In the Jet Age, it seems unfathomable to remember that, only eight decades ago, commerical travel between Europe and North America was almost strictly a seagoing businees. Week in and out, over a dozen of the world’s largest liners would sail from ports like Southampton, Le Havre, Bremerhaven, Rotterdam and Genoa, bound west for a fast, four day crossing before the first sight of that fabulous New York skyline.

In the meantime, perhaps another dozen or so prestige liners would be heading in the other direction, laden with passengers bound for the hot spots of a continent already twitching more and more uneasily at the bellicose sabre rattling of the fascist dictators, Hitler, Mussolini and, from 1936, Francisco Franco as well. But, with the depression finally fading away, for the Atlantic liners it was more or less business as usual.

These were the days of the so called ‘Ships of State’, when almost every major nation had it’s own flag carriers on the Atlantic crossing. Each of these vessels was intended to embody all of the best characteristics- both real and fondly imagined- of the mother country. And, for many booking on the Atlantic crossing in the thirties, these traits often played a big part in their decision of which ship to book.

For instance, the great Italian sisters, Rex and Conte Di Savoia, sailed from Genoa to New York and back, via Cannes and Gibraltar. A large part of their voyages were spent in calm, sunny waters, and so the two ships sported vast, umbrella strewn outdoor lido decks, with swimming pools surrounded by real sand. They offered that quintessentially Italian ‘dolce vita’ lifestyle afloat. For many contemplating the voyage to or from Southern Europe, these two great Italian ocean goddesses were the natural choice.

From Germany, the marvellous twin miracles known as Bremen and Europa continued to make the crossing to and from North America with almost military precision. It was an Atlantic proverb that German liners always offered the best cabin service of any line. Crisp, modern, and suffused with almost brutally chic Bauhaus interiors, the Bremen and Europa first suffered from the effects of the depression. Later, when the market had recovered somewhat, they again suffered unfairly by their associations with the nascent Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler. In an act of supreme irony, the bodies of the Hindenburg crash victims, bedecked in swastika flags, were returned to the fatherland on board the eastbound Europa in May of 1937.

Few ships were as true to their national traits as the 1938 built Nieuw Amsterdam. She was small by the standards of the day- only 38,000 tons- and had no intention of running for the Blue Riband. But she was immaculate both inside and out- a spotless, splendid high point of maritime styling and elegance. It was bruited by the great Basil Woon that ‘a speck of dirt on a Dutch ship would be enough to make the Chief Steward commit suicide’ and, while that might be slightly over the top, it certainly went a long way to describing the atmosphere that existed on this marvellous ship. Defying time, tide, and even war, the ‘Darling of the Dutch’ would sail on until the 1970’s; a quite incredible feat.

Of course, the two great ‘front runners’ of the 1930’s were the Queen Mary and the Normandie. They were of similar size- 80,000 tons- and speed. Both ships could cross the Atlantic in four days and, for four years, they played ping pong with the speed record, as it passed back and forth between the two. But, ultimately, there were only minutes’ difference in the crossing times each racked up in those heady days. Eventually, it came down more to the national characteristics that each ship was perceived to offer.

Second out of the blocks after her French rival, the Queen Mary was panelled in literally hundreds of different kinds of beautiful woods. She was all chunky armchairs, linoleum flooring and feverish lighting, with Odeon and Art Deco motifs and overlays. A direct, dignified yet obvious descendant of the Mauretania and Aquitania, she was at once both stately and familiar, but on a scale never seen before on a British passenger liner.

Beore the war, she was mainly the ship of choice for the right of centre crowd; the sort of people that were said to prefer to do business with Hitler rather than Stalin. In those days, she was never famed as a late night party ship.

The Normandie could not have been more different. Internally, she was an Art Deco temple on a lavish, unparalled scale. She was unrealistic, uneconomic, and utterly magnificent.

In first class, the evening dinner menu routinely listed some three hundred and twenty five separate items. Table wine was always free aboard the Normandie, where it was considered an important part of the meal. And, though the great bulk of her passengers were American, announcements on board were first made always in French.

