Culture And Commerce January/February 2007

Up, Up, and Away

Today, air travel is just another form of mass transit. Is there any going back to the glamorous days of yore?

The postwar glamour of the jet age, on the other hand, celebrated the present as much as the future, the passengers and crew more than the planes. Air travel represented youth and adventure. It was an alternative to the nine-to-five regimentation of normal postwar life, a symbol of mid-century desire. Hence DiCaprio’s con man in Catch Me If You Can seduces his marks while wearing a Pan Am pilot’s uniform. A friend advised Jackie Kennedy on White House dinner parties: “Have pretty women, attractive men, guests who are en passant, the flavor of another language. This is the jet age, so have something new and changing.” Life photographers followed a real Pan Am pilot on a seven-day run that included time off for kayaking in the Mediterranean along a Beirut beach and discussing modern art with a painter in a Paris studio. At home with his wife and young daughters, the pilot said, “Sometimes I just stand in the yard watching the briefcase brigade go by.”

Today’s airlines can’t recapture this jet-age glamour, not just because planes are crowded and less-than-luxurious but because society has changed. Home and work, labor and leisure, are not as separate as they once were. And jet-age glamour assumed a world run by an easily identifiable elite. People who flew, especially internationally, seemed like a special circle: the best and the brightest, the international playboys, the tennis pros, the carefree college students with time to see the world. Spy stories, from the James Bond novels to I Spy, disguised their heroes as members of this lucky leisure class. On the ground, the briefcase brigade dreamed of being like them.

Jet-age glamour depended on a particular worldview, as well: the innocent internationalism expressed in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics or the Miss Universe pageant, with their colorful costumes and shared aspirations; the sunny faith of Star Trek and trick-or-treating for UNICEF. The jet age’s glamorous heroes traveled a world of superficial exoticism and essential sameness. In the 1966 film The Endless Summer, two young surfers fly around the world in search of the perfect wave. Everywhere, from Africa to Australia, they find friendly people who love the beach.

Contrary to popular belief, airline glamour didn’t disappear with the coming of U.S. airline deregulation, in 1978. The magic had slipped away at least a decade earlier, as a new, negative idea of air travel seized the popular imagination. Terrorist hijackers turned glamour into horror, killing passengers, blowing up planes, and puncturing internationalist ideals. Airports replaced the free-flowing, glass-ringed spaces of their terminals with security checkpoints and fortified blank walls. Arthur Hailey’s 1968 novel, Airport, and its movie spin-offs, portrayed flying as stressful, sordid, and dangerous. “In the popular imagination,” writes architectural historian Alastair Gordon in Naked Airport, “air travel was now equated with boredom and disaster.” The loss of glamour helped make deregulation possible. If airlines were just another business, why shouldn’t they compete in an open marketplace?

Today air travel is just a more or less enjoyable way to get from place to place, not an emotionally resonant symbol of something greater than itself. We frequent flyers forget how unnatural it is to zoom through the air in a metal tube, and we imagine that airline glamour was all about real silverware and perfectly coiffed stewardesses—the experience on the plane. But glamour is always an illusion, an imaginative picture with the blemishes removed. With experience comes disillusionment, no matter how luxurious the reality may be. The glamour of twentieth-century air travel helped to persuade once-fearful travelers to take to the skies and encouraged parochial Americans to go out and see the world. The crowds on today’s planes may have destroyed that glamour. But they also demonstrate its power.

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Virginia Postrel is an Atlantic contributing editor and the author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. Her blog, the Dynamist, can be found at More

Contributing editor for The Atlantic and author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. Editor-in-chief of

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