After the Second World War, it took a few years for the patterns of past war transatlantic travel to re-establish themselves. All of the big surviving transatlantic liners were in need of massive refurbishments, and the only planes capable of making non stop transatlantic flights were still propeller driven, and mostly adaptions of mass produced bombers.
Planes like the Boeing Stratocruiser offered sleeping berths, personalised service and dining, and comfortable, armchair style seating with more than ample personal space. They could cross the Atlantic in around twelve hours. Even the fastest of the renovated ocean liners took eight times that long. On paper, air travel had the game sewn up.
But those same planes were notorious, unstable bone shakers, and even the long range ones had to land in Eastern Canada to refuel. And they could also carry relatively small numbers of passengers on each crossing. Reliable, mass market air travel remained an elusive chimera.
And the ocean liners fought back with a vengeance. By 1947, more than a million passengers a year were once more routinely crossing the Atlantic, and the premier liners of companies like Cunard and the French Line were almost always full. Far more so, in fact, than at any other time before.
Both the enormous Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were usually sold out six months in advance, even in the winter seasons. And, riding the wave of this massively resurgent market, America introduced the barnstorming SS United States in the summer of 1952.
The big American liner thundered across the Atlantic in July 1952, and took the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic, at just under three and a half days. Under any circumstances it was an amazing performance and, true to form, the United States prospered mightily as the new speed record holder.
At about the same time, the first commercial jet airliner, the De Havilland Comet, entered commercial service. Fast, smooth, and capable of carrying large numbers in relative comfort, the Comet eliminated almost all the discomfort of its propeller driven predecessors.
But this beautiful plane suffered from a series of design flaws and, in the next few years, no less than thirteen of them came down, killing some 426 people in all. The adverse media publicity was enormous, and it undoubtedly gave the transatlantic liners a few years’ breathing space. Even the sinking of the beautiful Andrea Doria off Nantucket in July, 1956 did nothing to deter the tidal wave of businessmen and tourists still sailing across the Atlantic each year.
In 1958, more than 1.2 million passengers sailed the old route, either on business or pleasure. But this was quite literally the high water mark. That same October, a Pan American Boeing 707 named Clipper America flew from New York to Paris in less than seven hours. In its vapour trail, that pioneering flight carried the death warrant of the ocean liner. The writing was not so much on the wall, as it was in the sky.
Air minded visionaries such as Juan Trippe at Pan Am, and Howard Hughes of TWA, now set about monopolising the air routes, together with players such as BOAC, the predecessor to the current British Airways. The 707 itself was a complete game changer; one of the most significant and successful aircraft in the entire history of commercial flight.
Suddenly, air travel was safe, frequent, a lot more comfortable, and competitive price wise with the cream of the ocean going crop. The liners began to lose ground very quickly indeed. By the turn of the new decade in 1960, the jets already had around seventy per cent of the total transatlantic trade. Even the famous and popular Cunard Queens often carried more crew than passengers on winter crossings. The big ships of all the famous old companies were sailing on a rising tide of red accountant’s ink. The flow could not be halted, much less reversed.
Yet still, big liners continued to appear. On a cloudy February afternoon in 1962, thousands lined the banks of the Hudson to watch the maiden arrival in New York of the brand new SS. France. Helicopters buzzed the great ship like so many curious dragonflies as a quartet of fire boats hurled huge, icy plumes of water skywards in welcome. Banners snapped in greeting in the frigid breeze as the last great French liner swept proudly towards her pier. She was magnificent, utterly magical, and way, way too late; a last burst of bravado in the face of the inevitable.
The France was popular and successful, but only a titanic government fuel subsidy made it possible for her to sail at all. The jets kept slashing at the Atlantic liner’s passenger numbers. By the mid sixties, the ageing Queens were often compared to deserted seaside resorts. Attempts to use them on off season, warm weather cruises met with only partial success.
The Italians in particular fought doggedly against the airborne assault. In 1965, a pair of lithe, sparkling new sister ships called the Michelangelo and the Raffaello emerged to sail on the Italy to New York run. Italians have always been particularly sea minded and, for a few years, these two ships were able to buck the airborne trend, before ultimately succumbing in the mid 1970’s, after just a decade each of service.
Then, in 1969, came the brand new Queen Elizabeth 2, a ship designed from the start both to make crossings and off season cruises. After a shaky and troubled start, the ship- forever after to be immortalised as the QE2– settled down to almost four decades of legendary service. For many years, she would steam stubbornly back and forth across the Atlantic as the last surviving liner and, in doing so, she would become the most legendary and beloved of all the long lineage of illustrious, hallowed Cunarders.
1969 also saw the withdrawal from service of the stunning SS. United States, and the inauguration of the new, mass transit successor to the 707. This new plane was the Boeing 747, forever to be immortalised as the Jumbo Jet. Huge, capacious, and offering unparallelled economies of scale, it took commercial air travel to a whole new level. By the time it was flying in regular service in 1970, the jets had ninety six per cent of the transatlantic trade.
By that stage, only the France and the QE2 were still making regular crossings on the old superliner route and, while they were indeed sometimes still fully booked in summer, the winters saw them seeking refuge, and indeed survival, in warmer cruising regions. The triumph of air travel was as unassailable as it was undeniable.
And yet, incredibly, in the years to come, both jet and ocean liner would come to form an alliance of sorts. As crossing gave way to cruising, the former rivals would become working partners, with each being necessary to the successful operation of the other.
But that, my friends, is entirely another story….