Jewish World Review May 5, 2003/ 3 Iyar 5763
The future is grounded
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Remember all the headlines in the early 90s that in a decade a plane would be able to fly from New York to Tokyo in two hours? Now that British Airways and Air France are ending their Concorde flights this year, all that aviation exuberance seems like a cruel joke. In fact, with today's airlines in dire financial straits, it seems as if the horse and buggy is bound to make a revival.
I've been on about a dozen Concorde flights-none after the Air France crash in July 2000-and feel melancholy about this once-wondrous mode of transportation's demise. Just as Americans lost interest in the space program after JFK's promise of a rocket reaching the moon by the end of the 60s was realized, the failed economics of Concorde, apparent almost immediately after the inaugural flights 27 years ago, have relegated those splendid planes to museum relics.
There have been dozens of eulogies written about the plane in the past several weeks, and most have missed the point, concentrating on the "luxury" of the three-hour flight rather than the magnificent convenience of saving time. In fact, the ride was often bumpy, the seats cramped and the ambience not nearly as elegant as that of the now-defunct MGM Grand flights from New York to Los Angeles.
An Air France station manager at JFK, Jacques Malot, was quoted recently in the Times as saying, "People used to dress up to take the Concorde-jewels, dress, nice coats. Those days are gone. Now, people come in jeans." That's a fallacy: I first flew from New York to London on a Concorde 16 years ago and, as is the case on most planes, the attire of customers varied. There were businessmen in suits, who'd be dressed that way in any case; athletes in sweatpants and tank-tops; celebrities in jeans and no make-up and elderly ladies in furs. Just like the first-class section of any airline.
In addition, there were almost always discounts to be found when flying at twice the speed of sound. On every occasion I flew Concorde-save one, when a sudden business trip to London beckoned-I never paid the full fare, combining either "specials" by the two airlines or combinations of traveling by Concorde one way, returning home in business class, sometimes for as low a fare as $2500. And still, the cabin would be 75 percent vacant.
Who would've predicted back in 1964, while roaming through the futuristic exhibits at the World's Fair in Flushing, that in 2003 transportation would be essentially unchanged. Unless Amtrak is privatized, the railroads, including the terrific Acela, will soon take a step backward. Which leaves the automobile, which is still, amazingly, the cause of so many needless deaths each year. Once, as a kid, my family was going home to Long Island from New Hampshire in our station wagon. On a Connecticut turnpike we saw a gruesome accident. I'll never forget a plump lady, her polka-dot dress stained with blood, sitting outside her demolished Volkswagen, with the glaze of "Why me?" on her face.
I imagined then-and as recently as five years ago-that in the 21st century, Americans would look back at road travel and wince at the "barbarism" and "primitive" state of the automobile, that so many people could be killed on the highways. No vision came to me as a replacement for the common car, except maybe a vehicle that was made of rubber, but I was convinced that those fatalities would be nearly eradicated by "progress."
Those illusions are now gone: I'd rather walk.
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JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press (www.nypress.com). Send your comments to him by clicking here.