NPF: STILL BETTER THAN SPIRIT

Having mentioned Charles Lindbergh's 1927 Transatlantic flight earlier in the week I cannot help myself from giving you just a peek inside the rabbit hole of the early days of aviation.

Flying is terrible, right? It's a thing we endure because the other options are so much more time consuming. Unless you can afford to upgrade to First Class (which basically just replicates what flying was like prior to the 1977 deregulation) you grit your teeth and exchange both comfort and dignity for an inexpensive ticket. Yes, many domestic US tickets approach or exceed $500 in coach depending on your destination and dates, and $500 can hardly be considered "cheap." However, in the grand scheme of things it's about what we can expect unless the airlines wish to resume the ritual of declaring Chapter 11 once per decade.

This is our fault, of course. Actually it's capitalism's fault, but let's keep this manageable. If given the option between a $1000 ORD to SFO ticket with pampering, comfort, and no additional add-on costs or a $255 ORD to SFO ticket that entitles you to be treated as subhuman and confined to a space in which you can barely fit, which will you pick? Your personal preferences and financial situation might point toward the $1000 ticket. Most of us suck it up and take the cheapie. We punt on comfort. The rotten business model in use across the industry offers us the opportunity to get things like legroom and dignity and checked baggage if we fork over the money. Very few passengers choose to do so.

I digress. The reason I mention this is simply to use flying in 2017 as a point of comparison for the following anecdote.

In 1934 the Australian airline Qantas began the first London to Sydney air service. Australia is a chore to fly to even today from Europe or North America. Modern equipment has improved things vastly, as you'll see, but flying to Southeast Asia or Australia-NZ borders on grueling in the best circumstances. In 1934 well-off Brits were astonished to learn that they were free from the tyranny of the steamship and could actually be flown to Sydney and back with each journey taking a mere…are you ready? Twelve days! It was practically like teleporting.

The next time you grumble (as I do, constantly) about flying today consider the ordeal it was in the early days. The flight departed London and before arriving in Sydney it required five changes of aircraft (!!!) among the 12 to 15 layovers, disembarking to travel across Italy via train (Mussolini forbade foreign airlines to cross Italian airspace), and twelve days and nights all for the low price of about $18,000 in 2017 US dollars. For Americans, Australia was on the far end of the early Pacific routes, immortalized by Pan Am's China Clippers, that stopped and spent the evening at five or six fly-speck islands in where grand hotels had been built hastily to pamper passengers who were forking over a lower class working person's annual salary for a seat aboard the loud, primitive flying canoes of the age.

You can't call modern air travel perfect, but it helps on occasion to remember how far it has come.

Actually that doesn't help at all. I want whoever invented the reclining coach seat to be guillotined.

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42 Responses to “NPF: STILL BETTER THAN SPIRIT”

  1. Totoro Says:

    First trip to NZ, 1983: Leave LAX, fly to Honolulu, refuel. Then fly to Fiji, refuel. Then fly to Auckland. Good news: They would let you off in Fiji for a few days for no additional charge, so I did. These were the 747-SP, a shorter version of the plane, but still, those early jet engines just weren't as efficient as the modern ones are. Truly the golden age…

  2. BruceJ Says:

    You left off the not-insignificant chances of dying in a crash…

  3. define and redefine Says:

    Perhaps if flying were still only the province of the bourgeoisie, it would have spurred high speed rail travel for the proles.

    Just sayin'…

  4. The Jack of Hearts Says:

    Maybe I'm not in the income bracket of most of your readers, but spending an extra $750 for a few hours of comfort seems a little frivolous. I mean, for some people that would be a month's rent. But I suppose it's all relative.

    On the other hand, I have a friend who's about to take the train from Chicago to Seattle, coach. That seems insane.

