As a youngster growing up in San Francisco, I thrilled to John Wayne’s heroic flight captain in the film The High and the Mighty. With Dimitri Tiomkin’s theme music augmenting the tension, pilot Wayne took a crippled and out-of-fuel plane from mid-Pacific Ocean to San Francisco. The passengers displayed a plethora of mundane emotions during their flight, earning the movie a B rating, and aside from the music, it received no critical acclaim.
But when Wayne brought that plane into San Francisco airport with Tiomkin’s score reaching its zenith, this callow youth felt relief and no little hero-worship. How could Wayne and his co-pilot have made it? It was a miracle.
When “Duke” walked off the plane and onto the airport runway while whistling the theme music, I knew that pilots were heroes and that flying commercial airliners was perhaps the most glamorous occupation there was.
Wayne made it clear that real men flew planes and that planes epitomized the promise of Cold War American science and technology. Flying in the 1950s and 1960s was also fun: the stewardesses were nice, there was edible food and there was room for one’s legs. I recall winning a bet with my mother when I dribbled a basketball in the back of a United Airlines flight from Phoenix to San Francisco in 1952. People just smiled.
That was then, of course, and this is now. Deregulation, privatization and outsourcing – all problematic facets of our globalized economy and its imperial entrepot south of the 49th parallel – exemplify the new realities of air flight.
The most obvious of these realities, of course, is the requirement for updated air security – part of the war on terror, we are told, no matter how ludicrous the practices deemed necessary to protect pilots, passengers, looming towers, military bases and who knows what else.
After 9/11, the arrival at Kingston’s Norman Rogers Airport of a security agent sporting a 10-gallon hat was meant to engender the safe feelings of the John Wayne era, but he looked more like that old sheriff who sold Dodge trucks long ago on TV. All he seemed to do was walk aimlessly around the terminal, succeeding on occasion in keeping my very non-terrorist dog Forest out.
Granting the need for sensible safety measures after 9/11, and recognizing the economic morass that characterized the airline industry with Ronald Reagan-era deregulation and subsequent corporate mergers, we begin to understand why the friendly skies have grown increasingly surly.
To judge by complaints levied by travellers to and from Kingston in recent weeks, those skies have become downright nasty. The arrival of the Air Alliance Beechcraft 1900D, a pencil-thin plane that gives the bottom line new meaning, has made flying between Kingston and Toronto a miserable experience. The latest Air Canada connection now features as regular fare lost and “misdirected” luggage, unexplained delays and the torture of entering the plane by gauntlet, bending oneself to a 45-degree angle on the way, and occupying the sort of seat that produces the kind of cramping endured by Second World War tail gunners and the doughty airmen who flew over the Burma hump.
This litany now seems the norm with the arrival of the Beechcraft, which has given the notion of no frills new meaning.
Losing my luggage last September between Kingston and Toronto prior to a flight to San Francisco, I was told that the luggage had been “misdirected.” The euphemism made me snicker, and the bags caught up with me in Oakland a couple of days later. Now, we learn, with the Beechcraft, that the operator, Air Alliance, must maintain a certain weight, evenly distributed. This means that rather than being misdirected, sometimes luggage is not directed at all. It remains in Toronto or Kingston until a lighter flight.
There was no sniggering last week when Flight 7382, scheduled to leave Toronto for Kingston at 5:30 p.m., did not leave the gate until after 8. The weather in Toronto and Kingston was exemplary, and no explanations were offered for the delay. The plane was just late, period.
Worse, with a back already zinging from five hours in the air after a flight from Los Angeles, my Ichabod Crane-like figure needed the front-row seat (1A) on the Beechcraft, a seat from which I might splay my arthritic legs in what space existed on the craft. Alas, when I boarded, the pilot looked at me and bellowed, “Move to seat 5A; we need ballast in the middle.”
So now I was ballast with a bad back – reservations be damned. There I was, sitting on the hump (try it some time) with my ankles over my ears. And to top it off, despite having both a window and an aisle, seat 5A also had unanticipated air conditioning – not the little screw top one finds in most commercial craft but a faulty seal along the windowsill. I was able to jam the Air Canada monthly magazine in the space between the side and me, but next time I shall bring duct tape.
The Beechcraft 1900D is a very small plane. One of these days we might hear of passengers having to flap their arms to make like John Wayne in The High and the Mighty.
The passenger service between Kingston and Toronto is now a joke – a joke on commuters and on anyone who would take Kingston seriously as an education, business and technological centre. Come to think of it, perhaps that plane might be able to land on Market Square. The way things are going, this infrequent flyer would not be surprised.
• Geoff Smith, a retired Queen’s University professor, is rethinking the beauty of buses and trains. This article first appeared in the Kingston Whig-Standard March 17, 2007.