A British Airways Jumbo Jet on the tarmac at Singapore's Changi Airport.

A British Airways Jumbo Jet on the tarmac at Singapore’s Changi Airport.

Today marks one of the most auspicious landmarks in the history of commercial aviation. Today, Boeing’s Seattle factory rolled out the 1,500th production model of the most successful airliner in travel history- the Boeing 747, usually known as the Jumbo Jet.

The first production model of the plane was  delivered as far back as 1968. With it’s four engines and distinctive, dolphin styled silhouette, the Jumbo Jet became the backbone of the world’s aviation network almost overnight. Not until 2008 was its size exceeded in commercial service by the rival Airbus A380- itself ironically nicknamed the ‘Super Jumbo’ in many quarters.

This most recent 747 has been delivered to the German national carrier, Lufthansa. But, despite the plane’s extraordinary longevity, it now seems obvious that this recent delivery might be one of the last of the type.

Simply put, the 747 is gradually succumbing to more advanced, cost effective rivals. In general, the days of large, four engine jets is coming to a close, with the exception of the A380 and it’s smaller fleet mate, the A34o. Twin engine rivals such as the A330 and, ironically, the Boeing 777 and even the new 787 Dreamliner, are now seen as being very much in the ascendant.

Whether or not you are a fan of mass market air travel, it has to be conceded that the 747 has had a truly amazing safety record. Only twenty two of the planes in all have come to grief, some of these on the ground.

Probably the two most famous incidents were the infamous collision on the ground at Tenerife between a 747 belonging to Pan American, and another owned by the Dutch carrier, KLM, in March of 1977. The resulting, horrific fireball killed a total of 583 passengers and crew across the two flights.

More notorious still was the bomb induced destruction of another Pan American Jumbo, Flight 103, above the Scottish town of Lockerbie on December 21st, 1988. The circumstances behind that bombing- which resulted in some 270 fatalities on the flight-remain controversial to this day.

That accident went a long way towards finishing off Pan American, one of the most famous names in aviation history.

The 747 was the plane used to introduce the transatlantic services of the fledgling Virgin Atlantic and, despite the move towards the newer, more technically advanced jets being produced both by Airbus and Boeing itself, the 747 still remain a mainstay of airlines such as British Airways and KLM. The latter airline uses a number of these in a joint passenger/cargo role, mainly on routes to and from Amsterdam to the Far East.

Love it or loathe it, this extraordinary airplane has proven to be a true survivor. The aviation world will surely be a sadder place without it.


By 1974, the end was indeed in sight

By 1974, the end was indeed in sight

By the turn of the 1970’s, the Atlantic liner trade was on life support. With only four out of every hundred passengers still making the crossing by sea, the airlines upped the ante still further with the introduction of the vast, mass market Boeing 747, forever to be immortalised as the Jumbo Jet.

By that time, the SS United States had already been laid up, returned to the same Newport News shipyard where she had been built. On the northern route between Europe and New York, only the QE2 and the France remained in seasonal, spring through autumn service.

The two ships enjoyed a special sort of friendly rivalry. A gentleman’s agreement between Cunard and the French Line ensued that the two ships would always be crossing in opposite directions. When close to each other, the radio operators on the QE2 would salute the France by whistling the Marseillaise at the French flagship. Their French opposite number would respond with an apparently sterling rendition of God Save The Queen. 

But such sangfroid belied the dire straits that both ships were in. By 1971, year round Atlantic sailings had finally came to an end, when the venerable Holland America Line ceased winter crossings with the fabled Rotterdam. It closed it’s almost century old headquarters in Rotterdam itself, and upped sticks to relocate to Seattle, in an ultimately successful attempt to relaunch as a premium cruise product. Happily, it remains so to this day.

From Italy, the great white sisters, Michelangelo and Raffaello were also still making the crossing from Genoa to New York, but a series of strikes by staff on board, as well as among shore side people and tug boat crews, resulted in them often arriving and departing days off their intended schedules. And while they, too, were losing passenger numbers by the early seventies, it was this inherent unreliability that went a huge way to undoing those last great Italian liners.

