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Glide Path: A new age in commercial aviation

There was a series of articles in national media a couple of months ago lamenting the passing of the “Golden Age of Aviation” in Canada – that mythical, mystical time when air travel was exotic.


May 6, 2013
By Paul Dixon

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There was a series of articles in national media a couple of months ago lamenting the passing of the “Golden Age of Aviation” in Canada – that mythical, mystical time when air travel was exotic. Maybe it was, but that was a long time ago in more ways than one. I can remember my grandmother arriving at the new Vancouver International Airport terminal on a flight from Toronto. We stood on the viewing platform and watched the shiny new TCA DC-8 glide onto the tarmac only a few feet away. There was my granny, descending the stairs, waving at us. It never occurred to me that I was witnessing the golden age of anything, but it was pretty neat all the same.

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Air travel today is sold as an “experience,” from the front door of the airport terminal, through the shops, high-end coffee bars and duty-free offerings. Photo: Paul Dixon


That was in the time before the Trans-Canada Highway was completed and we had two national railways that both operated two national passenger trains on daily service. As a family we did the Vancouver-Toronto train trip a couple of years later to visit the same grandmother. It was exciting for a couple of young boys, sitting up in the dome car in the middle of the night talking to the conductor. The  food was pretty good too. That was right about the time when the pendulum started to swing away from the train and commercial air travel was catching on. A few years later I returned to Toronto, again to visit my gran; however, this time I flew. I took a brand-new 747 one way and a rather tired DC-8 the other. It cost me $249, return. I was making $2.55 per hour at the time, which was well above average for someone working their way through college. Vancouver-Toronto for 97.5 times my hourly wage.  Who would pay that today? Who could pay that today? I don’t remember much about those flights other than you could smoke (I did) and drink (ditto) and they fed you at some point. What I do remember is that I had to go to the airline office in downtown Vancouver to pick up my ticket. In those days the airline offices were all within shouting distance of each other.

I’ve never come close to being a frequent flyer, but I’ve done my share of flying for business and pleasure. For me the flying was just a way of getting there and back again, with a few concessions to creature comfort. As long as I knew the aircraft was well maintained and the pilots were well rested and happy with their lives, then I was happy to go along for the ride. The food and drink was never a big deal. I’ve been trying to think about my most memorable airline meal and the only one that comes to mind is an attempt at a full breakfast service on a stretch DC-8 flying the Vancouver-Calgary route. It was an early morning business flight. The cabin crew needed track shoes to get up and down the aisle in time.

Looking back, my only thought about that meal service is “why?” I do have a “best meal on flight” story, but it was an exercise in self-catering. It was about the time airlines started selling box lunches on domestic flights and I was part of a large group returning to Vancouver from an international conference in Montreal. Three of us sitting together in one row had had the foresight to provision ourselves with smoked meat sandwiches from Rue St. Catherine. When the announcement was made that meals were now available for purchase, we were able to “whip it out,” much to the chagrin of our fellow travellers. I had a beefy RCMP sergeant hanging over the back of the seat in front of me looking for all the world like a puppy hoping for a scrap.

Air travel today is sold as an “experience,” from the front door of the airport terminal, through the shops, high-end coffee bars and duty-free offerings. There was a time when duty-free really meant duty-free. Two dollars for a bottle of Canadian Club and another two for a carton of Players Filter and then off to Mexico for a week. I suppose that was my personal Golden Age of Aviation. Let me be clear: I don’t need an “experience.” All I want is an airport that is clean and an aircraft that is mechanically sound with a crew that is proficient, well rested and happy to be there. I’ll take care of creating my own experience beyond that.


Paul Dixon is freelance writer and photojournalist living in Vancouver.


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