Today's essaylet is being composed thirty thousand miles above ground, somewhere over, it appears from up here, Utah. I'm flying on Southwest Airlines, the Trailways of the sky -- no frills, no food, no nothing. No passengers to speak of, either. Big ol' three-quarter-empty jet plane. "Nobody's flying nowadays," a stewardess told me. Chalk up another one for W.
Air travel was in its florid adolescence when I was a boy. Propeller-driven planes flew over Flatbush every two minutes on their way to Idlewild (latterly JFK). But not with me or anyone I knew aboard. I can't imagine who traveled by plane in those days -- probably only the Filthy Rich, certainly no one from the old neighborhood. In the late 1950s, I remember hearing rumors that there were Cornell undergraduates so wealthy that they regularly made the journey from NYC to Ithaca in the air (while I crawled upstate on a smelly Greyhound that left the Port Authority at midnight and made."rest stops" at East Stroudsburg, Scranton and somewhere in the southern tier before arriving on Aurora Street at 8 in the morning). My very first airline flight (it was on an expense account) took place in 1960 on a 12-passenger Mohawk from Ithaca to NYC. I was one wide-eyed gawker, let me tell you. There were very few flights for me during the 60s but by the 70s, I was more prosperous and air travel became semi-routine. Airlines had once been an upper-class preserve, and there was still some leftover graciousness, especially on the long haul to Europe. Menus and decent food and complimentary wine. But little by little, flights became more expensive and less elegant. Is it my imagination or have they magically shrunk the size of the seat? I recall a particularly bad run of luck when I was routinely placed in a middle seat, surrounded on both sides by plump widestance armrest-hogging smokers.
The extinction of the cigarette is a plus, but it's hard to think of another improvement. Nothing to look forward to air-travel-wise but "consolidation," fewer flights, smaller seats, negative frills, and grubbier planes. The great age of the airplane has gone the way of the steamship and the railroad. No more dress up, no more glamor. Just as well, I think, or would be if the decline of service were reflected in a decline of prices.
There's no first class on Southwest -- although what would it matter to me? I never once sat in a first-class seat -- not a single time. In fact, in all honesty I must admit that I indulge a bit of class resentment that there should be any distinction of classes. Although I wouldn't mind if someone offered me something more gracious than one of those nasty mini-bags of over-salted pretzels -- the kind you have to be an experienced bank-robber to break into.