As John Millar sees it, business travel was a much more civilized experience 50 years ago. Especially flying.
Millar, a retired British aerospace manufacturer and former TWA captain (he flew DC-2s in 1935-6) is president of the World Solar Power Foundation. He now lives in Monte Carlo and has been an inveterate first-class traveler since 1936.
‘Prewar one traveled by boat in the greatest luxury. The German line had the Bremen and the Europa, the French had the Normandie and the France and we had the Aquitania, the Mauritanea and later, the Queen Mary. There was none of this standing about in line for hours to show your passport and tickets. You went down by train to Southampton in great comfort. Then straight aboard the boat with your baggage delivered straight to your cabin. At the other end, Immigration was on board, so that when the boat docked at pier 96 on the Hudson River, your baggage was put under your name on long tables. The customs officer marked them and a porter would take them to a taxi or car. There was none of this awful business of hanging about for hours. When one thinks of the beginning of trans-Atlantic and continental air travel in the U.S., it was a simple business too.’
And remarkably comfortable it seems. You checked in downtown at the airline ticket office and were taken out to the airport by limo. No waiting. You climbed aboard the plane and settled down in a reclining lounge chair. You were served a hot meal with real china, glass and linen. Later you’d stretch out in a twin-bed-size berth (separate dressing rooms for men and women) and sleep during the flight.
This is how it was on the Skysleeper service between New York and California which TWA inaugurated in June 1937 with the new DC-3 Sleeper Transport (American Airlines had started a similar service in September 1936). The overnight coast-to-coast flight took just over 11 hours, with stops at St. Louis, Kansas City and Albuquerque. But you were not disturbed during takeoffs and landings and could sleep right through till you arrived in the morning.
‘It was all one class with 16 seats one on each side of the aisle and lots of legroom,’ Millar says. ‘They were very comfortable.’
Even more luxurious were the Clipper flying boats that pioneered the Pacific and Atlantic routes. Pan Am started the first trans-Pacific service in 1935.And in 1939 it flew scheduled services between New York and Marseille via Lisbon. Then in 1945 came the Lockheed Constellation, which TWA flew half-way round the world (San Francisco-Los Angeles-Kansas City-Newfoundland-Lisbon-Paris-Bern-Rome). It had 16 berths and nine chaises-longues. This was followed in 1949 by the double-decked Boeing Stratocruiser, which had sleeping berths and a downstairs lounge. A very comfortable plane, according to Millar.
Quality of travel in those days was probably due as much to the attitude of airlines and airport authorities as the in-flight amenities. You could do things that are unthinkable today.
Millar says: ‘I started an aerospace business in England in 1937 when I came back from flying with TWA and after the war I emigrated to America and built a factory at Newport, Rhode Island, on the local airfield. When I had to go to England, I’d make a reservation on BOAC and get an air taxi to fly me 200 miles down to New York. One time we arrived at Idlewild (now JFK) and couldn’t get permission to land. I took the mike and said to the tower, “Look, my flight to England leaves in 10 minutes.” The guy said, “Okay, you’re number two to land. Your flight is at gate six.” But when we taxied up, the Stratocruiser had left and was waiting to take off at the far end of the runway. I said to BOAC, “I’m terribly sorry, we’ve been circling half an hour.” “That’s all right, sir, we’ve sent a car for you. We’ll fix it up with Immigration.” So I went scooting off down the taxiway to the plane. They pushed my bags in one door, opened another door and pushed me into the bar. I climbed up the stairs into my seat.’
Slow dissolve to a recent experience with Pan Am when Millar took the direct Nice-New York flight. ‘They said, we’ll give you a free helicopter ride to 60th Street Skyport. Well we arrived in New York (a comfortable flight, no complaints; I had the front seat in first class) then had to walk down endless corridors into a huge immigration hall which had 60-70 people in line before each booth. I had to wait an hour and a half – my fault I should have ordered a wheelchair. Then I had to get my luggage. I’d missed the helicopter and had to wait another hour for the next one. I got to the helicopter where a driver put the bags into a limo and without asking where I wanted go took me to 57th and Second Avenue. ‘But I want to go to the Drake Hotel.’ ‘Sorry, sir we just leave you here. You can pick up a cab.’ I said, ‘It’s my good luck it’s not pouring with rain.’ Next morning, Pan Am lost a bag of mine in Chicago. Do you think I have had any compensation? They haven’t even acknowledged my letters.’
Millar says quality started to deteriorate in the late 1950s. ‘I think we’ve gone about everything the wrong way. With hindsight it’s easy to see why. If we’d seen the extent of the tourist traffic, we’d have said, let’s have separate airports for first class and business passengers and keep them small. Instead they built bigger airports and bigger planes. The reason why more and more rich executives have their own planes is because they will not put up with being treated like cattle before they get on the plane and once they get off.’
Roger Collis 1987 International Herald Tribune