  5. Katydid Says:

    @Jack of Hearts; I once took a train rom Berlin to Madrid, which is not a short jaunt. It was clean, comfortable, and had frequent meal carts come by in addition to a meal car. When my business travels included regular trips to Germany and Holland, I never rented a car because I could catch public transportation easily and affordably. The USA could (and should!) have decent and reliable train service, but we as a nation decided we didn't want it.

    I currently live about 22 miles from one major city and 15 miles from another and the only public transit options include driving and hoping to get a (paid) parking space on a rail system that you *hope* won't catch fire or derail, but they make no promises. It takes roughly 3 times as long as driving and costs nearly as much as it would to park, plus it ties you to a schedule that frequently diverges from the published one, so at best all you can do is guess wildly about what time you'll get to your destination.

    As I'm typing it, it occurs to me that this could also be used to describe flying. As an Old who spent four decades either as a military brat or active-duty military, I have many memories of flying when it was a civilized thing to do.

    I don't think flying is particularly cheap now. Last fall we had a family gathering in a major city about 8 hours' drive from our house. We live near two major airports. Three of us could go and it was going to cost a little over $1500 to fly us about 70 minutes. Given the hassles of getting to the airport several hours early to deal with TSA and airline stupidities, plus the uncertainly (and cost!) of paying to abandon a car to Long-Term Parking, we realized it would be cheaper and take about the same amount of time to just drive ourselves. Cost us a tank-and-a-half of gas and we got to sit in seats designed for human beings, not elfin sprites. We stopped a couple of times on our whim to get up, walk around, and eat at a really good mom & pop restaurant.

    A train would have worked, except the USAian train system is so broken that we would have had to switch trains twice and it would have taken just as long on a train as it would to drive, plus the train was ridiculously expensive. Again, it doesn't have to be this way. We have endless pots of money for sportspalaces and bridges to nowhere.

  6. Bessemer Mucho Says:

    For those whose amour-propre is not satisfied by flying first class, $38,000 will rent you a Learjet for a trip from NYC to LA & back.

  7. geoff Says:

    @Katydid, a couple years ago my parents got me a surprise airline ticket to visit them in FL, usually a 10-12 hour drive. Between delays and cancelled flights, it took about 12 hours to get there! Unless I need to get somewhere REALLY far away (and I don't) I'll be happy to never fly again.

  8. democommie Says:

    I will be on a SWA flight in about 10 days, flying to Denver, by way of Baltimore.

    My generous brother who bought my ticket said he looked for one that had seven or eight stops and a couple of long layovers but had to settle for the one he booked (he' a bit impish). I don't drive, so a friend will be taking me the 65 or so miles to Rochester (Syracuse has no decent flights at a reasonable price–no SWA)–leaving my house at about 5AM for 1 10:20 flight. Return will be slightly better, as TSA doesn't want to look up your ass when you're arriving–yet.

    Since I have not received word from any frequent travellers or Major Kong about the possibility of getting a seat in the "bye" section to avoid having to endure fisticuffs with fellow passengers I have been working out with the heavy bag and trying to get my hand speed and reflexes up by attepting to retriefe chunks of steak that I've put in Buddy the Wonderdog's dish. He's much faster.

  9. Major Kong Says:

    I haven't flown Spirit, but I had a deadhead on Frontier a while back.

    It was rather, um, Spartan.

  10. sluggo Says:

    By the time you drive to the airport, get there early, fly to the other city, deplane, rent a car etc, you have at least four hours plus your time in the air invested. So it's easier to just drive, not even factoring in the cost.

  11. Safety Man! Says:

    Echoing Katydid and others, my family is 13 hours away in GA, 15 factoring in meals and gas stops. In the beginning I would fly, these days I just drive. Especially for holidays, it's unspeakably easier to bring back gifts or food in my own car.

