Flying and the Loss of Elegance

I was a child the first time I flew in a commercial airliner. My mother and I traveled from central Ontario to Toronto, a short flight by the standards of the day, in mid-August. We flew in an Air Canada Vickers Viscount and I thought the she was beautiful; all decked out in her red, white and silver Air Canada livery.

The Viscount wasn’t the only thing of beauty I recall from that first flight. My mother wore a stylish skirt suit and heels; streamlined, well cut, clean and unfussy. I was still into dressing like a hippy but Mom wouldn’t stand for it so I wore light slacks, a blouse, and flats bought for the occasion. Mom wore full makeup and had her hair styled, I flaunted a fresh cut. We were typical passengers; travellers used to dress to fly as if the flight itself was a special event, lending credence to the idea that it’s not the destination that’s important when traveling but the journey.

Not only did everyone look their best, we were treated like we were the best. Forty years ago men looked after the planes while women tended to the passengers and security was the least of anyone’s concerns. The stewardesses were friendly, helpful, and no reasonable request was refused. I thought they were so glamorous in their smart uniforms, styled hair and full makeup and as I grew older I came to understand why “stews” were considered sexy by so many men—they were sexy, and I loved them. These days I wonder if straight women look at male flight attendants the same way.

In 1970 Boeing introduced the first wide-body airliner, the 747, and changed the airline industry. Wide-body aircraft were originally designed for a combination of efficiency and passenger comfort but airlines quickly gave in to economic pressures such as rising fuel costs and reduced the extra passenger space in order to maximize profits. As people supersized on junk food and hi-cal lattes the airlines kept packing us into their planes without much concern for our comfort. Sacrificing passenger pleasure for the sake of profits would not remain a North American trend. A European consortium of aerospace companies was formed in 1970 and by the end if the decade aircraft with names like Viscount and Constellation (probably the most elegant airliner ever built) had been replaced by the appropriately named Airbus.

As I grew to womanhood I continued to fly all over Canada and to Europe but the glamour of air travel was stripped away as passengers, particularly those who flew coach, became nothing more than another form of cargo and cargo doesn’t dress upscale.

On 11th September 2001 nineteen al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners and turned them into weapons. They killed 2,973 victims, as well as themselves. The US responded to these attacks by launching a war on terrorism, and the airline industry changed again. Next: Flying the Unfriendly Skies.

Research: Paddy O’Conure

Sources: Airbus Industrie, the Boeing Company