In the mid-20th century, the aviation industry had reached a cultural and aesthetic pinnacle. Commercial airliners featured jazzy music, comfortable seating with dining tables, freshly cooked food and cocktails. Passengers dressed in fine clothes and expected to network and mingle at 35,000 feet. You could smoke!
The Coen brothers' hilarious film Hail, Caesar! (2016) alludes to this heyday of air transit. The protagonist, played by Josh Brolin, works in operations at a major film studio in the 1950s. As his job becomes ever-more complicated and frustrating, a headhunter from a major airline tries to poach him to a new, more exciting industry. Film, the man argues, has already seen its best days. Flight is the future.
The conceit that the airline man was wrong is a key feature of the Hail Caesar!'s theme. And it's true: while Hollywood may have lost a certain charm since the 1950s, it has never stopped growing its audience, revenue, and cultural clout. Despite their often cringeworthy and listless content, movies are one of the few forms of entertainment that are universally enjoyed.
Airlines, on the other hand, have experienced industry growth—but they have devolved from cultural ascendancy to a pariah status. Nobody likes being in an airport or airplane longer than they have to. The 2004 film The Terminal, in which Tom Hanks brings to life the semi-true story of a hapless foreigner stuck in JFK Airport for over three years, is a waking nightmare for those of us who travel on the regular.
Once the glow of being airborne wears off, even children recognize the general shoddiness of commercial flight services. The lines are long. The airport health and security rules are over-regulated and invasive. The ticketing interface is confusing. The staff is overworked and under-qualified. The seats are cramped. The snacks are lame. They lost my bag. The flight is delayed. And so on.
If a teen in 2023 were to speak with the famous 20th-century aviation innovator Charles Lindbergh about the glory and promise of commercial flight in his youth, they could only talk past each other. The anticipation Lindbergh described in his Autobiography of Values of shrinking the size of the globe, the thrill of striding over Asia like a giant three miles tall, the rugged independence and great sigh of exploration—all those are gone today. Barely any living memory of his spirit remains.
For that matter, when I tell my children what airlines used to be like before 2001, they immediately recognize what has been lost. The airport was not a zoo, and flyers felt more like customers than cattle. Friends and relatives could meet you at your gate as you disembarked. There was no need for "TSA Pre-Check" or frustration when this or that machine was on the fritz. While not 1960s posh, it was still a very human experience. It was fun.
Dark humor and absurdity removed, the 1980 movie Airplane! captures this pleasant experience quite well: Johnny is allowed inside the cockpit (ahem), passengers are served hot meals of chicken and (unfortunately tainted) fish, and most passengers are dressed in at least business casual. Conversation, boring though it may be, gives passengers a way to pass the time. Even guitar playing does not seem out of place.
There are many likely culprits for airlines' decadence, but one looms larger than the rest: Americans are too pragmatic. Government regulations, subsidized ticket costs, terrorism, and handheld devices have all changed the flying experience. But it was our taste for practicality that allowed these vicissitudes to change it. Our parents and grandparents did not value the grandeur of flight as much as they valued getting from point A to point B.
Now, with the many recent airline disruptions, health mandates, soaring costs, and pilot shortages, it would appear we get neither grandeur nor convenience. Perhaps when we next face a choice between form and function, we should remember what happened to the airlines.
Andrew Cuff is Communications Director at Beck & Stone where he leads institutional clients in communications consulting and brand tactics. Created is his editorial project. He and his wife (also a writer) have made their home in Latrobe, PA with their four children.