50 years and few regrets | TravelResearchOnline

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50 years and few regrets

From the dawn of the jet age to airline deregulation and now the era of terrorism. That is the ultimate birds-eye view of my 50 years in travel journalism and publishing, a personal milestone I reached without the slightest desire to acknowledge a couple of years ago.

This exercise in self-indulgence begins on December 13, 1955, the day I was hired as a reporter/editor on a modest monthly trade journal that covered travel to the Caribbean and Latin America. It was a decision that I’ve rarely second-guessed, although I turned down a pre-reporter news-clerk job at The New York Times and a reporter’s slot at the old New York World-Telegram and Sun.

Why? I guess I was seduced by the lure of travel, a lure that’s persisted to this day.

(Let me mention here that time and memory are capricious forces, although most of my recollections are on-target, or acceptably close to the truth.)

My first assignment that involved a flight was on May 12, 1956, when Cubana de Aviacion introduced its New York-Havana nonstops on Super-Constellation props with the dolphin–shaped fuselages. I lucked into an exclusive interview with Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, an occasion that would almost cost my job since I kept referring to the former Army officer as Juan Batista in the article I wrote. Both Batista, at least until New Year’s Eve, 1959, and I, survived.

In a stroke of brilliant timing combined with good fortune, the founder-owner of the monthly where I worked combined two trade journals into the industry’s first weekly and promoted me to managing editor. The date was October 24, 1958. Two weeks earlier, October 12 (perhaps in salute of Columbus), BOAC operated the first commercial jet flight from New York to London and I was a press guest.

The BOAC Comet made the crossing in a record 6 hours and 18 minutes. The Jet Age had arrived, although the British-built Comet would soon fade from sight. BOAC, predecessor of British Airways, went on strike after we arrived in London. Four days later, the press party flew home on a Pan Am Boeing Stratocruiser, a lumbering prop relic with a first-class lounge downstairs and four sleepers above the seats up front. The flight made stops in Iceland and Labrador, devouring about 23 hours in the process. We played poker in the lounge for 18 hours.

Two weeks later, Pan Am would launch Boeing 707 service on the New York–Paris route. I missed that one. But in early December I’d be aboard the first domestic jet flight, a New York-Miami run. It was operated by National Airlines on a leased Pan Am 707. Heavy stuff.

Besides changing our travel habits and igniting an unforeseen tidal wave of travel at home and abroad, the Jet Age pretty much spelled curtains for the transatlantic steamship trade. (The notable exception was summer crossings by Cunard.) This also led to the emergence of mega–passenger ships built solely for cruise commerce. These ships helped cruising evolve from an activity confined to the wealthy to a mass-market vacation powerhouse.

During the last five decades, counting dozens of overnight inaugural voyages, I’ve sailed on more than eighty cruise ships, as well as an ocean crossing on the Queen Elizabeth 2. Over these same years, I was also on hand for many coveted hotel and resort openings. I’ve set foot on every continent except Antarctica and every major country and flown around-the-world itineraries at least three times.

At about the time of the jet introductions, I was sent on assignment to Jamaica, where I spent several days at the tony Bay Roc resort in Montego Bay. Many years later, in 1981-1982, this property would be purchased by Gordon “Butch” Stewart, a local entrepreneur. He renamed it Sandals Montego Bay and it became the foundation of his all–inclusive Caribbean hotel empire.

On New Year’s Eve, 1959, I was in a Havana deserted by tourists as Fidel Castro entered the city. (That’s the scene vividly depicted in The Godfather Part II. No one asked me to be in the film.) I’d flown from New York to Mexico City via Havana on Cubana. On all four flights, Batista security police sat cradling automatic weapons at the cockpit door. It was a harbinger of things to come….

The year 1959 was also a watershed year for travel agents in the United States. A Federal judge eliminated the “need and sponsorship” clause, imposed years earlier by the airlines to control and limit the number of travel agency locations. At that time, there were less than 3,000 approved agency sites in this country; the number surged after the removal of “need and sponsorship.” By February, 1995, when the airlines began to dismantle the traditional commission structure, there were 34,500 traditional travel agents and they wrote 80 percent of all the airline tickets issued. Today, with commissions gone, at least up front, about 20,000 surviving agencies write a guesstimated 70 percent or less of the airline bookings. Those numbers will continue to decline as the Internet adds muscle and versatility. But travel agents will survive in a society that craves personal attention and service.

In late 1969, I was aboard the first Boeing delivery flight of what is still my favorite jet, the handsome and comfortable 747. It was a Pan Am jet that flew from Boeing’s Seattle headquarters to Pan Am’s hub at Kennedy Airport. I met Juan Trippe–Pan Am’s legendary chief executive–only once: Several years earlier, he was hosting a lunch in Manhattan with Bill Allen, chief executive of Boeing, to unveil the 747 project.

In June, 1967, I was in Atlanta for the opening of the first Portman-designed “atrium hotel,” the Hyatt Regency, when the phone rang in my room. It was the director of U.S. public relations for El Al Airlines. He was calling to tell me that the Six-Day War between Israel and it’s neighbors had ended. El Al was resuming service that evening from New York to Tel Aviv and I was invited. I packed, flew home to New York, repacked and caught the flight to Israel. I spent ten days there and that would allow me to sense what would inevitably continue to face that troubled region: hatred, violence, terrorism.

This visit would also reinforce a strong belief that I have developed in my travels and one that I continue to espouse: You can’t divorce tourism, or any form of travel, from the day-to-day political landscape.

In the early 1970s, I went on a press trip to Bristol, England, and Toulouse, France, for a first-hand look at the slender, needled-nosed Concorde, the first supersonic jetliner, then under construction by joint British–French interests.