    I used to ride a passenger train from Baltimore to D.C. every single day. In the two years I did it there were two derailments and two other trains that just flat broke down. Once we had to do an emergency transfer train to train on the tracks. Another time we had the good fortune of being at the BWI station when the proverbial plug was pulled, and myself and a few others ran across the station to the last remaining departing Amtrak train like it was the last helicopter out of Saigon just so we could get to work that day. One day it'll be good stories for the kids about how silly I was, as they jet around in flying cars, or squat in the dirt wondering what trains were. Either way.

    Anyway, I've contemplated trains for long travel before, but they tend to cost the same as flying, and take as long as driving. I'm still curious to try it out eventually.

  12. Safety Man! Says:

    @demmocommie

    If you get stranded at Baltimore for whatever reason just scream really loud I guess, eventually I can find you to give you a ride wherever.

  13. Major Kong Says:

    @sluggo

    Anything less than 5 hours I don't even think about flying commercial.

  14. Brian M Says:

    Despite horror stories about dysfunction in California, we have a great commuter rail system for casual use in Northern California. A joint venture between CALTRANS and Amtrak-Capital Corridor. It's comfortable enough and good enough that I will do long distance one way bike rides and take the train back. You can travel between Roseville or Auburn (limited times) and definitely Sacramento and San Jose for $20+. And when you factor in avoiding the traffic apocalypse that is the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, that is a pretty sweet deal!

  15. This Guy Again Says:

    For domestic flights, I always fly coach.

    For international flights, I shell out the extra money for 1st class if it's over 8 hours. I learned my lesson the first time I flew to Buenos Aires from LAX. 16 hours in coach will make you regret every decision you ever made that brought you to that point.

  16. scott Says:

    "The USA could (and should!) have decent and reliable train service, but we as a nation decided we didn't want it."

    I'm trying to think of something in the past 40 years that the uberrich of the USA have wanted and not gotten, or that they have not wanted and gotten anyway, and the ACA is the only thing which comes to mind…and its continued existence seems to be in far more peril than I would have guessed possible after it'd been around and clearly a success (if far from perfect) . for several years. Then again, I suppose the perpetual attack on Medicaid and Social Security should have clued me in.

  17. TakomaMark Says:

    @Katydid @Sluggo @Major Kong I don't consider flying unless the drive is 7 hours minimum. Then, it depends on how close the airport is to my final destination, and whether I can find a direct flight or not. Also the ticket price. Any delay or transfer and it'll take as long (or nearly so) as driving. But still, despite the discomfort, delays, etc., I still have moments where I feel like…you're frickin' flying, defying gravity, realizing a dream that humans have had at least since ancient Greek mythology dreamed up Icarus, and that is cool.

    On Lindbergh – Bill Bryson wrote a book called One Summer, that was about the summer of 1927. It starts with early aviation and Lindburg's incredible feat, then moves on to Babe Ruth (one of his best years) and a number of other subjects. Maybe something for a summer reading list. Also, the Wright Brothers by David McCullough is fantastic.

  18. Bobothedorkboy Says:

    @define, I'd happily settle for usable LOW-speed rail…

  19. Jestbill Says:

    Air travel is not expensive or cramped. You just don't have enough money.

    Inequality. The split between productivity and pay since 1980 or so.
    Belle Epoque redux.

    National economics confused with household economics has made Republicans powerful enough to turn the whole country into North Mexico.

  20. Dr.BDH Says:

    The Pan Am flying boats had berths, like a train's sleeper car. Once on a flight to the Philippines in the 1950's my dad, a doctor, was awakened by the crew and asked to confirm that the traveller in the bunk across the way was not asleep, but dead. I remember asking him when he came home if he'd had a good trip. "Better than one passenger," he said.

  21. quixote Says:

    "I want whoever invented the reclining coach seat to be guillotined."

    Not really. You want whoever invented the 31" seat pitch to be guillotined.

    Insane "business" class prices and cattle cars are not our only choices. What we need is re-regulation of the airline industry. They have to be ordered to provide 36" seat pitch and air no thinner than what you'd get at 3000 ft.

