Today, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, is one of the biggest, craziest air travel days of the year — but it’s not the biggest. Most assume it’s the day before Thanksgiving. Or they hazard it’s one of the ones bookending Christmas. So I’ll set the record straight: A half dozen summer Fridays outrank the top holiday fly times. But those sunny days, everyone boarding in flip-flops and t-shirts and Capris, feel less burdened, don’t they? This Thanksgiving, holiday flying was its own hell: oppressive delays for some, wintry mix skies, crowds in stress spirals, the flu-ish air, that colossal collective anticipation of family embrace and dysfunction. It knocked the stuffing out of us.
As many as 2.56 million folks are predicted to be up in the sky sometime today. Year-round in the United States, it’s 2 million a day on average. But there’s really nothing “average” about slicing through the clouds, is there? “More than ever, air travel is a focus of curiosity, intrigue, anxiety, and anger,” writes Patrick Smith. This commercial pilot (and Revere native) is the guy behind the cheeky Salon.com column “Ask the Pilot,” and I all but guarantee he’s better company than your seatmate in 23B.
In “Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel: Questions, Answers, and Reflections” (Sourcebooks, 2013), Smith reveals so much cool stuff: what causes contrails, for instance, (humid jet exhaust hits cold high altitude air to form ice crystals) or that bird carcasses are fired “from a sort of chicken-cannon” to test the strength of the windshields and intakes of new planes. He also lifts our perspective. If you think the industry is the bad boy of global warming, know that jet fuel efficiency has improved by 70 percent over the past 30 years, whereas car-fuel efficiency has stagnated over the same period. And if you want to whine about the hassles (and who doesn’t?) realize that for pennies a mile, we cross entire oceans and that 2012 boasted the best safety record in history, with an 85 percent on-time rate. Air travel may cause more agita in our day — but it’s much safer and more affordable, too.
Indeed, if the cheapest flight in 1958 were converted into today’s dollars it would cost $2,000. I got that popping stat from “Full Upright and Locked Position: Not-So-Comfortable Truths About Air Travel Today” (Norton, 2013). Written by Mark Gerchik, a veteran airline consultant and federal regulator, it shadows how we got to the new normal of laborious security, cheap flights, no frills (did you know pay toilets on board may be the next insult?), and bloodletting airline mergers.
Gerchik touches on the sea change of deregulation in 1978 but focuses more on all the shakeouts since Sept. 11, when air travel fell off and security shot up. Nearly a quarter of all full-time airline jobs were cut between 2001-2005. And then, in 2008, the price of fuel hit $4 a gallon (it was $1 in 2004). That same year, three dozen airlines filed for bankruptcy as the economy imploded. Between this attrition and several forced-marriage mergers, only four traditional carriers are left (United, Delta, American, and US Airways), which allowed smaller, more efficient outfits like Southwest and JetBlue to mightily muscle into market share.
Like Smith, Gerchick is juicy on secret details. I’ve always wondered, for instance, why we’re told to get to the airport so far ahead of time. Sure, it’s about security measures and check-ins, but profit margins are so small, the industry has to squeeze us at every turn; the earlier you arrive, the more “dwell time” and thus cash you spend. You can’t really blame the airlines — all of them combined have a lower market value than Starbucks. Gerchick thinks things are stabilizing (“cloudy with some signs of clearing”) partly because “the crazy people are gone” now, to quote airline consultant Michael Boyd.
Those crazy people — as in cutthroat airline CEOs — are the subject of “Hard Landing: The Epic Contest for Power and Profits That Plunged the Airlines into Chaos” (Three Rivers, 1996). Author Thomas Petzinger Jr. of The Wall Street Journal is simply a great reporter. I didn’t know of him before, but I’d place him in the company of Michael Lewis or James B. Stewart for business books suffused with striking detail and personality. In his boisterous portraiture of a dozen titans (Frank Borman of Eastern, Richard Ferris of United, etc.) and their machinations after deregulation, Petzinger waves in a world that is “intensely, vigorously, bitterly, savagely competitive,” according to Robert Crandall, former chief honcho of American Airlines.
And so we get Juan Trippe of PanAm, in the 1920s, with his epiphany that carrying airmail doesn’t make money but taking on passengers does (one of his first customers is Al Capone, off to Havana). Then there’s the ingenious Herb Kelleher, who starts his lower-priced Southwest in the 1960s via a loophole: By flying just inside Texas, he avoids Federal oversight, which applied only to flights crossing state lines. Rule-free, he goes rogue: He spruces up old planes, charges cheap, and shamelessly links flying to sex. In-flight almonds are “love bites,” ticket dispensers are “quickie machines,” and stewardesses dress like lap dancers, in orange hot pants and vinyl knee-high boots.
We’ve mentioned crazy CEOs. There are several other plates of crazy on high. I give you “Plane Insanity: A Flight Attendant’s Tales of Sex, Rage, and Queasiness at 30,000 Feet” (St. Martin’s, 2001), in which author Elliott Hester offers crude color commentary about brawls, heart attacks, and multiple blushing, mile-high-club encounters. Meanwhile “Airline Style at 30,000 Feet” (Laurence King, 2000) serves up glossy photos with sharp copy by Keith Lovegrove tracing the history of airline imagery, via interiors (wow, Boeing’s 1972 fur-lined “Tiger Lounge’’!) plus food (wow, the big, roast-chicken-y “Elizabethan” meal served in the 1940s!) plus fashion (wow, those 1966 Pucci-designed, tangerine, psychedelic stewardess panty hose!).
And so to mile-high misogyny in “Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants” (Duke University, 2007) by Kathleen M. Barry. Southwest’s Kelleher wasn’t the only one to sell sex (remember National Airline’s “I’m Cheryl. Fly Me” ads?). But what’s fascinating to watch is how attendants start to fight back in the 1970s. Back then, you had to quit if you got married (male passengers needed at least the illusion you were dateable) or you turned the antique age of 32. No surprise, then, that there were strict rules prohibiting weight gain, but did you know that some attendants were forced to have their teeth ground to achieve a “perfect” smile?
Thank God for Gloria Steinem. An attendant approached her in mid-flight one day and vented about the job’s degradations. Steinem soon helped get Stewardesses for Women’s Rights off the ground and ran a big story in Ms. in 1973 about their struggle to form a union. More how-times-have-changed context: Our current upheavals are small potatoes compared to the era in “The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking” (Crown, 2013). Between 1968 and 1972, amazingly, there was a hijacking “often at a clip of one or more per week’’ with the “most frenzied phase” hitting in 1972. Author Brendan I. Koerner gives us a paradigmatic hijacking of that year — an army vet and his girlfriend hijack a plane nearing Seattle, intending to barter the passengers for activist Angela Davis, then on trial, and go with her to Hanoi. Instead, they get a half-million-buck ransom, wind up in Algiers, and then Paris, where they become darlings of the French left and Jean Paul Sartre flirts with the girlfriend. You can’t make this up.
So when you’re taking your shoes off at Logan this holiday season and feeling surly, know that since 9/11, the number of hijackings on flights that took off from American soil is exactly zero. That — and so much else about flying — deserves our thanksgiving.Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore @comcast.net.