The Normandie attracted a passenger load that was the polar opposite of her great rival. It was a mostly left wing crowd, leavened out with a regular, eminent roster of Hollywood movie stars. They could, and often did, party through until the early morning hours.

One passenger- English as it happened- summed up the two great ships with matchless brevity; “In my opinion, the Queen Mary is a grand Englishwoman in sportswear, and the Normandie is a very pretty French girl in an evening gown.”

These, then, were the great, palatial paragons that dominated the North Atlantic in those last, uneasy years of peace. The firestorm that would follow would put all but three of them to the sword. And the post war shape of ocean travel- glamorous as it was- would never be quite the same again.

The Atlantic crossing in the 1930's was the greatest commuter highway in the world

The Atlantic crossing in the 1930’s was the greatest commuter highway in the world


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.


Thought you'd seen the last  of airships? Think again...

Thought you’d seen the last of airships? Think again…

As Australian billionaire Clive Palmer continues to fudge, fumble and bluster about his hugely hyped Titanic II project, something equally fantastical has actually been quietly blooming to fruition.

Imagine cruising through the skies above the magnificent cityscape of Paris. Through huge, floor to ceiling windows, matchless views of the winding River Seine. and the great landmarks such as Sacre Coeur and the Elysee Palace unfold like a series of stunning drum rolls.

Picture yourself slowly circling the top of the stupendous Eiffel Tower, seeing the monument in a way that even Gustave Eiffel never envisaged. You carry on over the fabled streets of Montmartre and the Champs Elysees. Sometimes, you might even loft gently above the vast, fabled opulence of Versailles for a bird’s eye view of the old hunting grounds of Louis XIV

If this sounds slightly reminiscent of being awake in a slowly moving dream, then that is understandable. But this dream is very real. For, after several decades of half hearted attempts at resurrection, the passenger carrying zeppelin is finally back.

Airship Paris has already built and commissioned its first, passenger carrying airship. a tourist vehicle carrying twelve passengers and a crew of two. The idea is to fly passengers over and above the Paris skyline, and at prices that are almost sky high themselves.

A standard, one hour flight will cost around 450 euros, with a longer, ninety minute ‘Royal’ tour on offer at 650 euros. Not cheap for sure, but certainly exceptional. And, in terms of memories, truly priceless.

Company president, Eric Lopez, dreams of a day when a fleet of perhaps fifteen airships, carrying around three hundred passengers, will be able to flit gracefully across the skyline of the French capital. And, if the scheme is successful, the possibility for future expansion of the service to other cities is almost limitless.

The first new airship is some two hundred and forty five feet in length, cruises at a height of around nine hundred feet, and has a maximum speed of about seventy-eight miles an hour. Power is provided by three engines; one on either side, and a third at the rear.

Flights depart from and return to a small airport in the suburb of Pontoise, some twenty-six kilometres north west of Paris itself.

The craft is filled with helium, the inflammable gas that would have prevented the cataclysmic destruction of the Hindenburg back in 1937. Roosevelt had declined to supply the gas to Hitler, because it also had the potential for war usage back in those last, tense years of peace. That problem no longer exists.

A crew of two will pilot up to twelve passengers, accommodated in a traditional gondola slung under the gas bag. Large, plexi-glass windows afford for superlative views; passengers are allowed to either stand or sit, and there is plenty of room to move about the cabin without any kind of crowding.

This sounds like a fantastic premise to me; seeing the sweep, stance and the staggering architectural exclamation marks of one of the most graceful cities on the planet, from a surreal, slowly moving cocoon of comfort and style.  if there is a more stylish way of touring and exploring than this, then I for one have yet to hear of it.

And- if you really want to ramp up on the style, luxe and nostalgia, then why not combine a flight with a journey to or from Paris on the legendary Venice Simplon Orient Express?

Airship Paris, Bon Voyage!