    They can do that without going bankrupt every ten years. Right now they're insanely profitable. They don't need to be. They could make a fair profit and we could travel like ordinary human beings.

    Capitalism only works when it's regulated. Notice how many regulations there are to keep stock exchanges from degenerating into scams.

  22. Scotius Says:

    "Capitalism only works when it's regulated. Notice how many regulations there are to keep stock exchanges from degenerating into scams."

    Precisely. Any airline that tried to offer 36" pitch on its own would go broke because passengers would still choose the lower priced alternative. If every airline were required to allow a minimum amount of space per passenger and one piece of checked luggage per passenger for flights over a certain distance, a lot of the cattle car mentality that passengers experience would go away. Yes, it would mean having to pay slightly higher ticket prices, but the current misery of air travel is a surcharge in its own right.

  23. jcastarz Says:

    I had not flown commercially since 2000, when I flew to Australia from Dulles, VA, in the Spring of 2016. Per advice of my travel agent, I upgraded the 14+ hour Pacific legs to the escape-aisle seats in coach for $135 each way, and was glad I did. Still, the Qantas 747 seemed sufferable in coach. It was the last leg home from DFW in an American Airlines domestic twin-tail-jet that made me realize just how badly things have degraded. And I recently read that the industry plans to make things even tighter still?! I agree it is time to establish some minimum seating space requirements by law.

  24. jharp Says:

    I quit flying about 10 years ago after logging in over 1 million miles.

    Fuck 'em. Not nearly enough room for my claustrophobia.

    And the thought of being trapped in a plane sitting on the runway for hours horrifies me.

  25. Kaleberg Says:

    The first time I ever had to pay for my own airline ticket it was $287 back in 1977 to fly from Boston to San Francisco and back. That's about $1150 now. You can definitely get premium economy for that, or even business class if you shop around, but those fares are not refundable. The Apex fare I got back then was. On the other hand, a lot more people can afford to fly.

    On the other hand, you can fly that route in economy for $360 which was maybe $90 back in 1977. If you had told me I could fly cross country, round trip for less than $100 in 1977, I would have been impressed. It wasn't until the mid-1980s that People Express stared offering their $99 fare cross country. Granted, flying now is not the luxurious experience it once was, but for longer hops it is the only sane approach.

    Interestingly, in the 1930s, the airlines charged about $300 to fly round trip from coast the coast. That's almost $6,000 now, comparable with unrestricted business class. That seems to be a magic number. Steamships charged, though only one way travel, roughly $300 back before the Panama Canal. That included the train across Panama. That's roughly what the railroads charged cross country once we had cross country railroads in the late 1870s. When we have transporter service a la Star Trek, it will probably cost $300 to get teleported from coast to coast, except $300 then would be less than a subway fare now.

  26. April Says:

    I am going to miss China's bullet trains when I get home. Fast, clean, comfortable, always EXACTLY on time and practically ubiquitous (at least between cities people usually travel to). And cheap. Shanghai to Beijing (753 miles) takes 5 hrs 43 minutes and costs about 80 bucks coach, 120 first class. Then again, China's government doesn't have to get public approval to build them. Also too it's a way to keep the masses happy – thus no revolution.

  27. democommie Says:

    I've told this story before, I just don't know if I told it here.

    I used to live with somebody whose dad worked United's Logan Ramp. He lived in Topsfield but spent his summers on Peek's Island in Casco Bay (Portland, ME). He used to keep his truck in a city lot and drive from the ferry slip to Portland Jetport where he would board a plane for the 15 minute or so flight to Boston. $10 each way. Gas and tolls were more money. Of course if you were a regular passenger it was nothing like that cheap.

  28. Katydid Says:

    Hey, Demo, I echo SafetyMan–tell us when you're going to be in Baltimore, and I'll drive up to meet you. There are a couple of okay-ish restaurants around the area (and one super-fantastic one if you like Thai food–I always go there if I'm in the area). I'll buy the meal and maybe a couple drinks for the crew. Don't we have another local (Aurora, maybe)?

