If you’ve tried going abroad lately, you will know that the process has changed drastically. Gone is the relative ease of perusing a travel site and booking your flights, your main concern being whether you’d remembered to pack your passport.
Travelling in the age of Covid is dogged with confusing new lingo and a protocol that often feels like an obstacle course rife with tripwires. But could this “new normal” mark a shift in how we value the experience? Might it, however circuitously, restore the glamour of flying?
Before the pandemic, flying had become mundane. Never had it been so widely accessible, with budget airlines offering last-minute trips for less than the price of a restaurant meal. Once the pinnacle of sophistication, it was for many no more noteworthy than taking the bus. It had ceased being a luxury.
Now it feels like a minor miracle to buckle up and jet off into the clouds. There’s a relief in being able to move about again, but it’s shaded with a newfound – or perhaps, regained – awareness of the machinations getting you from point A to B. In a sense, it feels like a return to the event that was flying when commercial travel first took off.
Commercial flying went mainstream in the hedonistic 1960s, with advertising companies casting plane journeys as chic, relaxing, even gourmet, experiences, the flight no longer a means to an end but an exciting destination. Magazines featured sumptuous images of legs of lamb being carved by chefs seat-side, or dressed lobsters being ferried along the aisle on glossy platters. Polished silverware and starched tablecloths graced the generous tray tables, while on some jets framed oil paintings lined the walls and curtains the windows, lending the cabin a homely feel. There were none of the distinctions we have today, no economy or business. Glamour was a given.
“Time saving transportation and flagship hospitality for only 4.5 cents a mile” was the tagline of an American Airlines poster. An activity as passive as sitting in a plane for five hours became worthy, flying synonymous with adventure.
Of course, it helped that the act of flying is by nature theatrical. Being a pilot was the height of sophistication, while air stewardesses adhered to strict sartorial guidelines, heels, hemlines, and pearls prescribed to the millimetre, and became the top aspiration for schoolgirls (though many would be turned away, too fat or too tall).
Passengers would also dress up for the ir flights, the suits and stoles of the time a far cry from today’s preference for the personal comfort of tracksuit bottoms or leggings.
But some glamour hasn’t aged so well. From the mid-seventies onwards, smoking wasn’t only permitted but actively encouraged, the cabin a thick cloud of grey by landing. The legacy of smoking on planes can still be found in the leftover ashtrays, tchotchkes of a near-forgotten time.
With the rise of package holidays in the early eighties the “golden age” of air travel had begun to tarnish. Then, from the late nineties onwards, the gradual opening of Pandora’s Box: Budget airlines like Ryanair, Vueling, Whizz and EasyJet made shoestring travel both highly profitable and attractive. The onus was on maximising profit at all cost, which meant cutting corners. In 2010, Ryannair made headlines when it announced plans to have standing room only flights where they would also charge passengers for the honour of using the toilet. The idea, then still at the proposal stage, was thwarted when regulators deemed it unsafe.
Flying was no longer something to look forward to, but a mildly unpleasant experience to power through, perhaps with the help of an eye mask, sleeping pills, and earplugs to dull the inevitable wailing baby.
Then it all stopped. It’s been 20 months since the pandemic hit pause on non-essential journeys. Aerial photography showed hundreds of grounded planes, scattered and immobile like flocks of clipped birds. With leisure bookings only now just recovering their 2019 rates, and most business trips still replaced by video call, the future of commercial aviation is shaky. In 2020 the airline industry revenue totalled $328bn, a mere 40 per cent of 2019’s takings and which harkened back to figures seen at the turn of the millenium.
Perhaps now is a time to take a less frenzied approach to travelling. If we’re taking fewer trips and probably paying more for the privilege – for environmental reasons as well as pandemic-related ones – perhaps we can do so in a little more style.