Recalling the “golden age” of air travel: when the quality of the booze was the only thing that made you forget how long the trip was taking

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. Also, more people are now able to fly in private jets through private jet charter services provided by companies like Jettly.

JAL route map, 1968There 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.

35 thoughts on “Recalling the “golden age” of air travel: when the quality of the booze was the only thing that made you forget how long the trip was taking”

  1. BOAC used to employ two Japanese nationals on the flight and one was always in a kimono. They would alternate wearing it in four hour shifts throughout the flight. It was apparently hell changing in the toilet.

    Here’s the text from a BOAC advert in 1963:

    “Can’t pronounce her full name? Try “Suki”.
    Suki’s more than beautiful. She speaks Japanese and
    English fluently. Understands modern jazz and customs
    forms. Can serve you saki and sushi like a geisha,
    your teriyaki steak with ancestral grace, and say thank
    you so nicely you’ll know she means it. She does.”

  2. >and as well as Japanese consumers avoid US airlines nowadays you’d better believe they wouldn’t touch a Russian one.

    Is there a specific reason for Japanese consumers to shun US airlines ? Or is it just image deficit ? (this is a candid question, I’m from Europe and have never used anything else than KLM or Swiss for intercontinental flights)

  3. “Is there a specific reason for Japanese consumers to shun US airlines ? ”

    Perhaps the horrible service? Since experiencing a few flights on JAL and ANA, I have come to dread having to fly on United or Northwest…

  4. I’d say it’s just as service on US airlines tends to be average to poor. Japanese tend (like most people) to support their national carrier (ANA will do as well) even though JAL is simply not that good really (in various opinion polls I have seen, several of them Japanese ones like in AB Road magazine).

  5. Regarding the post title – don’t you mean QUANTITY of booze, rather than quality…? (^_^)

    Spam protection: Sum of F(x, my) = mF(x,y) when F = d[mv] / dt Ψ(x,y)….

  6. Is there a specific reason for Japanese consumers to shun US airlines ? Or is it just image deficit ? (this is a candid question, I’m from Europe and have never used anything else than KLM or Swiss for intercontinental flights)

    How about because US airlines suck? Crap service, many charge for alcohol even on international flights or even meals, the stewardesses are hags and the stewards gay. Frankly you have to wonder why Americans bother with their own airlines.

  7. When I’m paying for travel, I usually fly United, even though I know it will probably suck. US frequent flyer programs are far more generous to people flying on their own dime (i.e. cheapskates like me) than those outside the US. ANA, JAL etc. all give rewards for buying expensive fares and withhold rewards for cheap fares: United, on the other hand, basically gives me a free ticket to Asia (on whichever Star Alliance airline happens to be open) for every $800 transpacific flight I buy.

    I imagine this is a big reason why many Americans, even those who are seasoned travelers with money, stick with US airlines when foreign airlines provide a better product. It’s because they get more fringe benefits out of the deal—be it elite status, free trips or whatever—especially when they’re stuck with the same airline for their domestic travel anyway (as many “hub-locked” people are… when you live in Jersey Continental is just too convenient).

    There’s also the extra four inches in economy class on United, and the air traffic control option on the in-flight audio (hilarious when you’re flying in/out of Narita and listening to the Japanese pilots and controllers communicate with each other in English)

  8. To second Joe, I also almost invariably fly Continental because they usually have the cheapest tickets from the U.S. to Asia, sometimes around $700 round trip. I honestly don’t give a damn about this mystical “service”. As long as the people don’t spit in my food, im a happy camper.

    I don’t see why anyone is willing to pay hundreds or even a thousand dollars extra for some cheap booze and a case of blue balls. It’s a complete rip off I say and people should realize that those flight attendants aren’t their damn mothers and if they really want service, they should put the money they saved on their tickets towards a bar girl fund with happy endings.

  9. Joe, I’m with you on the Star Alliance thing. I don’t actually love United but domestically it gets me miles. And Internationally I can fly Lufthansa and get miles too. They are a great airline to fly internationally! I miss the extra service and amenities from the golden age too but now I just want to get somewhere with my luggage!

  10. Like Jing, I couldn’t really care less about in-plane service. When have I ever actually had to ask a stewardess for anything except a cup of water? I’ve also got no desire to booze in an airplane- I’m already tired enough when I get to the other end. Hell- I’d be happy to go on a discount flight with no food, no “entertainment,” minimal attendants, and no provided drinks except water. I can get a takeout sandwich or two before I board the plane if it saves $100.

  11. Personally I’d gladly pay that extra hundred for something like SQ’s individual TVs and video-on-demand – on a ten-twelve hour flight, that can be a sanity-saver. I must agree to an extent with the mileage thing – UA/Star Alliance are pretty good that way, and what’s more, have credited me with miles even when I flew an airline I didn’t know was part of the network: no need to show a card or try and claim them when you belatedly realise the fact.

  12. ANA’s shared routes from United are only marginally better than the US carriers. I have flown a 747 JAL from NY to Tokyo that felt a step above the normal US service, but it’s not across the board.

  13. I can get a takeout sandwich or two before I board the plane if it saves $100.

    Not any more, you can’t. Those sandwiches are where terrorists hide their plastique!

  14. Talk about service,any of you ever realize that Northwest is a lot worse than Aeroflot?Aeroflot is actually fantastic.Cabin attendants DO smile to the passengers…

    When I was flying with Northwest from Narita to New York on October 1 2001(Something like 36000yen for bothways).An old Chinese woman sitting in the back of me suddenly stood up and start look in the window as the plane approach over Manhattan.Cabin attendant showed up and start demanding her in a very authorative manner to her to sit down.”Sit Down! I said sit Down! Do you understand any English!”.The old woman who seems to be understand no English just froze for the horror and that made the attendant got even more angrier,so I intervened.”Maybe she doesn’t speak any English,She is a Chinese”.”Do you speak any Chinese?””No”I said.”Then you too should sit down and take a seat belt”.