Commercial Concorde service would eventually begin in 1976. An Air France flight was the first across the Atlantic while British Airways operated its first Concorde service from London to Bahrain. I flew this speedy phenomenon three or four times during the next few decades. The Concorde was recently retired and I’m sorry that there’s no supersonic successor in sight.

Later that decade, driven by a tide of consumerism and the unexpected support of United Airlines, the domestic carriers were deregulated by Congress. The reviews were mixed. Alfred Kahn, chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), saw new competition, lower fares, new carriers, more choices for the traveler and improved service levels. Others, like myself, were skeptical. The end product, we thought, would ultimately lead to a handful of mega-carriers, higher airfares and reduced service standards. More than 100 airlines took shape in the first years of deregulation. Only America West has survived. Of course, fares did go down for flexible leisure travelers, but the must-fly sky warrior continued to pay through the nose and to subsidize his/her low-fare companions.

How will history judge deregulation? Probably with a yawn. But it is notable that the CAB was axed, or “sunset,” in 1984 and that ended decades of controversy that included an iron-fisted control over fares and schedules. There were few mourners when the CAB disappeared.

Until the mid-sixties, airfares on routes beyond the United States were controlled in a vise-like manner by the cartel known as the International Air Transport Association (IATA). About that time, however, one of the less-conspicuous IATA members, El Al, decided it needed special winter fares to fill its seats, particularly between New York and Tel Aviv. El Al’s introduction of Group Inclusive Tour fares set off a crisis at IATA that precipitated an emergency meeting in Rome.

I was the only reporter to attend and I was not welcome, to say the least. Cartels abhor the light of disclosure. El Al would eventually win during that 10-day Roman holiday, a victory that would lead to an airline marketing frenzy of promotional tariffs. This development would also greatly modify the look of leisure travel and lead to more liberal pricing, not only on international routes, but also within the United States.

During the pre-deregulation era, I met or interviewed U.S. commercial aviation pioneers such as Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I flying ace who was instrumental in launching Eastern Airlines. Rickenbacker was a crusty, hard-bitten entrepreneur who felt strongly that the carriers were doing the passengers a favor by ferrying them across the skies. That philosophy, unfortunately, has endured to this day. I also ran across most of the others of this select brotherhood, including C.R. Smith of American Airlines, William A. Patterson of United Airlines, Box Six of Continental and Juan Trippe of Pan Am, whom I mentioned early. I missed C.E. Woolman of Delta.

I’m often asked to compare these visionaries with the executives who succeeded them before, during and just after deregulation in 1978. It’s a tricky call to make because the times have changed, the airline business has changed and the role of airline chief executives has changed. From getting an airline off the ground to lining your pocket with millions, the motivation between then and now is certainly no longer recognizable.

In the late summer of 1979, just a year or two after the end of China’s so-called Cultural Revolution, I spent 22 days in China and Inner Mongolia. This fascinating experience was, in effect, an early glimpse into what has by now evolved into an emerging world power. If I were at that stage of my life where I had to learn another language, it would unquestionably be Chinese. In fact, my six-year-old daughter takes two separate Mandarin courses each week.

Not long after deregulation and months before the advent of the revolutionary mileage plans, I persuaded my then-parent company, a division of Dun & Bradstreet, to fund the start-up of Frequent Flyer magazine, which would be distributed with the OAG North American Pocket Flight Guide. Volume 1, Number 1, was dated September, 1980. American and United, in that order, jumped into the frequent-flyer fray in the spring of 1981. Talk about timing! I’d rather be lucky than smart!

By 1985, Frequent Flyer would be identified as one of the hottest consumer publications in several categories by Folio, the trade journal of the magazine industry. And there is an identifiable correlation between the history of Frequent Flyer magazine and the influence of deregulation on the U.S. airline industry, which had once been the bedrock of the global air-transportation system. As the pre-deregulation airlines consolidated and otherwise fell by the wayside in the 1980s and 1990s, the magazine’s advertising revenues plummeted accordingly. By middle of the 1990s, Frequent Flyer, on a high only ten years earlier, was a shadow of its robust former self. It would eventually re-emerge as a diminished product on the Web. A similar fate has met our once-proud airline industry.

In a coincidence of timing, I was in Hamburg West Germany, on Nov. 1989, When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. Several days later we drove though a dreary countryside of East Germany to visit the reunited city of Berlin. Among other highlights, we drove through Check point Charlie, trailed only by exhaust fumes rather then the threat of gunfire from East German Guards. The fall of the Wall would presage the collapse of the Communist Soviet Empire just a few years later.

Several years ago, I had lunch with a colleague who quizzed me on my travel patterns over the years. He subsequently calculated that I had traveled somewhere in the vicinity of three million miles. That’s a real-life number, not an estimate inflated by bonus miles and other fripperies.

The far-reaching terror attacks of September 11, 2001, exaggerated and accelerated both the woes of the airlines and the overall economy. The events also affirmed the vulnerability of the travel industry and its diverse components to the blows dealt by harsh realities such as war, tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes and terrorism. Travel is also unusually sensitive to movements in the U.S. economy and its global partners. The unwritten understanding has always been that an economic downturn affects travel up to six months before any of the other major market categories. And travel may take that much longer to recover.

Of course, 2005 has shaped up as the all-time record year for travel. According to the London-based World Travel & Tourism Council, travel now ranks as the world’s Number 1 industry in terms of people employed. Travel and tourism also rank high in dollar volume.

The prognostications for the future is also favorable. Just look at the insane hotel rates being charged in New York City. I haven’t experienced anything like it in my half-century in travel, which I believe encompasses the halcyon days of our industry.

But who knows? Maybe the best is yet to come.

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