, the Spitfire, and the Concorde … how did all that work out for us?

Not, I’m afraid, quite as planned. Did the early dreamers ever envision it would come to this? That taking to the air would begin, as it routinely does for very many of us, with a migraine-inducing three-hour trawl through the websites of half a dozen budget airlines and a bright, flashing maze of price-comparison websites?

You’ll be familiar with the scene: 48 tabs open on your internet browser as you try to establish whether the 5:25 a.m. flight from dismal Stansted is better value than the 6:40 a.m. flight from doleful Luton (the Englishman’s LaGuardia.) You judge whether “Super Premium,” with its bigger luggage allowance, is better value than “Happy Traveller,” for which you must either cram a two-week family holiday into a single rucksack, or get hit with a hefty fee when it turns out your cheeky paperback romance novel has pushed you a few ounces over the weight limit. Should you fork out extra cash for an assigned seat so you can sit with your children? Or anticipate an oversold flight, hoping that, “accidentally,” you won’t have to.

This, my friends, is mere foreplay. Next comes the business of getting to the airport at an ungodly hour of the morning, trundling miles from the longstay car park in an unhygienic shuttle bus to the airport terminal, with its snaking queues and perennially dysfunctional self-check-in machines, its zombie hordes of disenchanted travelers, and its regular Tannoy announcements of delays and cancellations, which only momentarily steal your attention away from the still-intoxicated stag party downing four pints of Budweiser by breakfast.

But, wait! The best is yet to come, starting with an extended, sweaty wait to pass through security— designed specifically so that you can remove shoes and belts as if you’re on suicide watch in a high-security prison. Of course, your travel shampoo and shaving foam are slightly larger than regulation size, and must be confiscated (which prompts a mild panic attack, given that in all likelihood the full-sized grooming products in your checked luggage will be arriving in Malaysia six hours after you step onto the tarmac at Magaluf).

And for what? Do you emerge airside to a bright new future—all light and space and 21st-century luxury? On the contrary. You trudge the miles down a broken travelator to a monstrous human crush at the departure gate, before being rammed into cattle class, cabin temperature set to frigid igloo, with your knees jammed into the hard plastic seat in front you (which reclines immediately upon takeoff), and your shoulder congealing against the bare arms of your bulging neighbor, who has decided to colonize the entire armrest. At least, once the bus is in the air, you’ll get some sustenance. Or rather, no change for a half-frozen (is that cheese?) sandwich and a warm gin and tonic which you inevitably spill on your lap, trying to decant its spirit from a miniature plastic bottle. Meal deal? Oh, go on then…

So there you are: Misery Man, a battery hen at 30,000 feet. And as you watch the silver-gray rivulets of rain bicker across the Perspex of the window, you dare to dream of something better: not just the past, but the past’s vision of the future. You’re thinking of the age of aeroplanes as gleaming silver cylinders—giant polished cigar cases lifting into the stratosphere, a carpet of cloud below you cast in rose gold by the sun.

You’re thinking of the semi-imagined era when traveling from check-in to the departure gate meant a blithe wave of your passport and ticket at a desk, a tip of your trilby and a wink, followed by a straight run to the airside cocktail bar for a chilled Martini and a cigarette.

You’re thinking of Pan Am flights that began with tarted-up attendants handing out boiled sweets and fizzy wine, portraying the cheerful sexism of the whole setup, when airlines could snag customers by advertising the sunny beauty of its “Singapore Girls”; when the trolley dolly was as much about the dolly as the trolley.

This Mad Men vision of commercial air travel is based on the notion that flying is a fundamentally glamorous experience—a teasing glimpse into an elite future, in which you get to be the traveler who raises a flute of Dom Pérignon in celebration as the Concorde pilot announces, in tones of clipped courtesy, that you have just reached Mach Two. When you step out of the plane door, you are, for a moment, Jackie Onassis, wearing pink Chanel and waving to the adoring masses on the tarmac.

You were on a jet—therefore, you were part of the jet-set. That phrase has vanished into obsolescence. The problem, as I see it, is that we’ve lost even the promise of glamour. We no longer see flight as a dream, as a small miracle, but as a mundane necessity. Airlines no longer feel like the future. Indeed, they are deliberately heading to the past: not so much The Jetsons as On the Buses. Massive mergers, ferocious price competition, the grind of routine business travel, the obsessive fear of terrorism and the teetotaling, smoke-free world in which we are all rightly, but sometimes regretfully, compelled to live… all these factors have transformed the world of commercial aviation.

Ah, nostalgia. I flew on the maiden flight of the Airbus 380 from Singapore to London a few years back. And pretty glamorous it was, too. But the oddest thing I noticed was that all around this brand-new plane were brand-new ashtrays. Ashtrays, and the no-smoking signs that accompany them, destined never to be used. Why were they there? Because, there remained—never stricken off the books—a defunct Federal Aviation Authority rule that insisted all planes to enter US airspace had to be equipped with ashtrays. That ordinance has, of course, been rendered redundant by a battery of subsequent FAA rules stipulating that if you so much as sparked up a cigarette onboard an airline it would be immediately diverted for emergency landing, where the smoker in question would be deplaned in handcuffs and exiled without further discussion to Guantanamo Bay, where, I imagine, the rest of the double-booked United Airlines passengers would welcome the company.

They were fossil ashtrays, in obedience to a fossil regulation. Fossils—just like those now-poignant Latin words. “Caelum certe patet, ibimus illi.

“Let us go that way!” Or let us, on the other hand, not.

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