My First Flight
The first time I flew on an airplane in Summer 1973, my mother dressed us appropriately for a semi-cross continental excursion: long, pastel dresses for us girls, my Dad in a necktie and sports coat. We climbed the exterior staircases, carrying a small token of a toy for entertainment during the 2.5 hour flight. If we remained on our best behavior for the duration, the stewardesses would provide us with a small pin to remind us of our voyage. We would have earned our wings. Best behavior meant not asking for a complementary deck of cards, it meant not dropping food in our laps as we ate our meals, and it meant sitting in our seats and not getting up for any reason, even to use the on-board lavatories.
Flying in the early 1970s also meant departing from the old, brick terminal at Sky Harbor Airport. We had only lived in the Grand Canyon State for about eighteen months, yet we had visited the terminal several times to pick up Dad from his business travels. Sometimes we would arrive early and go out to the gate to meet him; sometimes we would change into our pajamas and just pull up curbside when he had late evening arrivals. I remember driving down Interstate 17 and curving onto the Black Canyon Freeway, and I never remember there being any traffic. Travel felt different then, even if I simply came along for the ride. And when I finally boarded a plane, I felt like royalty. And I dressed and acted accordingly.
I am inflight now, and I see a completely different view. Kicked under my seat are my flip flops. On my tray table, a simple bag of peanuts, and I fork over the additional cost for a Corona. The flight attendants – the majority of whom are men – wear shorts and polo shirts. My son sits next to me, jeans and t-shirt, much like every other passenger. Last time the two of us flew together, we sat astride on two aisle seats, but he got the better deal. On the window beside me, a woman tucked her dog in a nylon tote under her seat, and between us her boyfriend used his soft drink can as a make-shift spittoon. It’s a different caliber of passenger, with a different level of service, and a different in-flight experience.
But think about what else has changed. This flight includes LED mood lighting to ease the transition from taxiway, to airborne, to landing. I am Wi-Fi enabled and can play solitaire, not with the complimentary deck of cards, but on the in-flight gaming system. The movie audio isn’t piped in through headset air tubes, but is electronically connected, along with a full selection of television channels and movies. I communicate with the ground via email, or I can post a video of myself and the view out the window. With GPS I can track my flight, see over what landmarks I am flying, and receive real-time speed and distance measurements. This is a new era of air travel, less formal, but far more functional; planes are more snug, but letting go of the traditions of the past helps us move towards a better life and a more effective journey from Point A to Point B. I recall a flight abroad in the early nineties where the back third of the plane contained the smoking section, as if the smoke confined itself to those rows. I like the changes in the past forty years. Now, if only we can get rid of the smokeless tobacco, too.