Book Review Published in Transportation Journal Fall 2009
Flying Across America: The Airline Passenger Experience
By Daniel L. Rust.
University of Oklahoma Press
Americans have always had a fascination with air travel. The present day frustrations experienced by airline passengers make it easy to forget the one time excitement and mystique of flying. Daniel Rust traces the evolution of the airlines from the early days to the post 9/11 environment from the passenger viewpoint. The book is non technical, focusing on anecdotes about passenger travel.
The narrative begins with air mail contracts awarded by the government which enabled the infant airline industry to get started and develop. This example of government policy regarding transportation is similar to land grants given to railroads and the interstate highway system that facilitates trucking in the US. As expected, there are stories about Will Rogers and the barnstorming era. Interesting facts include early pilots navigating by following transcontinental railroad tracks called the “iron compass”. Night flying was aided by beacons every 10-25 miles across the center of the continent. The beacons were introduced by the Commerce Department and maintained by the Lighthouse Bureau.
As airlines struggled to become established, Lindbergh’s famous flight across the Atlantic helped attract new investors. Along with the new medium of radio, aviation became the darling of Wall Street. During this period transcontinental routes were established in intermodal fashion along with the railroads. With pilots following the rail lines for navigation, passengers slept and dined in Pullman cars between air legs of the journey. Transportation between rail depots and air fields was by specially designed “aero cars”. Details of TAT’s first passenger flights include descriptions of the Ford Tri Motor cabin interior, uniformed attendant service, and early airport terminal facilities. The $350 fare for Top Class, coast to coast, service on TAT in the 1920’s equates to about $4000 today.
The patchwork system of air-rail travel proved unprofitable leading to mergers and bigger mail contracts. Through these contracts, Postmaster General Walter Brown reshaped the nation’s airway map, limited competition, and set the pattern for the establishment of trunk lines.
The 1930’s was a period of growing pains for the industry. New and bigger aircraft led to a series of crashes and the new science of air accident investigation. The CAB was established to address loss of confidence in air travel by the public. At the same time radio technology improved navigation especially during night flying.
The middle chapters of the book describe difficulties encountered by passengers during WWII. Airline terms such as “standby”, “no show”, and “bumping” were added to the lexicon. After the war, the glut of military aircraft and abundance of trained pilots resulted in excess capacity and reduced load factor. This led to the emergence of non scheduled airlines known as “non scheds”. These charter airlines began flying air cargo as well as passengers and are the ancestors of today’s air freight carriers.
The chapter entitled Economy and Elegance tells the story of the glamour period of air travel in the 1950’s and 1960’s. United Airlines led the way with faster coast to coast service with fewer stops. This reduced operating costs per flight but the new larger aircraft required more passengers. Of course this is an example of the age old transportation dilemma of yield vs. load factor. A reluctant CAB approved the new Coach and Family Fare plans to allow carriers to attract more passengers. Other forms of competition included the introduction of non stop coast to coast flights known as the “red eye”, champagne flights, credit card payment, and flight insurance.
Descriptions of the modern era begin with a rather uninteresting chapter about the development of the jet engine. The technical details seem out of place with the passenger experience theme of the book. Jet engines led to larger aircraft and the need for bigger airports further from city centers. In-flight movies were introduced to offset passenger boredom and feelings of isolation at higher altitudes.
The last chapter The Era of Airline Deregulation and 9/11 covers the industry as it exists today. The oil shocks of the 1970’s resulted in removal of CAB price restrictions and, ultimately, full deregulation. Legacy carriers struggled to compete with new entrants such as People Express and Southwest. These lower cost airlines forced the older airlines to revamp their networks, with most adopting hub and spoke systems. The intense competition that followed led to lower fares, frequent flyer programs, and paperless ticketing, among many innovations. As we all know, airlines and airports have become overcrowded. The security lines and delays after 9/11 are well known to anyone who flies today. Passenger satisfaction in the 21st Century is low in spite of competitive fares and increased safety. Certainly the glamour of air travel has been lost forever.
While some chapters contain too much information, this book will be of interest to airline aficionados as well as readers interested in the history of transportation. It is designed in a coffee table format and beautifully illustrated. Collectors of airline memorabilia will like the charts and early marketing materials that are depicted throughout the book. All in all an enjoyable read.
Mitch Kostoulakos, CTL
Northern Essex Community College