Is the Savvy Traveler a Happy Traveler?


Air travel is one of the amazing achievements of the last century. Like the personal computer and smartphone, it changed the planet we live on and the way we move around it. Almost as much has been written about the changes in air travel as about the miracle itself. Like the modern world, commercial aviation has morphed over the last four decades – gradually evolving from “luxury travel” to “mass transit” – but we should never forget how miraculous it is.

In the late 1960’s I was on a Pan Am 707 flying from New York to London. Coincidently, the actor Dick Van Dyke was on the same flight. We were both seated in First Class, and I won’t easily forget how Mr. Van Dyke amused himself and his fellow passengers by juggling oranges and sharing stories in the lounge area of that Pan Am Clipper. In those early days of the jet age First Class travel really was first class. On our way to London, Mr. Van Dyke, and I wore coats and ties and most of our fellow travelers were dressed the same. Let me ask you; how long has it been since you’ve seen anyone but a tired businessman wearing a coat and tie on an airplane? Is this important? Perhaps it is, as a marker to measure the drift from luxury travel to mass transit.

Most of the changes in air travel over the years have been related to the size, speed, and number of aircraft providing the service. The 707 that Mr. Van Dyke and I flew on was the first commercial jet airliner and carried 180 passengers, but in 1970, with Pan Am’s collaboration, Boeing delivered the 747. The “jumbo,” as it was called, accommodated 417 passengers and I remember watching the inaugural flight land at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. The windows of the terminal were lined with hundreds of people who came out to see the incomprehensibly large airplane arrive. Last year Airbus introduced the A380 with a configuration that transports 853 passengers on two decks. Now that’s mass transit.

In 1978 deregulation changed the airline industry from a quasi-public utility that assured service to all parts of the country and fares based on a fair return on investment for the carriers into a business collective made up of corporate profit centers based on fee for service. There has been a consistent degradation of service and passenger comfort ever since, and notwithstanding the changes in capacity there aren’t many positives for today’s air traveler. Whether it’s being charged extra for baggage, treated like a terrorist at security checkpoints, or having to arrive at the airport two hours prior to departure the commercial flight experience is almost always negative these days. Still – jaded as I am about the airlines – in April I jumped at the chance to fly Business Class on the Air France A380 from San Francisco to Paris. After flying hundreds of thousands of miles stuffed in economy class on dozens of different airlines and unable for reasons it is difficult to understand to make use of those miles we were finally going to be able use some of our accumulated miles.

Here’s my story; can you relate?

We booked the flight, the tickets were in hand, an apartment in Paris was rented, a car was arranged to meet and take us to the apartment where the rental agent was to meet us and school us on the intricacies of French-locks, internet protocol, security codes, dishwashers, chauffage, and wifi passwords.

Prep for the trip went smoothly; the night before the flight we packed in time to have a leisurely dinner. In the morning a friend shuttled us to the airport without a hitch, and a smiling agent checked us in and sent us off to the gate an hour and a half before the scheduled departure.

The kinked out piece to this puzzle is that only a few airports in the world have the ability to handle the giant A380, and in order to get our special Air France treat we had to fly to San Francisco where the giant bird could be accommodated. The connecting leg from Seattle to San Francisco on Alaska looked good; we would have two hours from landing in SFO to departure on the 380. Plenty of time to transfer. An overseas trip had never started so smoothly.

We boarded the Alaska bird on time and we were settled in our seats when the Captain announced that there was a minor paperwork problem that required maintenance personnel to sign off on a repair performed the night before. No problem. I’ve been in that same situation dozens of times as a pilot. I wasn’t concerned until the Captain came back on the PA to tell us that the delay might be as long as an hour. Still no problem. We would still have an hour plus on the ground in SFO.

The ultimate surprise and disappointment came when ground personnel boarded the plane and announced a change of aircraft. At the new gate connecting Air France passengers, like ourselves, were told that we were being rebooked on Delta from Seattle – a crushing disappointment for us since we had gone to great lengths to fly to Paris on Air France and avoid Delta or United on this special trip. When the agent made the announcement and wallowing in self-pity and disappointment we thought about postponing the trip for a day but good sense prevailed. The Paris apartment was rented. The agent was set to meet us. The driver had already texted me, and Delta confirmed that our Business Class status would be honored.

I know, I know, I know… It’s hard to have much sympathy for someone who is flying Business Class to Paris on a “free” ticket, but the crazy, cranky part of me is especially miffed because the Air France ticket was purchased with Alaska Airlines miles that, in a cruel twist of fate, was going to be squandered on a Delta flight that could have been paid for with Delta miles.

It all worked out. The senior Delta flight attendants treated us well – if not enthusiastically. The food was better than we’re accustomed to in economy, although I did wince when the flight attendant handed me a foil wrapped package of peanuts. Foil wrapped peanuts in Business Class? It seems Delta hasn’t quite completed the transition from Atlanta based domestic to world-class international carrier. Management should send some staff out to see what international standards are for First and Business Class. I suggest Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa, and Air France as models to emulate.

Writing this down helps me realize what a privileged life I have had. Yes, I was disappointed that the original plan didn’t materialize, but in retrospect, from the comfort of my Paris apartment, I am amazed at how nimble the Alaska, Air France, and Delta people were in accommodating the 14 passengers that were scheduled to connect with Air France in San Francisco. We all made the Delta flight and our baggage arrived with us. The driver, holding a “Jack Bernard” name card, was there outside of customs and he negotiated the Paris rush hour traffic expertly to deliver us to the apartment – the beginning of an exciting two month stay in the City of Lights.

Air travel has changed but human nature has not. It’s no longer luxury transportation. It’s mass transit – and it works. I miss the good old days. I miss the people who dressed up to fly. I miss the caviar and foie gras in First Class. I miss the beautiful, young, international flight attendants. I miss clean airplanes and the variety of glossy magazines that helped pass the time. But, today’s travel is efficient, relatively inexpensive, and very safe. It’s not sexy but it works.

Back to the title to this piece; Is the savvy traveler a happy traveler? I don’t think so. No one I know, flying on commercial airlines today, thinks in categories like happy or pleasurable. It’s a way to cross long distances quickly, safely, and inexpensively. First and Business Class are more comfortable and taste better, but 10 hours of dry recycled air is still 10 hours of dehydrated, desiccated, recycled air. If you don’t believe it, see what it does to the newspaper you take on board.

I’m still looking for the silver lining, the positive change that brings pleasure and surprise to air travel. As an optimist I’m looking forward to the next generation of air transportation or the innovation that brings us all comfort and pleasure. I missed the A380 this trip, but maybe I’ll catch the 787 on the way home. However I get there I’ll remind myself that air travel is still a miracle.


  1. Happy to see that Marilynn & you got there safely. Save the peanuts for me. ;))
    Hugs to the 2 of you.

  2. OH NO! What a bummer, missing out on that Air France flight!! No way I could muster that Jack Bernard philosophical outlook. Willa would have to listen to me cussing and throwing things for at least a week. Frankly, I have yet to hear anything good at all about Delta. On British Air business class they hand you a glass of champagne within minutes after you’ve stowed your carry-on.

    Come home, the Mariners are winning!

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