    Anyway lots of Japanese businessmen who prefer Japanese airline let their company pay the charges.And flight to the states usually gives you enough mileage that can be used for a free domestic flight.One more thing.You don’t have to speak any English on the Japanese planes.

  15. Aceface’s last comment is particularly on point—many US carriers flying to Japan will only have one or two Japanese members of the crew, if that, whereas everyone working a Japanese flight will be Japanese. The in-flight entertainment is also much more Japanese-oriented… on my ANA flight to Seoul last month I was watching a 60s comedy movie (日本一の色男 – hilarious) one way and reading the Nikkei on the way back, both of which would be difficult to pull off on a US carrier…

    If you’re expensing the trip, Asian carriers can even be a better deal than US carriers, since they tend to give more premiums for people buying the higher refundable business fares. Not to mention that their business and first class cabins are sexy: I really want to try out JAL’s Star Trek seat and Singapore’s ludicrously huge business class one of these days when I’m not paying for it.

  16. “Not any more, you can’t. Those sandwiches are where terrorists hide their plastique!”
    No, actually you can still carry food and drinks onto airplanes- you just have to buy them from stores inside the gate area, after the security checkpoint. Every major airport has a decent selection.

  17. Consumers like Roy and Jing are why service in America sucks so much, at everything, in every sector, across the board: US consumers will nickle and dime away any possible convenience, ensuring terrible service and maximum misery. Thanks guys — and chalk up reason #48,572 why I ain’t never leaving Japan.

  18. “Every major airport has a decent selection.”

    No doubt for highly INdecent prices….

  19. Narita actually has decent prices—for an indecent selection.

    Unlike US airports, which are generally indecent in both regards.

  20. Curzon: It’s not so much a matter of nickel and diming as the fact that I have no appreciation for shitty in flight entertainment I NEVER use. I have a couple of books and an mp3 player and the last thing I want is an edited version of a shitty movie. Same for the food. I usually bring a sandwich because I prefer it to the nasty and/or tiny meals that airlines generally serve. And, as I said, I have no interest in in-flight booze, and I usually only drink water or MAYBE a coke. I’d be happy to take a flight with good essential services, but none of the overpriced frills I never use, if it saved some money.

    What are some places in the US where you see service nickel and dimed away? I know you have nothing but hate for Japanese medical practitioners, for example.

  21. Incidentally, all the royalties paid by foreign airlines for the use of Russian airspace go directly to Aeroflot and not to the government. This dates back to an agreement in 1970 where foreign airlines were permitted limited rights over Siberia provided they compensated Aeroflot. These charges are in addition to the usual air navigation fees. When the Soviet Union collapsed and and flyovers became more frequent, these payments amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Under Yeltsin, that used to mean putting money directly in the pocket of oligarch Boris Berezovsky who appears to have siphoned off large sums for his personal use.

    The EU has agreed to pay these fees until 2013 but has asked that they be cancelled from that point. Aeroflot remains the collection agent for the government and retains around 70% of all monies collected – describing it as an “indirect government subsidy”. It represents a fairly hefty chunk of their total revenues.

  22. OK,that partially explains why Aeroflot is still maintaining their own residential apartment in nearby Narita airport of Tomisato city.The building is only of it’s kind owned by any airlines I know around Narita.
    I thought that was basically for isolation of employee from the cold war days and wondering why the building is still being maintained after the Soviet collapse.

  23. I’m with Joe and others on United. I can use the miles and I rack up a lot, so it’s good for me.

    In terms of service…who cares? I bring my own food on board and never drink alcohol on a flight, so I don’t care. I sit in my seat, watch the movies and get up to walk around now and again. Couldn’t care less about the service, food or drink. Just get me there alive.

  24. Obviously, safety and reliability of flights are both absolutely worth paying for.

  25. Probably not. But as far as I know Eva Air (the other Taiwanese airline) is pretty decent. I rode them a couple of times and nothing exploded.

  26. Right, if I have to fly MIAT, I’m definitely booking the same flight as Aceface….

  27. the last thing I want is an edited version of a shitty movie

    The Virgin Atlantic flight I was on last week had 48 movies on demand, none of which were edited for content (only to fit the screen) and which you rewind, fast forward, pause, do whatever.

    But hey, that’s why I just don’t buy American.

  28. Yeah, Video on Demand is amazing. When I first encountered it on a flight to Singapore on SQ (one of my personal favourites, not least as I get to transit through Changi, one of the world’s best airports) it was the first flight I had ever been on that I actually found myself wishing had been longer. Virgin was the first airline I ever flew that had individual TVS (this was shortly after Kitty Hawk) and their entertainment has always been rated very highly.

    In contrast, the one and only time I’ve ever been bumped up to Business Class was on Untied [sic] Airlines and though this was well after the advent of personal TVs, Untied still didn’t have them on the upper deck of their Japan-LAX run. Still, the food was good, and they left out a box of Godiva chocolates all night, so it could have been worse….

    The reason for flying US airlines to the US for me is that they often have a sort of Free Flights deal, where you can fly to X city, then Q and R, then fly out of P. That’s also something you get in Europe on European airlines. Asian airlines can sometimes offer you a stopover in their hub city on the way to Europe etc, but it can add some serious time to the journey.

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