The End of the Romantic Era of Travel
January 18, 2014
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  • My snowbird friends take flight at this time of the year. Most gather at commercial air terminals — romantic, fun places once upon a time. By now, they’ve come to resemble Alcatraz. Only a lucky few snowbirds access the field from the terminal next door, reserved for general aviation (GA).

    General aviation terminals are still, as I’ve described them a few years ago: Spacious, antiseptic, and more or less empty. Service people outnumber travelers. One sees sky-blue uniform jackets and short-sleeved white shirts, punctuated by a few business suits. Flight crews file across the lounge, limo drivers stand by. No surging throngs, no screeching children, no leisure-suited slobs, no hirsute backpackers, no luggage-laden vacationers. No loudspeakers, no Alcatraz. The commercial terminal next door, your friendly maximum-security prison, might as well be on another planet.

    GA terminals aren’t only for the rich. They’re for people who own, lease, hangar, and fly their own equipment, as I used to do.

    Security intruded, of course, with all its quirks and inanities, especially after 9/11. I used to hangar my small plane on the Toronto Island Airport, then called City Centre, along with a handful of other owners. Before 9/11, we’d go up to a desk where a receptionist would say: “Good morning, Mr. Jonas, do you want Kilo Whiskey Quebec?” then buzz an electronic lock on the door leading to the tarmac for me.

    After 9/11, we had to hire uniformed guards to sit in front of the door and say, after we finished with the receptionist: “Good morning, Mr. Jonas, can I see your ID?”

    “As often as you like, Charley. Maybe you should take it to bed with you.”

    I could have carried aloft all the pipe-bombs I liked, Charlie wouldn’t have cared. He was told to ask for ID and he did. But while easy to mock, our half-baked attempts at security have still kept us relatively safe. Air India Flight 182 was a terrible tragedy. But otherwise, I think the only plane we lost to crime was one a husband blew up for his wife’s life insurance in Quebec half a century ago.

    In any event, maintained for private pilots or corporate jets with professional crews, GA terminals are oases in the hostile desert that stretches between the earth’s destinations. They are aviation’s caravanserais.

    They are also time machines. They hark back to the way passenger terminals used to be before the explosion of air travel. It happened during the doleful decade that saw the romantic and elegant aerodromes of the world turn into rude, noisy, overcrowded bus stations. The makeover happened during the decade of the Bay of Pigs, the topsy-turvy, helter-skelter years of Kent State and Woodstock and Cambodia, the psychedelic 1960s.

    In 1964, one could still take a heavy date to the Aeroquay Restaurant on the mezzanine floor at Malton, as Toronto’s old international airport used to be called. I did; I’ve written about it before. It was a dashing move, suitably rewarded, but it came at the tail end of an era. By the mid-70s, only a loser would have suggested it.

    Blame it on engine design. The propeller created romance; the turbine destroyed it. The propeller allowed people of distinction (“the rich”) to go places; the turbine allowed people of no distinction (“the poor”) to follow them. The transformation was gradual, though at the time it seemed almost overnight. Once turbine evolved into pure jet, it let multitudes convert their little furloughs, their miniscule stretches of leisure time, into enormous distances. The Vickers Viscounts squeezed out the old triple-tailed Lockheed Constellations, and then the Boeing 707s and Douglas DC8s squeezed out the Vickers Viscounts. When the first prototype of the ill-fated Comet took off in 1949, it unhinged the old order more than the Jacobins did during the French revolution. What Danton and Robespierre, the wizards of the guillotine, started, Boeing and Airbus finished.

    The jet engine empowered denizens of sweatshops, service counters, rice paddies, and assembly lines to emulate the globe-trotting Edwardian aristocracy. A lab technician from Toronto, Ont., has 14 days of vacation, and thanks to turbine and kerosene, she will spend every one of them in Paris, France. Whatever else jetliners may have done, they doomed the elegance and romance of travel. The multitudes are many things, including the salt of the earth, but elegant and romantic they are not.

    Saying things like that makes you sound like a snob, a friend once told me. He was right. That’s why I never say such things.

    Here is something curious: the explosion of mass travel should have made airlines richer than Croesus. It did not. It made several go bankrupt. Why? I am not an economist. Fuel prices, I suppose. As air travel exploded, so did fuel prizes – not to mention many of the airplanes. With mass travel came mass terror. But it’s hard to say what has been more detrimental to the travel experience: the few who blow up terminals and planes, or the many who use them for their intended purposes. Terrorists are mercifully rare, no-frills flyers are mercilessly multitudinous. It’s the latter that scurry about airports with doddering uncles and unruly children in tow.#

    Which damages the travel experience more? It’s a toss up.