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Carr: The Second Coming

The golden age of jet travel arrived 50 years ago this October. The evening Clipper America, a Pan American World Airways’ Boeing 707, roared out of New York City’s Idlewild Airport, now John F. Kennedy International, en route to Paris Le Bourget.


October 28, 2008
By David Carr

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The golden age of jet travel arrived 50 years ago this October. The evening Clipper America, a Pan American World Airways’ Boeing 707, roared out of New York City’s Idlewild Airport, now John F. Kennedy International, en route to Paris Le Bourget.

Pan Am and the 707 were not the first to pioneer jet air travel. British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and the de Havilland Comet were. Boeing was not the first North American manufacturer to build a passenger jet. Canada’s Avro was. But the Comet stalled two years after entering service in 1952, and Avro’s C102 Jetliner was stillborn. A refined Comet family returned to the air in 1958 and BOAC brought the jet to New York short weeks before the Pan Am inaugural. Still, the die was cast.
For the first years at least, jet travel was defined by 707s and DC-8s crisscrossing the oceans, with elegant Air France Caravelles darting in and out of Paris Orly playing a supporting role. The jet set was born.

More than any other airlines, Pan Am and Trans World Airlines (TWA) defined the jet-set culture as portrayed in MGM’s 1963 film classic, The V.I.P.s, a life-altering adventure of first-class passengers delayed in a V.I.P. lounge at fogbound London Heathrow Airport, and played by an all-star cast including Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Other airlines made their mark in the early jet age – some louder than others. Braniff International Airways was one of the first to tap into the vibrancy and sex appeal of the sixties, with garishly painted airplanes (in seven colours) and a legendary airstrip, where stewardesses would remove pieces of a multi-layered designer uniform in-flight. As a nod to the space program, passengers were occasionally welcomed onboard by an air hostess sporting a clear plastic bubble headdress.

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But it was Pan Am and TWA that rode the glamour of the jet age. Pan Am was James Bond’s airline of choice in early 007 films, shuttled passengers to the Space Station in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and brought the Beatles to America in 1964 (though they would travel Back to the USSR BOAC).

In 1962, TWA cut the ribbon on its signature terminal building at Idlewild. The building’s soaring concrete roof resembled a bird in flight, although architect Eero Saarinen modestly dismissed this as coincidence, once suggesting his design had been influenced by half a crushed breakfast grapefruit.
Here ageing Lockheed Constellations and early-model 707s nudged against an architectural masterpiece as passengers awaited their aircraft inside a modernist concrete exterior, anchored by a space-age flight display pod and accented by natural skylight and sweeping spaces. (The TWA Flight Center was shuttered in 2001. One of its futuristic tunnels was given a cameo in the 2002 movie Catch Me If You Can  starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio.)

Indeed, both airlines built monuments to themselves and to showcase air transport’s endless horizon. Pan Am opened the world’s largest corporate headquarters. Rising 59 stories above New York’s Grand Central Station, the Pan Am building, complete with rooftop helipad to shuttle passengers between Manhattan and the airport etched the Pan Am name and famous blue globe on New York’s glittering skyline.

The jet culture inspired song (Gordon Lightfoot’s Early Morning Rain), books (Bernard Glemser’s Girl on a Wing later released as The Fly Girls and Arthur Hailey’s Airport, and theatre. Boeing Boeing, a French farce about a rich Paris lothario whose intricate use of airline timetables to juggle three flight attendant fiancées was thrown into chaos with the arrival of the jet age. The play soared in Paris where it opened in 1960, was a hit in London and crashed in New York. It was later turned into a movie with Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis and has recently returned to both Broadway and London.
The early jet-age was vapour trails and champagne flights to exotic destinations, where a multi-course meal service was part of the in-flight experience even in economy, when passengers dressed up to fly, when BOAC Speedbirds lit up the sky in Piccadilly Circus and Times Square, and a cheap plastic travel bag slapped with an airline logo was a fashion accessory. It wouldn’t last.

On January 21, 1970, the Pan Am Worldport at JFK was the scene of another first. This time, Clipper America was a Boeing 747 on its inaugural flight to London. The DC-10 and Lockheed L1011 would follow, as would deregulation, Freddie Laker’s troubled Skytrain, the low-cost revolution and the Airbus A380. Pan Am and TWA would disappear. Supersonic air travel came and went. The jet-set culture died. The age of mass air transport had begun.


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