Flights of fancy and airline memoirs

September 5, 2011

By Danee Samonte
The Philippine Star

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That’s me inside the British Airways Concorde
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Manila - Six weeks before my first airplane flight in July of 1967, I already had sleepless nights — not because of worry or stress but because of sheer excitement. Flying has fascinated me even before I stepped into kindergarten. Together with some barely teenaged kids, we were headed for Farragut Park Idaho to represent the Philippines in the 12th World Boy Scout Jamboree.

Our flight was on a Northwest Orient Boeing 707. It had four noisy, gas-guzzling Pratt & Whitney engines and had to make stops at Wake Island, Honolulu and Portland Oregon before reaching our final destination in Seattle Washington. Nowadays, an aircraft about the size of a Boeing 707 like a Boeing 777 can fly nonstop to Seattle on two engines.

From that first flight in July 1967, my passion for flying grew stronger. Strange as it may sound, I found more pleasure in riding the plane than actually visiting a new country or city. I didn’t have the means for air travel back then, so I thought of creative ways to sate my hunger for flying. I tried unsuccessfully to be a travel agent and courier. Applying as an air steward also crossed my mind. I never got a chance to fly again until four years later in the summer of 1971 on Pan Am to San Francisco.

In the early ’70s, Philippine radio and TV were inundated with airline ads and jingles from gigantic companies like Northwest Orient (the ad with a gong sound), Pan Am (Pan Am makes the going great) and TWA (Up Up and Away). Ironically, they’re all gone now. Pan Am went bankrupt in 1991. TWA merged with American Airlines in 2001 and Northwest merged with Delta in 2008.
My first flight to Europe was in 1973 via Air France.

One of our three stops  en route to Paris was in Tehran, Iran. Since the start of the new millennium, Air France or KLM flies Manila to Europe nonstop. In 1974, there were two international airlines in the Philippines — Philippine Air Lines and Air Manila which was owned by the Silverio family. I flew on one of Air Manila’s decrepit Boeing 707s and had the scare of my life with its hairy landing in Los Angeles. Air Manila together with Filipinas Orient Airways folded up in the ’70s.

In the same decade, the no-frills/low-cost airline was born. Conceived by visionary Sir Freddie Laker, it was called Skytrain. Although it only lasted for five years, it served as the model for the thriving low-cost carriers of today like Air Asia, Cebu Pacific, Tiger Airways, Virgin Blue and the like.

Flying in the ’80s and through part of the ’90s still remained chic and fashionable. Passengers flew with the most trendy outfits and accessories in comparison to fliers nowadays who travel in shorts, sandals, sleeveless shirts and unkempt hair. They can’t be blamed though because even first-class passengers go through Gestapo like friskers, security and metal detectors. Who would want to fly in three-piece suits or knee-high boots just to remove them when going through security. Not to mention having toiletries confiscated when contents are more than 100 ml.

In 1981, Singapore Airlines unveiled one of its Boeing 747s with slot machines on a flight to San Francisco. It didn’t last long though because the machines had to be plastic instead of the normal metal and cracked easily.

In 1985, Richard Branson’s Virgin Airlines pioneered free massages for its premium upper-class passengers.

The Concorde started service in the 1976 but I didn’t get the opportunity to try it until the late ’80s. Flying the Concorde from Paris to New York was an experience to be cherished forever. Concorde fliers had a separate check-in counter, lounge and boarding gate. Service was beyond first-class. Meals were prepared by the world’s leading chefs and the normal eight-hour plus transatlantic flight took less than three and a half. Although the aircraft cabin was quite cramped with two abreast seating, nobody really complained. I was so thrilled to fly above the 60,000 feet level at Mach 2.2 speed. Normal aircrafts fly below Mach 1. Looking from my window, I could see the slight curve of the earth.

My second flight on the Concorde happened in October 1996 on British Airways with my compadres Joey de Leon and Tony Tuviera together with better halves Eileen Macapagal and Mady Tuviera. This time, it was from New York to London. On hindsight, I’m glad I had those two Concorde experiences because it’s gone forever together with much of the romance of flying. Nowadays, because flying has been the main target of terrorists, there’s too much paranoia.

I look forward to the near future when space flights can be booked on Virgin Galactic. I will need to start saving now because the last time I checked, seats on Virgin Galactic cost around $200,000.

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