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A century of romance with flying

Airplane has given us thrills, convenience, 'jet set'

By Beth Lewandowski and Kathleen Koch

Air travel
Air travel in the pre-World War II era was an elegant adventure, complete with fine china.

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CNN's Kathleen Koch takes a look back at air travel for the masses (December 12)
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(CNN) -- From the start, the world fell in love with the "aero-plane" and the mobility it would bring.

Only 11 years after the Wright brothers invented air travel, the first commercial air service started ferrying passengers across the Tampa Bay in Florida. The 22-mile trip, which cost three dollars, cut what was an eight-hour trip by train to just 20 minutes. Service lasted only three months, but the airline's safety record was perfect.

The same could not be said for other early attempts at flying with plane technology in its infancy. Flying was a difficult business, and there was no air traffic control or government oversight in crash investigation and regulation.

And flying in the early days was neither very fast or comfortable. Planes like the Ford Trimotor, popular in the late 1920s, and the DC-3 and the four-engine Sikorsky flying boats of the 1930s reached a maximum altitude of 5,000 feet and flew at 150 miles per hour or less. Turbulence was guaranteed, according to National Air and Space Museum curator Bob van der Linden.

"It was very drafty. It could be very uncomfortable. Let's put it this way, airsickness was very common then," said van der Linden.

Cocktail lounges and fine china

But the early airlines of the 1930s and 1940s airlines like Delta, United, TWA and Pan American Airways did not skimp on luxury.

Pan Am's Flying Clippers, which made the first long transoceanic flights, were considered the most luxurious airliners ever built. Cocktail lounges, sleeping berths, dining on fine china and even a honeymoon suite were standard.

"Fifty years from now, people will look back upon a Pan American Clipper flight of today as the most romantic voyage of history," Clare Boothe Luce wrote in Life Magazine about her 1941 trip on the China Clipper.

But the true golden age of air travel might well have been the 1950s, when the first jets the De Havilland Comet and the Boeing 707 hit the scene, creating a revolution in safety, comfort and speed.

Flying was fun and adventurous, defined by the Frank Sinatra song "Come Fly with Me" and the Hollywood movie of the same name. Airlines even marketed fun, from Braniff's colorful planes and uniforms to National's advertising come-ons, "I'm Cindy, fly me."

But, at the time, flying was still primarily a privilege of the wealthy "jet set."

New age, new issues

Today most airports have skyways, but in the old days passengers -- always dressed to the nines -- deplaned right on the tarmac.

U.S. airline deregulation in the 1970s finally opened up air travel to the masses. A new breed of airline sprouted up, catering to budget travelers and vacationers, including People Express, Southwest Airlines and others. That trend has expanded in recent years overseas with such airlines as Ryanair in Europe and the launch of Singapore Airlines' budget airline, ValuAir.

Today, more than 1.6 billion passengers travel each year for business or leisure, according to the International Air Transport Association. That number could exceed 2.3 billion by 2010.

"In the 1930s, only the rich could fly. Nowadays, basically anybody can fly," says the Smithsonian's van der Linden.

The question for some people now is, who still wants to?

In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, patdowns and head-to-toe searches have replaced the white glove treatment of yesteryear. Much has been gained, and much has been lost, as we trade in our pocket knives and sometimes even our dignity for a sense of security.

"Yes, I'm afraid the romance is definitely gone," says Ted Johnson, a Pan Am steward for 41 years who started work aboard the China Clipper when he was 19.

Some disagree. "That mystery is still there, that enthusiasm and joy about traveling is still there," says van der Linden.

It may not have been the future we imagined, but there are still some who look to the skies and dream.

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