Stories Of Tech And The Evolution Of Commercial Aviation
By: Erica Swallow, Guest Contributor
Commercial aviation had its birth in Florida, when the first commercial winged flight took place in 1914, flying 21 miles with one paying passenger, a local mayor. Since then, the industry has soared to new heights, offering more than just a seat to passengers, but an entire experience, with food, tech, spirits and comfort to boot. We’ve come a long, long way, fellow passengers.
Last week I boarded a flight to Europe, excited to discover the wines of Southern France – what I didn’t realize is that upon landing, I would be begging to stay aboard.
Flying Delta business class, I began my journey with a Champagne Jacquart Brut Mosaique, a low cost, but deliciously refreshing French champagne. After placing my dinner order, browsing through the in-flight magazine, and checking out the goods in my amenity kit – ah, they come with a shoehorn now! – I cozied up with the provided down blanket and fluffy pillow, all perks of the Westin Heavenly In-Flight Bedding program. And boy was it a heavenly nap, also made particularly peaceful by the flatbed seating – not unlike, I suppose, the “luxury” night sleeper Condor planes produced in the 1930s and also used as bomber aircraft during World World II (pictured above)
Self check-in kiosks and the Newark Delta Sky Club made my airport time a breeze, so that I could get on to Champagne and baguettes on board.
Waking from my nap, I found dinner was ready. And so, I feasted and my in-flight tech ritual began – I charged my phone, pulled out my laptop to knock out some writing, listened to one of my favorite Spotify playlist from my iPhone, and started a movie on the seat-back entertainment system – “Admissions,” the Hollywood blockbuster starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd and involving a comical, yet emotional, fictional Princeton admissions scandal. I laughed, I cried, and I whimpered when the captain announced we were beginning our descent into Paris. What?! I was only halfway finished with the film! No, no, no! Couldn’t he just fly around for another hour?
My first flight was in 2006 to Shanghai, China, where I studied abroad. I remember the flight seeming like it took forever – I don’t recall any in-flight entertainment, but I do remember sprawling out across a few untaken seats to try to get some rest. I also wrote in my travel journal and purchased a $150 power adapter to charge my laptop, and I distinctly remember the flight attendant looking at me like I was an ill-raised, needy Millennial when I asked if the plane had WiFi. Now, it’s an abomination to not have WiFi on a flight – international flights are still working on it, but domestic, baby, you better have it! Flight crew members are typically apologetic these days when their flights aren’t WiFi-enabled.
Old School vs. New School Flight
Reading and window-gazing may always be great flight pastimes.
Still, not everyone requires utmost technological advancement in-flight, as my peers and I do. The gentleman in front of me on my recent flight, for example, ignored the newfangled monitor in front of him and opted instead to read a newspaper for a large portion of the flight. He pulled out a book when the ol’ Grey Lady didn’t suffice.
As it turns out, reading and window-gazing were some of the most popular forms of entertainment pre-technology. I spoke with John Princ e, who first flew in 1954 when he was twelve, to get an idea of what early commercial flight was like.
Prince began flying just as commercial aviation was taking off – World War II was a catalyst for jet engine and aircraft production, and the post-war era was a booming time for passenger flight as a result. Prince’s first flight was on a DC-3, one of the early aircraft that revolutionized air travel with its speediness.
The earliest flights, including Prince’s, weren’t pressurized, so pilots couldn’t fly above 10,000, or they’d risk customers passing out or getting sick. But on Prince’s second flight, aboard a DC-4, the pilots had to make an unusual call, to fly above a storm at 12,000 feet, where pressure became an issue. “We had to wear these gigantic, green, rubber-smelling oxygen masks, with volleyball-sized air bags hanging below them and giant straps around our heads. Everyone looked like aliens. Besides that time, flights were usually just long, long boring times.”
Prince still likes to do the same things in-flight that he did back in the 1950s. He reads books and magazines – but now from Audible on his iPhone. The era he grew up in prepared him for enduring long stretches of time, he posits. “TV was brand new then and people could entertain themselves without being entertained.”
Airports Get an Upgrade
Jennie Tung Wirth, one of Cathay Pacific’s first flight attendants, pictured with the Manokwari, New Guinea ground crew.
Prince told me that airport terminals were the size of small houses when he first started flying and that the only security measure was a chain-link fence between them and the aircraft, which was more of a safety precaution to keep travelers away from heavy machinery.
I didn’t quite believe him that all of the terminals were of this paltry caliber until I spoke with Jennie Tung Wirth, one of the first Cathay Pacific flight attendants for its first passenger aircraft. She shared a photo of her with the ground crew of Manokwari, New Guinea, which opened my eyes. A few of the crew members were shoeless, and all of them wore shorts and t-shirts and looked of schoolboy age. Tung Wirth – who became a flight attendant in 1954 and was born, raised, and based out of Hong Kong – explained that the tin-roof-covered airport pictured was an out-of-the-way destination, as she flew mostly charter flights for contract workers, including seamen and oil rig workers being flown off to duty. Still, Prince’s experiences sounded mighty similar to Tung Wirth’s backcountry adventures.
Delta is raising the bar – and the roof – for customer experience with its Sky Deck at the JFK Terminal 4 Delta Sky Club.
Now, look where we are. We’ve got shopping, dining, and spa time in our terminals, and we can even get some good ol’ WiFi from most airports. Ah, the comforts of 21st Century living.
And if airport travel gets a little too stuffy, some more sunshine-filled options are cropping up. Delta, for example, just opened a new terminal at JFK in May, and it features an outdoors Sky Deck at the Delta Sky Lounge. How’s that for experiential progress?
I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be John Prince, a 12-year-old on an old rivet-covered plane, flying high above his Canadian homeland, listening to the flight attendant shout out directions, because there was no PA system. When the engines were too noisy, he told me, the attendant would pass around pieces of paper with the flight crew’s names and the destination city’s weather conditions – I can’t stop imagining what that paper might have looked like – was it hand-written, printed, white, off-white, letter-headed, signed, dated, scented?
The next time I take a flight and scoff at the movie selection, lack of charging outlets, cramped leg area, or out-of-service WiFi, I’ll remember these stories and take a gander out the window, thanking my lucky stars I didn’t live in a time where I couldn’t find a bagel as I wait for my flight to board or didn’t have the option to earn a Foursquare badge for checking in at 30,000 feet. But, wouldn’t it be swell to live just one day in a world where men wore their best suits and women got decked out in their hats and white gloves to fly? Luckily, though, I live in an era where technology advances so quickly that one day, my super tech-advanced trips will look like baby steps in 20 years. When that time comes, I’ll have a taste of the past, present, and future, all in my memories and the stories of those who came before me.
Images courtesy of Erica Swallow, Marguerite McCausland, Jennie Tung Wirth, Delta Air Lines