The legendary Rotterdam closed out the HAL transatlantic service in 1971

The legendary Rotterdam closed out the HAL transatlantic service in 1971

But it was the soaring cost of fuel oil that was the real concern. The Arab oil producing countries, in the form of OPEC, effectively had one foot on the windpipe of western consumers. For the liner companies, it could not have looked worse.

By the fall of 1972, Cunard was actually considering taking the still new QE2 out of service for three months over the winter. There was a vague plan to anchor her off the Florida coast, and then using her as the world’s largest floating casino for that period. Thankfully, it never came to pass and, through thick and thin, this last great Cunarder sailed on.

But the France really was coming to the end of the line.

By 1974, she was costing the French Line- and, by extension, the French government- a million dollars a day for fuel alone. The great liner guzzled the stuff like cheap table wine at full speed. With the barrel price of crude oil soaring almost as high as a Pan Am Jumbo, what followed was pretty much inevitable.

Faced with the stark choice of keeping the France in service, or funding the joint Anglo French Concorde project, the French government inevitably plumped for the latter. In the summer of 1974, the Elysee Palace officially announced the end of the annual, twenty four million dollar operating subsidy for the France.

This was a death blow. The French Line had done what it could; lengthening Atlantic crossings from five to six days and- in a move that many French Line regulars saw as the ultimate portent of doom- the company actually began charging for table wine at lunch and dinner. All to no avail. To nobody’s surprise, the French Line announced that the liner would be withdrawn from service on October 25th, 1974, at the end of her current season.

The France at speed. She guzzled fuel oil like cheap table wine

The France at speed. She guzzled fuel oil like cheap table wine

The story of the doomed, desperate effort by her crew to keep the France in service has been told elsewhere on this blog. But by December of 1974, all such attempts had failed, and the France– by far the finest of all the post war Atlantic liners- was laid up at a backwater berth in Le Havre. Her fittings, fixtures and furnishings were covered in shrouds and, with only a skeleton crew on board to maintain essential systems, the great, proud France sagged into a five year long coma.

And, for the Italian Line, arrivederci loomed large, too. The Raffaello was first to go, laid up at Genoa in April, 1975. She was joined by the Michelangelo after her last scheduled crossing that same July. On board for that last crossing had been the widowed Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor.

Too big to work as cruise ships at that time, and handicapped with far too many small, inside cabins, the two ships were ultimately sold to the Shah of Iran, who had them moved to the port of Bandr Abbas to serve as twin accommodation ships for his military. Both ships were destroyed by air attack during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88; a tragic end for such a fine, beautifully crafted pair of ocean liners.

The QE2 was alone.

QE2- for many years the last great presence on the Atlantic crossing

QE2- for many years the last great presence on the Atlantic crossing

She sailed stubbornly back and forth between Southampton and New York, and she did pick up some of the residue of travellers left high and dry by the demise of the France. Each winter, she operated a spectacular, three month, round the world cruise. In between crossings, the QE2 would make cruises to such exotic locations as Bermuda, the Caribbean, the Canary islands, and the Mediterranean. And in this role, the inherent excellence of her original, dual purpose design- one part cruise ship, one part ocean liner- became apparent. Indeed, it became paramount to keeping her sailing successfully. That last great Cunarder, already well on the way to becoming a modern legend, seemed to lead a charmed life.

At the beginning of 1980, a Norwegian captain, Tobjorn Hauge, was seconded to the QE2 in a guest capacity for some three months. Hauge, a captain from Knut Kloster’s Norwegian Caribbean Line, was on board the liner to learn the pros and cons of steering such a massive ocean liner in and out of limited port spaces.

For Hauge had just been nominated as captain-designate of the newly wrought SS Norway. 