  29. Katydid Says:

    In the mid-1990s, I took an Amtrak from Sacramento to Vancouver, Canada (this was in the days when the most you had to show was a US driver's license to cross the border–usually they just asked your nationality and if you said US, they were fine). It was stunningly beautiful–the train wended its way up the coast and we saw the ocean nearly the whole way. I don't remember it being particularly expensive and I certainly couldn't have afforded it if it had been. I remembered thinking this was the closest thing to European rail travel, or maybe Japanese rail travel. Been to Japan a number of times and appreciate the ease with which you can travel in the cities and between cities.

    Apologies to April, but I can't speak about Chinese rail travel. I was in Hong Kong for a few weeks in the early 1990s (work) and thought it was amazing, but didn't get to travel around much. I'm glad they also have a great rail system, and I'm sure you're right–keep the peasants happy and they won't rise up and kill the overlords.

    Here in the good ole USA, "Ah NEEED MAH super-cruiser so ah kin GO TO THA STO-AR! Ah gotta be COMFERTABULL!"

  30. Katydid Says:

    Speaking of the Wright Brothers, if anyone finds themselves in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, it's well worth the time to go to Kitty Hawk and do all the touristy informational thingies about the Wright brothers, and even go to the hill where they launched their airplane. Early airplanes really were dangerous.

  31. Katydid Says:

    Taking a look at the bigger picture, the "just-in-time" model of production is really, really prone to failure. To maximize profits, airlines schedule on a shoestring, and when something inevitably happens (something breaks, a crewmember misses the flight and therefore the follow-on flights, etc. etc., the weather or human activities cause flight delays, etc.), the whole system collapses.

    It's not just the airlines, though. This week I read an article about the trucking industry. For completely valid reasons, truckers are only allowed to drive X number of hours in a span of Y number of hours (I think it's 10 hours in 24, but I may be mis-remembering). This is all well-and-good UNTIL a driver is stranded waiting for his truck to be loaded, which still counts as "on the clock" time. For various reasons including the fact that a lot of production centers are closed to maximize shareholder profits and the remaining workers are overworked, underpaid, and often driving great distances to work and are therefore disgruntled, they can be slow to put an order together. This in turn often entices drivers to break the law just to earn their daily bread and make their schedule, putting everyone on the road at risk from harried or exhausted truck drivers.

    In a similar vein, I $#%$#%$ hate Amazon, which also uses a barebones "just in time" system. Every time I place an order (which is rarely), some or all of the stuff takes forever to arrive because they don't stock it and rely on third parties to supply it. Two weeks ago I placed an order of four things. One thing arrived; complete and utter silence on the whereabouts of the other 3. If they just came out and admitted, "We lie when we say we have stuff", I would try to find the missing items myself.

  32. Major Kong Says:

    @quixote

    "air no thinner than what you'd get at 3000 ft."

    The pressurization system on the aircraft is programmed by the manufacture. The airline and crew have very little control over it. There is a manual mode, but we would only use that if both of the automatic controllers failed in flight.

    The pressurization systems maintains roughly an 8.5 psi differential between the cabin and outside. As the plane goes up the cabin altitude goes up, just much more slowly.

    Air is always coming into the plane and air is always going out. Cabin pressure is maintained by controlling how much air is let out.

    Contrary to popular belief, only a small amount of air is recirculated.

  33. democommie Says:

    @ Major Kong:

    Let me give you a glimpse into the mind* of Donald J. Trumpligustein, CSJ**.

    "I don't like digital pressure/air volume controllers. I like the sort of airflow regualation that was in use when the steam catapult (way better than the digital) was invented.

    You're goin' over 750 miles an hour–open the damned windows! Problem solved!! BIGLY!!!".

    * Like the Easter Bunny, Loch Ness Monster, The Tooth Fairy and JEEZUZ there is no direct, observable evidence of such a thing actually existing.

