The Return of the Golden Age of Air Travel
Getting back on a plane may look more like the past than the future.
If I was an airline executive — I’m not even remotely close — I would spend all of my waking hours thinking about what my airline is going to do to ensure every passenger who gets on every one of my flights is as 100% COVID-free as humanly possible. Pre-flight blood tests, nasal swabs, quarantines, COVID contact tracking apps or whatever other newly invented magic is available are all on the table. Whatever it takes. I absolutely would not be waiting for new regulatory requirements to come down the pipe. They may well be in the ‘risk reduction’ realm as opposed to ‘risk elimination’. Let’s not kid ourselves, without the latter, I’m not sure any passengers are going to show up.
The problem with airline travel is that so much of it — let’s be honest with each other — is entirely elective. Not going somewhere is almost always an option.
The current widely held and yet fallacious perception that cheap air travel is a right, as opposed to a privilege, had its origins on October 24, 1978. Not that long ago, really. That was the day President Jimmy Carter signed the Airline Deregulation Act into law. From precisely that day forward, airlines were free to set whatever routes they wanted and charge whatever the market would bear. Virtually over night, the price of air travel plummeted. Booking a flight could now be done spur-of-the-moment and was so cheap you could afford to do it on a whim as opposed to saving up for years just so you could afford the fare. Up until deregulation, air travel was for a relatively few, well-heeled travellers satisfying their capricious curiosity as to what lay beyond the visible horizon. It was so special you dressed for the occasion. The sweat pants were packed in the heavy, hard-sided Samsonite, not worn in seat 7C. Ties and pearls were the order of the day.
Think about it for a moment: if the human race has been travelling, let’s say, for the roughly 14,000 years since ancient peoples crossed the Bering Strait land bridge to North America just for shear hell of it, then it’s safe to say taking a trip has been dead cheap, widely available and fast for about 40 of them.
I grew up the son of an institutional physician. My father made a steady but unspectacular income over the course of his career and my mother did not work outside the home. Our family was comfortable, not wealthy. Trips back to my parents’ former home town of Manchester, England were therefore once-every-three-year excursions. Fares were so pricey that my mother and only one of the three siblings at a time made the infrequent trips. My turn finally came up in 1973. Mum insisted on Wardair and their new 747, a substantial enough flying palace that even though my mother was petrified at the thought of an intercontinental flight, she was not afraid to fly on this magnificent aircraft. In relative terms the trip cost a small fortune. $250 a seat which adjusted for inflation is about $1500. Keep in mind back then a decent car could be had for about three grand. My parents fretted over how they would ever pay down the mortgage on their West Point Grey fixer upper they purchased for $37,500.
Our flight on Max Ward’s folly was completely, utterly and unsustainably magnificent. We were honoured guests, not just a QR code on a electronic boarding pass. Once onboard it was closer to a flying cruise ship than an airliner. Beautiful and beautifully turned out staff were universally courteous and accommodating of those in their care. There was leg room intended to make passengers luxuriously comfortable for the long flight rather than the minimum required to avoid deep vein thrombosis. Food was outstanding — as good as you could get in any fine restaurant and served on china with real metal cutlery. There were even miniature porcelein salt and pepper shakers, I think. In-flight entertainment was piped-in music but interestingly, no movies. Passengers were told a darkened cabin interfered with the in-flight service which was Wardair’s hallmark. There was only one class — first, for everybody. For a brief moment, we were all rich and famous.
It was a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Not because I doubted that I would take another trip someday. Rather, it was because I could not possibly have known that these were the sad, sunset days of the Golden Age of Air Travel.
Despite self-perception to the contrary, the Canadian oil & gas business is one of the most conservative, risk-averse industries there is. For two decades I tried to convince the various companies for which I worked to adopt the generations of new information technology which steadily arrived over the years. There were minor breakthoughs here and there but usually it was left for me to implement technology that was way, way, way off the leading edge and only then because the currently installed technologies were ominously described as ‘end of life’. One of the least popular proposals I stubbornly made year after year was the implementation of any one of a variety of products intended to enable employees to more easily work from home. My recommendations were generally rejected out-of-hand as extraneous, superfluous, nerdy budget items which could easily be cut. “We just don’t think having employees out of sight is a particularly good idea” was the general sentiment I recall. Family and friends who still work in the industry confirm that this is still more-or-less the case right up to the not quite present. “How ever could you manage an employee you can’t actually see?” all my bosses must have thought.