After five years of darkened silence, the former SS France was being slowly resurrected as the largest cruise ship that the world had ever seen. In the spring of 1980, the reborn Norway emerged from her steel and concrete cocoon to gasps of awed amazement. Clad in stunning royal blue and suffused in bow to stern Art Deco, the former French Line flagship was destined for a new life in the lucrative Caribbean cruise market.

But first, there was a nostalgic Atlantic crossing from Southampton to New York. The Norway was not quite fully ready; an army of contractors sailed with the ship, finishing work on a raft of cabins and ancillary services. Still, she had a respectable passenger load of around a thousand on board for what was, in fact, her first westbound crossing in six years.

Following a nostalgic fire boat welcome and three days of celebration, there was an emotional reunion with the QE2, as the two great ships passed each other on the Hudson. A huge mural of that meeting was on display in New York’s Grand Central Station for many years.


Air travel gained undeniable ascendency after the Second World War

Air travel gained undeniable ascendency after the Second World War

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.

Cunard had the most popular, two ship service on the post war Atlantic

Cunard had the most popular, two ship service on the post war Atlantic

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.

The ocean liner as a breed did not give up easily

The ocean liner as a breed did not give up easily

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.

The QE2 was synonymous with the Atlantic crossing for almost four decades

The QE2 was synonymous with the Atlantic crossing for almost four decades

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….


Concorde was the absolute epitome of airborne chic

Concorde was the absolute epitome of airborne chic

All told, Concorde flew in commercial service for British Airways for something like twenty seven years, between 1976 and 2003. Mainly used on the Heathrow to New York route, it was the first- and only-supersonic jet to maintain a regular service.

The plane carried 135 passengers in all, and flew at a height of around 58,000 feet. At that height, the curvature of the Earth was quite clearly defined. Such was the pace of the plane that an early morning Concorde, departing from Heathrow, would arrive in New York some two hours earlier.

Of course, this beautiful plane- more truly bird like in appearance than any other- was fabulously served, staffed by the cream of BA cabin crews. Only Concorde could offer champagne and fillet steak at Mach 2, as the rich and famous of five continents lounged in soft, specially contoured, grey leather seats.

What surprised many people was the actual small size of the plane. British Airways staff nickname for Concorde was the ‘pocket rocket’; anyone over six foot in height would have found the confines of the plane a bit trying. And even the thirty-eight inch seat pitch of those premium priced Concorde seats was no greater than that of the current BA World Traveller Plus.

And, of course, the plane was hideously expensive to operate. Concorde guzzled precious aviation fuel like so much cheap table wine. Only on the lucrative North Atlantic flight path could the plane ever hope to make a viable living. For many years, the Concorde operated a joint transatlantic service with the QE2, that other troubled child of the late sixties.

This unique partnership was incredibly successful, and lasted until the end of the Concorde scheduled services in 2003. By then, a number of factors had already combined to doom the plane.

The crash of an Air France Concorde at Paris in 2000 led to a painful grounding of all services until the cause of the crash could be established, and corrective action enabled. While this was in truck, the horrific events of 9/11 literally took down the demand for luxury air travel. And, though BA resumed Concorde services to New York that same November, nothing would ever be the same again.

Also working against the plane by this time was its own avionics. When Concorde was brand new, all its systems had been state of the art but, by 2003, these were hopelessly out of date. The fastest commercial aircraft in history had a flight deck that was almost antiquated compared to the newest generation of wide bodied 747’s. And, with passengers numbers still light following the fallout from both the Paris crash and 9/11, the costs of upgrading Concorde would have been unrealistic.

Both BA and Air France announced the inevitable end of their Concorde services in April 2003, with the last flights taking place that same October. All fourteen surviving craft from both airlines have either been mothballed, or opened as static museums. Despite the lingering hopes and ambitions of many, the prohibitive cost of reactivating the planes makes it unlikely that they will ever fly again.

Just as with the demise of the far more luxurious Hindenburg, the withdrawal of Concorde marked a watershed in the history of commercial air travel. And, just like that doomed airship, the stilled, supersonic paragon that is Concorde will always remain a highly romanticised high point in the story of elegant, exclusive passenger travel. We will never see the likes of it again in our lifetimes.


