Since I’m between jobs this week I have a lot of time to catch up on some of my passions: Japan, history and airplanes. One of my recent wastes of time online (taking up some of the time I would have otherwise spent blogging) is FlyerTalk, a massive online message board system populated by people who are excessively interested in travel and flying. Many of the fogeys in the crowd constantly complain about how bad airline service has become in recent years, and how they pine for the “good old days” when the stewardesses would carve ice sculptures at their seats.
There is an awesome article on Japanese Wikipedia which talks about airline routings between Japan and Europe. Until 1991, it was basically impossible to do this directly, because the Soviet Union was in the way and they would not let planes fly over unless they were approved to fly into a Soviet airport. You can see the effect this had on routing in the 1968 JAL route map shown to the right (click to enlarge—courtesy of the awesome Airchive site—also note how they were using the dorky “Japanese government publication font” even back then).
Here’s a brief history of how things progressed:
- 1952: BOAC (the predecessor of British Airways) inaugurates Japan-Europe service using de Havilland Comets, the very first jet airliners, now principally remembered for busting open at their poorly-designed windows. The routing is Tokyo – Manila – Bangkok – Rangoon – Calcutta – New Delhi – Karachi – Bahrain – Cairo – Rome (- London). Eight stops! It almost sounds like a pleasure cruise, except that it’s being conducted in a big aluminum pipe filled with mustard-yellow burlap seats.
- 1957: SAS says “screw that” and begins service from Copenhagen to Tokyo via Anchorage. Several other airlines decide that Anchorage is a good stopping point—among them JAL, KLM, Alitalia and Lufthansa. Although it’s out of the way, it’s slightly more convenient than avoiding Russia to the south. Once travel restrictions are lifted in the early 1960s, the airport in Anchorage becomes a little hub of Japanese tourist activity.
- 1961: Air France begins service in Boeing 707s (which are basically like today’s Boeing 757s except louder and less efficient) on Tokyo – Bangkok – Calcutta – Karachi – Kuwait – Cairo – Rome ( – Frankfurt – Paris). That brings it down to five stops, which I suppose is progress.
- 1967: Japan and the Soviet Union negotiate to permit JAL to fly to Moscow, allowing connections to Europe through the Aeroflot network. Which would be cool, except that the service is actually operated by Aeroflot, using a dodgy Russian aircraft that looks like this, and as well as Japanese consumers avoid US airlines nowadays you’d better believe they wouldn’t touch a Russian one.
- 1979: Air France manages to cut the southern route down to three stops: Tokyo – Beijing – Karachi – Athens (- Paris).
- 1983: Finnair finally manages the first nonstop flight from Japan to what can almost be considered Western Europe: Helsinki. They accomplish this using DC-10 aircraft, by flying all the way across the pole, through the Bering Strait and back to Japan nonstop. Other airlines eventually figure there is no reason to continue stopping in Anchorage and follow suit. Also this year, KAL 007 was shot down, proving that the Soviets were serious about not letting airliners fly over Siberia.
- 1991: The Soviet Union collapses. Airspace restrictions cease to be an issue. Schedule-sensitive executives rejoice.
- 2007: The food sucks and the stewardesses are all pushing sixty, but I appreciate the fact that nobody wants to shoot me down. Besides Bin Laden. And maybe some ex-girlfriends.