On Monday, March 16th, 2020 it was becoming increasingly obvious the coronavirus which was already wreaking havoc in Asia and Europe was about to wash ashore in North America. It had already settled and was chewing its way through Toronto, Seattle, New York and other spots but even then there was still a widely held belief the draconian measures implemented overseas would hardly be necessary here. However by the end of that same day, like just about everybody else, the vast majority of those employed in oil & gas in Calgary were sent home with terse instructions: “work from home until further notice”. I don’t recall any other time in my life where so much changed and so quickly. While I had been out of the industry for a decade I quickly recalled my earlier, frustrating experiences and believed the industry was not in any way prepared for what lay before it. “This is going to be an utter disaster”, I remember thinking without a hint of schadenfreude. Yes, for sure, none of that.
How completely wrong I was. By Friday of the same week — just four days after the work-from-home edict came down, the majority of the knowledge workers had made the transition and were working from home with surprisingly little disruption. Almost none in fact. My wife’s oil & gas workstation has occupied some real estate on our kitchen table ever since. She effortlessly co-ordinates with her co-workers using Microsoft Teams and thinks nothing of setting up a video meeting in the same way she used to set up meetings in her office. She has access to all her graphics-intensive desktop tools on two big monitors just like she was sitting at her old desk in that zillion dollar downtown real estate. It took a short time time for her to adjust, but she’s now happy with the new arrangement. I’m happy that she’s happy.
Just before the novel coronavirus drove a truck though the global economy, a hissy fit between the Saudis and the Russians had fuelled a collapse in oil prices which put the already bedraggled local oil & gas industry on life support. Canada is a high cost producer of hydrocarbons and therefore the first to be ravaged by the giveaway prices for their one and only product. I now wonder if those same companies who had consistently red-lined anything to do with work-from-home are now beginning to think differently and in a more permanent way about it. To the point that even when the mandatory work-from-home orders are lifted, keeping those happier, more productive employees right where they are might be a good idea. Not because there has been some sort of come-to-Jesus epiphany but simply because it enables these companies to stretch out the steadily dwindling dollars they still have in the till.
If Calgary’s oil & gas business can work-from-home successfully, almost any knowledge-based industry can. That begs a much bigger question: if employees of this laggard, late adopter, worst case scenario examplar have now proven they can do it all without leaving the comfort of their own home, then who is ever going to want to go back into the office to do anything?
Which further begs an even bigger question: if it has now been incontrovertibly proven that where you are when you do your work doesn’t really matter much anymore, and if the location of the people with whom you need to work doesn’t matter much either, then who on earth is ever going to get on a plane again for a business trip?
A long time ago, my parents had the cleared-eyed foresight to book passage, for the entire family, on the RMS Empress of Canada as it made one of its last, regularly scheduled westbound trips across the Atlantic from Liverpool to Montréal. The family had accompanied Dad on his sabbatical to Linköping University in Sweden where he refreshed his clinical credentials after years of dry university research. Once Dad’s studies concluded, we had a long, languid European vacation. We lingered in Sorrento because it was just so beautiful and so hot after a hard, cold Swedish winter. We eventually made our way reluctantly back to England and boarded the Empress prior to its departure on the five day trip across the chilly North Atlantic. Except it was September and unseasonably warm and we were all finally going home. It was a sad and wonderful time.
The Empress was not a cruise ship, at least not during the summer. It was transportation. A still viable alternative to the relatively short flight between the old world and the new one. In practical terms there was no comparison between the two modes of transportation. By plane, a transatlantic traveller could be sleeping in their own bed in Montréal before the Empress got much past the Irish Coast. But speed wasn’t the point. It was travel for travel’s sake. The journey could at least be on par with the destination, if not better. My parents were not haphazard about choices for their family. It’s easy to believe they wanted us to experience, maybe for the last time, a mode of getting there that was just about to disappear — to educate their easily distracted children on taking time, from time-to-time, to simply watch the world go by at a walking pace. Our days at sea in the late summer of 1970 left us all with memories which are as clear today as the day we made them. Going by ship is the only way to fly.
As a clear and present metaphor for what the future held for passenger ships as means-of-getting-there, in 1972 the Empress of Canada was sold to the nascent Carnival Cruise Lines. She was to be the company’s one and only ship for better part of three years. As part of that, the Empress was ignominiously rechristened the Mardi Gras and banished to Florida.
There, she was sadly pimped out as “27,000 tons of fun” and sentenced to sail around in circles for the rest of her forlorn days.
