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Flying somewhere used to be grand

It's been a century since Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully flew their contraption at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in December 1903.

At 60, I am now older than human flight was when I was born. But it makes me feel even older, and sadder, that a glamorous adventure has turned into a mundane, crowded, practically rote experience. That's true of whether the flight's from here to Paris or here to Providence.

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Unless you're in first class - and even that experience can be tedious - the seating is crowded and cramped. The food is lousy. You can't get a really good martini. The wine comes in aluminum-capped bottles. Passengers dress as if they were going to the neighborhood convenience store. The pilots don't even seem glamorous anymore. They are more like glorified bus drivers. The cabin staff is, shall we say for the sake of political correctness, different.

Damn deregulation anyway. Steep competition has made flying cheaper than ever before, but the sacrifices, from service aboard to the airlines' investment in safety and caution, have been enormous. The only happy development has been the in-flight movie. Boy, do I wish those had existed when I was a kid on flights that could take up to 15 hours across the Atlantic.

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My father, George J. Price, was a pilot for one of the greatest airlines that ever existed - Pan Am, as it was known when it went out of business in 1991. It started in the 1920s serving Palm Beach, Miami, Key West and Havana. And by the time the Pan Am experience was over it was known as the American flag carrier, serving every continent in the world.

Juan Trippe, the founder of Pan Am, pioneered air routes first throughout the Caribbean, then across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. He did a lot of this with the help of the most famous aviator in history, Charles Lindbergh.

Thanks to my father's employment as a pilot for the airline from 1941 to 1973, I had a front-row seat in the glory days of airline travel, and it was usually a first-class seat. Captains of the line were treated like senior executives of the company, sometimes better. The same went for their families. I was coddled by Pan Am in the air and at airports and hotels around the world just because my dad was a captain.

The flight crews dressed as officers in the U.S. Navy. Practically from the beginning, the aircraft were called clippers. They began as seaplanes, the most famous of them being the China Clipper, the M-130, which was designed and built by Martin in Baltimore, and the Yankee Clipper, the B-314, built by Boeing in California.

These huge aircraft treated passengers to seats in lounges, sleeping berths and cocktails and meals cooked fresh and served on linen tablecloths with fine china and silverware as they lumbered across the oceans.

My first flight, I am told, was aboard an S-42 seaplane, built by Sikorsky. The flight was in 1944 to San Juan, Puerto Rico, from Miami, where Pan Am had its main seaplane headquarters at Dinner Key in Coconut Grove.

I do not recall the flight, but the S-42 was the airline's Caribbean workhorse in those days. Throughout World War II, my father flew that aircraft on itineraries that ventured as far south as Buenos Aires, with many stops along the way.

My earliest flight recollection was from when the family moved to Europe in 1947, only two years after the end of World War II. It was aboard a two-engine DC-3, possibly a four-engine DC-4. The flight, including refueling stops, took about 30 hours before we arrived in Brussels, where we would live for the next two years.

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My younger brother and I spent most of our waking hours on that flight stampeding up and down the aisle, driving the passengers crazy. But the flight attendants did not scold us. After all, we were the children of a captain.

In later years as a youngster, I crossed the Atlantic many times aboard DC-4s, Lockheed Constellations - possibly the sleekest-looking aircraft in the air until the arrival of the Concorde - DC-6s and DC-7s. But my favorite in the 1950s was the Boeing Stratocruiser. This aircraft recalled all of the luxury of the China Clipper and the Yankee Clipper.

The Stratocruiser was formally a B-377, built by Boeing and adapted from the famous World War II B-29 Superfortress bomber. It had two decks and was shaped in a way that earned it the nickname "Double Bubble." The top deck had comfortable seats and sleeping berths built into the roof. But the splendid part was below. The lower deck was a cocktail lounge that seated up to 10 people comfortably.

My father once joked that the "Double Bubble" had done a lot to create foreign dislike of American tourists. Imagine the condition they were in when they landed in London or Paris after 12 or 13 hours of nonstop drinking in the lounge.

Later, the jets came and air travel began to change. Trippe bought the first commercial jets for an American airline in 1955, placing orders for 20 Boeing 707s and 20 Douglas DC-8s. By 1958, they were in service. The jets could fly as fast as 575 mph and carry almost 190 passengers. The impact on air travel was enormous.

The service was still there, if you flew first class. But everything was a little more rushed. In the 1960s, Trippe placed the first order for Boeing 747s, the jumbo jets that still are the mainstay of long-distance air travel. Because of its unique front topped by the flight deck, the 747 also was nicknamed the "double bubble."

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But it's never been the same. Pan Am's out of business so I can't fly first class free anymore. The Sun doesn't allow first-class travel (in the newspaper's own golden era, the chairman of the board expected his correspondents to travel luxuriously). So I ride in the back, crammed in with hundreds of others in various states of semi-dress. If a meal comes, it's barely edible and there certainly is no linen tablecloth. In fact, there's hardly room to eat.

Getting there definitely is not any of the fun anymore.


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