- The Washington Times - Monday, June 1, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

BOOK REVIEW:

THE AIRLINE PASSENGER EXPERIENCE
By Daniel L. Rust
University of Oklahoma Press, $45, 272 pages, illus.
Reviewed by Martin Rubin

At a time like the present, when security considerations and economic pressure have combined to make air travel an experience more to be endured than enjoyed, it is a great pleasure to encounter a book like “Flying Across America.” Lavishly illustrated and full of interesting facts and fascinating characters - some well-known, others less so - it presents a wonderful opportunity to revisit the glory days of commercial aviation in the country where flight began and so many of its technological innovations and amenities developed.

Despite the volume’s large size and copious photographs, its informative, intelligent text dominates throughout, leaving the reader impressed with the depth and scope of Daniel L. Rust’s knowledge and understanding of his subject.

It is amazing to see how quickly commercial aviation developed after the Wright brothers’ pioneering first flight in 1903 of not much more than 100 feet - a shorter distance than the length of today’s larger airliners. It seems even more amazing when one learns that until 1908, few people outside Kitty Hawk, N.C. - where that flight took place - even knew about it.

Yet by 1911, William Randolph Hearst, always alive to commercial possibilities, offered a prize of $50,000 to a pilot who could fly from coast to coast in a month and do so by October of that year. On Sept. 17, an intrepid pilot named Calbraith Perry Rodgers took up the challenge in a plane named Vin Fiz, after the soft-drink subsidiary of the Armour Meat Packing Co. of Chicago. As Mr. Rust writes at the outset of his book:

“Rodgers followed railroad tracks and other landmarks as he doggedly endured a series of misfortunes during his transcontinental odyssey, making nearly 70 aerial hops and surviving 15 crashes along the way. As he neared his goal, thousands of people congregated each time the ‘Vin Fiz’ stopped. After covering nearly 4,000 miles, the ‘Vin Fiz’ arrived in Pasadena, Calif., with only a vertical rudder and a couple of wing struts original to the aircraft when it had left Long Island 49 days earlier. Even though Rodgers had exceeded the travel time required to win the Hearst prize, his successful arrival in Los Angeles made him a national celebrity.”

As it happens, the spot where Rodgers landed is just a few hundred yards from where I am writing this review. A small plaque there commemorates the event and the pilot who, as the author writes, “as was often the case with early flyers, met an untimely demise in an airplane crash only five months after completing his transcontinental journey.”

Mr. Rust’s account does not gloss over the dangers and difficulties that were a continuing feature of the development of the commercial aviation service, but the story generally is one of overwhelming successes and increasing speed, comfort, safety and timeliness decade after decade through much of the 20th century.

He salts his accounts of early passenger air travel with quotes from such luminaries as Will Rogers and Anne Morrow Lindbergh as well as writers once famous but now forgotten such as Marcia Davenport - all a delight to read. There are accounts of the travails of smokers wanting to light up but not being permitted to do so, then being told - once they were permitted - not to throw lighted cigarettes out of the planes lest they start forest fires!

And so on through airlines distributing smokes to promote a relaxed atmosphere (including, believe it or not, all-male “business flights” on which pipes and cigars could be enjoyed) and the struggle to achieve today’s smoke-free cabins.

It is piquant in today’s era of almost nonexistent food service aloft to read of airline food beginning with sandwiches, cookies and fruit and evolving into a choice of hot foods, some of them prepared onboard. Mr. Rust makes it clear that airlines then felt an actual obligation to feed passengers as well as possible. Sic transit gloria mundi!

The book ends up with a bump in today’s air-passenger environment with a sobering look at serial airline bankruptcies and mergers in the past decades and at the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, when commercial aviation in the United States was changed forever. “The threat of terror in the skies,” Mr. Rust writes, “now overshadowed every part of the air travel experience.”

Still, as he points out, just a tiny fraction of air passengers are killed each year, compared to 40,000 people killed on U.S. highways. With sadness, he concedes that “much of the glamour, mystique, and the innocent excitement of air travel had been lost in the march toward lower fares and greater security” but concludes his book by saying “we should not lose sight of the positive aspects of flying across America.” The stories of pioneers and those who establish something great are always inspiring as well as diverting, and those contained in this book are no exception.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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