I no longer have the kind of job where the boss sends me on a business trip. I am the boss of a company of one. And I’m not sending myself anywhere anytime soon. If I ever chose to issue that directive, I would petulantly argue with myself that there really isn’t anything getting on a plane is going to make any better. Record a new interview for The WorkNotWork Show? Nope. Remote recording technology can make it sound as though I’m sitting face-to-face with the guest in a same small, acoustically perfect room. The listeners will never know. Make a sales call to a prospective client? If I actually had clients like that, and in the unlikely event that they actually wanted to see me or anyone else with whom they don’t currently live, I can set that up on Zoom, Skype, Slack, GoToMeeting, Google Hangouts or whatever video chat app they are using. I can even do Houseparty if that’s their thing. I know beyond the shadow of a doubt, that anybody with whom I need to meet have all used at least one of them in the recent past. Give a presentation or teach almost any sort of class? See above. Sign a document? Digital signatures and blockchain. Shake the client’s hand to close the deal? Yeah, right. For the forseeable future I’m not going to get within six feet of anybody I don’t know intimately. Furthermore, the concept of creative destruction guarantees these means of being-there-without-actually-being-there are only going to get better with time.
For me — and I would argue for many others who may be less willing to admit it — the concept of business travel is essentially dead. Like the dear old Empress of Canada, it has outlived its practical value and its time to find another job.
However, let’s assume for the moment that a Black Swan event occurs and I actually want to get on an airliner. For the time being the seat I will be willing to sit in is going to be the requisite socially distant six feet from any other seat with a passenger in it. I’m going to occupy 36 square feet. Something on the order of what I would have enjoyed on the Graf Zeppelin, perhaps. The typical amount of space allocated for each passenger in a modern airliner is about seven square feet, roughly a fifth of that airship-like seat spacing. The arithmetic is pretty simple: the airline is going to have to charge five times as much per seat to achieve the same level of revenue per flight. My $500 per seat completely-on-a-whim weekend away just want to $2500 and nobody is kidding anybody — that is never going to happen. The hard numbers, in the short term at least, are simply too terrible to contemplate.
This immediate problem will eventually be solved without a doubt. A combination of a reasonably effective COVID vaccine and decent therapeutics and a mandatory, highly invasive, even more cumbersome, privacy-is-the-price-you-pay pre-flight boarding ritual will hopefully make air travel something approaching the routine it was before all of this started. On the bright side, the airlines will finally have to give their charges the leg and elbow room for which we’ve been begging them for years.
So under what set of circumstances will I subject myself to all of that? Not for a business trip. Not in a million years. The digital alternatives are simply too good with almost none of the hassle and at a microscopic fraction of the cost. COVID killed all the objections anybody could possibly have to giving the permanent pink slip to business travel.
There is a place in North Wales called The Great Orme, a primarily limestone headland jutting northwestwards into the Irish Sea. By happy coincidence it’s about a 40 minute drive from relatives who live across the Menai Bridge in Llanddaniel on the isle of Anglesey. I attended my cousin’s wedding there once. To my utter amazement at the reception I met and talked with folks who had never taken the bridge across the Menai Strait to the mainland. What’s more, they simply couldn’t understand why anybody would want to do that. Anglesey provided everything you could possibly want. Travel all the way from Canada for a mere social event even as important as a cousin’s wedding? I might as well have said I had taken the evening flight from Mars.
The Orme is frequently favoured by winds which blow straight up its expansive slopes which fall away at a perfect angle to the sea far below. However, what makes The Orme so special to this anti-traveller is that it’s one of the best places in the world to fly small, radio-controlled motorless aircraft I have built and flown for decades. To be there and experience the thrill of the place is one of a scant handful of destinations on my list of places to see before I die. This is my Taj Mahal, my Everest at sunrise and my Machu Picchu all rolled into one. To stand at the top, hold my little glider into the wind, pause for a moment and then see it sail away into the crisp, steady breeze is a vision I use to medidate myself to sleep on sleepless nights. Seeing The Orme on video or even with some future virtual reality gadget is absolutely, positively not the same transcendental experience of being there. Real time, in the flesh, being there.
There’s a big catch. I can’t drive to The Great Orme. Or take a train, or bus or even a ship like the Empress of Canada for that matter. Fulfilling the lifelong dream of seeing and experiencing it in the first person leaves but one alternative.
I will have to fly there.
For that I will happily save my money for the exorbitant fare and expect a lot for it. I will steel myself for all the checks I will have to have just to get onboard. I accept that part of this future, once-in-a-lifetime trip may involve a small but manageable risk of getting sick — perhaps really sick — but it will be worth it for such a priceless prize.
My trip to The Great Orme, on some future incarnation of the magnificent Wardair 747, will be so rare and so special I might just have to dress in a suit-and-tie for the occasion.
©2020 Terence C. Gannon
Thank you so much for reading. You can also listen to the essay, read by the author and accompanied by additional audio artifacts, on the Not There Yet podcast, where it is episode 049. Your comments are both welcome and encouraged. What do you think about the future of air travel? When, and for what reason will you be willing to get back on an airliner? Please leave your thoughts below.