    ** Curtifyd Siuntificul Jeenyus

  34. democommie Says:

    To all who have offered companionship and conviviality in Baltimore:

    I thank you. I will certainly take you up on your kind offers if they offer me a "freebie" for bumping me on the return flight (highly unlikely) but my dear brother is going to waiting for me in Denver AND since he PAID my fare I will want to make him happy.

    'sides, how am I ever going to have a chance to test my Jim Bakker "End Times Eats*" if I never travel in a sealed container for up to THREE WHOLE HOURS without being fed!

    * If you haven't already seen a critique of his 35 year shelf life "cuisine", check this out: http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/12/03/456677535/apocalypse-chow-we-tried-televangelist-jim-bakkers-survival-food

  35. Katydid Says:

    @Demo, if I see you, I see you. Just give a holler if you've got time. The offer extends to anyone else who wants to see Baltimore or Washington (or, heck, even Culpepper Virginia for that matter, I'm not judging).

    Major Kong, thanks so much for the airplane information! The commentators on this site really know a lot of things about a lot of things.

  36. Katydid Says:

    @Demo; surprisingly enough, Costco offers a brand of survival food that you can order from their site, a year's worth at a time. My thought has always been that if something devastating happens to the planet, it won't be fixed in a year or two or five, so what's the point of staying holed up in some bunker?

  37. democommie Says:

    @ Katydid:

    Thank you.

    As for living in a bunker. I went past a guys one day, some years back and saw that he had put a black chain link fence about 10' tall with razor wire on top of it around the "compound".

    I commented to my passenger hat that the guy's house looked like a drug dealer's. He said, "Nah, survivalist*.

    He added that it was good to know where people like that lived so you could go over to their place after the balloon went up and ambush them when they came out to laugh at the idiots who hadn't been smart like them!

    * For once, I was right. The guy was a total scumbag who had murdered at least one or two people and was selling coke and crack by the wheelbarrow. He is in prison, if he's still alive–he made many enemies on both sides of the bars.

  38. mago Says:

    Personal commercial flight experience spans 4 decades bi-coastal and international.
    The horror, the horror.

  39. mago Says:

    And my experience is small.

  40. define and redefine Says:

    @Bobothedorkboy – Me too. One can dream.

    RE: taking the train on the west coast – some years back, on vacation, I took the train from Portland to San Francisco (well…Emeryville.) It took 24 hours, if I'm not mistaken. And the view…um…not the best – it was nice and foresty, but my spoiled ass was hoping for coastal Pacific views. Not terribly cheap, either – more than $100 one way.

    Sometime after that, while waiting to start a job overseas, I drove around the country over 6 weeks. The drive from Portland to SF took…between 10 and 12 hours, I think. So, at least in my experience, it takes much longer to go by train than to drive.

    I will say this, though – travelling by train, apart from how long it takes, is pretty superior to travelling by plane – really comfortable, multi-recliner seats with leg rests, no seat belts, and I could get up and walk around as much as I wanted. Given the option to take the train rather than fly, I would take the train. Wouldn't be terribly practical if you're on a tight schedule or you're going long distances (like across the country). However, if I had local station in Wilmington NC, I would totally take the train every time I wanted/needed to go anywhere on the east coast. Driving those distances can be tiring and flying is often prohibitively expensive (not to mention the dearth of direct flights from ILM).

    As for rail travel in Europe, I've had good luck for the most part – comfortable seats, good availability, competitive pricing. Hell, even the train from Tehran to Mashhad made for a nice overnight journey (saved me a hotel room for the night, too. Not to mention the planes in Iran haven't been updated since the 70's…damn embargo.)

  41. democommie Says:

    I just remembered that the first time I saw this headline, it scanned as:

    "Still better than spirits".

  42. Major Kong Says:

    @democommie

    I had the same idea about survivalists.

    After the apocalypse I just find one of them and it'll be one-stop shopping.

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