ImageSo, what do we think? Does flying still retain a patina- even a gossamer thin one- of the perceived glamour of old? Or was that very perception as easily applied as the make up on the actresses that played the cabin crew of the recently aborted Pan Am series, bruited to be a slice of Mad Men in the air? Well, here’s my take, for what its worth.

Of course, flying is a hell of a lot more comfortable if you happen to find yourself ensconced at the front of the plane. But even for those uber privileged souls, the departure and arrival experience of modern airports is no magic carpet ride. In the last thirty years, the hassles inherent in the airport ground experience have done much to dilute any residual magic quality that air travel may have once had. But how magical was that, exactly?

It’s sobering to recall that even the legendary Concorde had a seat pitch of only thirty eight inches- around the same as on Premium Economy on today’s BA. Of course the food and service were in a very different league, but- as any purveyor or retailer of luxury will tell you- it’s all about the amount of personal space.

True luxury air travel was often associated with the great, pre war Empire Flying Boats, with their bar, restaurant, and bunk beds for passengers. How well those passengers could sleep as these propeller driven beasts almost shook themselves to bits as they tried to maintain schedule is a good question. Add natural turbulence to that mixture, and you can see where the ‘bone shaker’ nickname came from.

That said, the experience of taking off, and indeed landing on water, must have been quite magical. And those same lugubrious, lumbering birds had huge portholes from which to admire the view; one very different at such very low altitudes to those we get today.

The airship was a very different creature. The first ever, round the world flight by any aircraft was made by the legendary Graf Zeppelin as far back as 1929. She was the first craft ever to fly over- and photograph- the frozen land masses of Siberia. During her stellar career, the ‘Graf’ quite literally flew all over the world, from South America to the North Pole.  In America especially, she was accorded almost matinee star status.

In 1930, the R100 made a hugely successful maiden flight, from Cardington to Montreal and back. Only the grisly funeral pyres of the R101 and, later, the Hindenburg prevented a pre war rush to the skies by the travelling public. The airship was too early, and way too unlucky.

But the comfort levels on the Hindenburg, in particular, were equal to any ocean liner of the day, except for the small, Pullman sized cabins. The Hindenburg had a sealed smoking room, a bar complete with a grand piano, and a separate restaurant, as well as viewing galleries on both sides, lined with steamer chairs. For the fourteen months that she was in service, the great silver airship really did bring style, glamour and luxury to air travel. It never came back.

The dawn of the Jet Age brought air travel to the masses, and today we take it for granted. As a television series, Pan Am offered an insight into a supposedly more refined era, complete with silver service and immaculately made martinis at 36,000 feet. It all looked very glamorous indeed.

My experience of the real Pan Am was not quite like that……

I flew back from New York with them in 1986, when the airline was already flying on fumes, and just two years before the horror of the Lockerbie disaster. It was, as they say, quite the ride.

An irate, very loud- and very drunken- European gentleman was denied boarding, and hustled away from the gate by a pair of knuckle dragging, cro-magnon predecessors of the TSA, The seats had virtually no recline- and this was a Boeing 747.

The stewardesses were completely uninterested in their passengers. The meal consisted of something called meat, coated in a simmering brown gloop that had almost coagulated. The bread roll was hard enough to take out a pocket battleship at ten miles if thrown properly.

The coffee had the consistency- and the colour- of Bunker C diesel oil, and may indeed very well have been. And, while I don’t expect a lot from being in ‘cattle class’, was it asking too much to have crackers that could actually be eaten without a fight? I suspect that the Siegfried Line was easier to crack.

In conclusion, I don’t think flying has any real patina of glamour. But we live in a world where glamour as a whole is in short supply; a world where the ascendancy of hype over style has reached almost stratospheric levels. So why expect more from air travel?

Forty years ago, we had the Supremes and the Temptations. Now it’s One Direction and Cheryl Cole. The defence rests. Though not in any real comfort.