ImageThe thunderous, climactic fireball that marked the death of the Hindenburg, seen here, became one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. If ever there was a real life bonfire of the vanities, it was surely the death of the Hindenburg. Her blazing, charred hulk was the funeral pyre of the entire airship industry. And yet, it could all have been so very different.

By the time of her immolation, the Hindenburg was into her second year of service. Indeed, her comings and goings in America had become so routine by May, 1937 that they attracted scant media attention. For fifteen months, the great, silver grey dream ship had ghosted passengers across the Atlantic between Germany and America, as well as making headlining flights down to South America.

Hindenburg, or LZ-129 to use her official designation, was an enormous craft; almost as long as the Titanic. With her public rooms and cabins arranged in the great silver belly of the beast, she brought comfortable, stylish air travel to the Atlantic run for the first time. Some would also say it was the last, too.

There was a hermetically sealed smoking room, and two promenades with views down over the scenery below that were lined with ocean liner style deck chairs. There was a small lounge with a grand piano, and an excellent restaurant, staffed by former waiters from the Hamburg-Amerika line. It came complete with crockery that was specially commissioned for the giant airship.

Twenty-four small, Pullman type cabins were functional, with beds one above the other. Incredibly, there was even a shower available. For her passengers at least, the Hindenburg was intended to be a joyride on more than one level.

The Germans had to fill her with hydrogen, after the American government refused to allow the export of helium to Germany, supposedly on the personal orders of President Roosevelt. Helium was much safer, although five times more expensive than hydrogen.

But helium also had military uses, and Roosevelt- way ahead of the curve when it came to recognising the ambitions of Hitler and the Nazis- was not about to invite charges of fuelling both the Hindenburg and the German war machine. So the great, graceful giant kept using the hydrogen that was available. And, of course, that ultimately would lead to her destruction.

In her first season in 1936, the Hindenburg was a stunning success; so much so that she was often wait listed for cabins in both directions. She could make the flight from Germany to America in two days- a speed which made her more than twice as fast as the record breaking transatlantic liners, Normandie and Queen Mary.

The airship would usually maintain an altitude of around six hundred feet, and was known for being remarkably steady in the air. In fact, she proved so popular in service that another set of cabins were shoe horned into the hull during her refit over the winter of 1936-7.

It became normal for the Hindenburg to descend low enough to show her passengers drifting Atlantic icebergs. Approaching her berth, the Hindenburg would fly along the length of Broadway, before eventually coming to alight at her Lakehurst, New Jersey tower.

All things considered, it was the ultimate way to fly. So successful was the Hindenburg that a sister airship, the Graf Zeppelin II, was under construction in Germany by this time.

The premature, controversial final demise of this great sky goddess- the airborne equivalent of the Ritz- put paid to the notion of airship travel. Had it happened at any other time than in the hysteria fuelled run up to the Second World War, it might not have been a fatal blow. But in the war of words and ideas between competing world views, the loss of the Hindenburg became a political statement on both sides.

It was, without question, an apocalyptic end to an incredible vision. The Hindenburg was, in the end, as much a victim of Nazi megalomania as she was of freak weather conditions on that fatal night.


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.



The German liner Europa, for many years one of the great ‘ships of state’ on the Atlantic crossing. Post WW2, she would go on to a second, stellar career as the French Line’s much-loved SS. Liberte.

Imagine, if you can, a world without commercial air travel. It was not until a full decade after World War Two that the first jet airliners began whispering across the skies. In their vapour trails was written a simple message; it was nothing less than the death warrant of the transatlantic liner as a way of moving between continents.

For a full century, ocean liners were the only way of travelling the Atlantic with any degree of reliability. Only three years elapsed between Louis Bleriot’s first brave, stuttering flight across the English Channel in 1909 and the apocalyptic shock and numbness that followed the sinking of the Titanic. By the time that ship- the ultimate technical pinnacle of her day- had foundered, liners had already been traversing the most relentless stretch of ocean in the world for more than seven decades.

Immigration fulled the era. It fattened the profits of the shipping lines. Between 1890 and 1914, the most desperate mass exodus in the history of humanity poured forth in a human tidal wave. More than twenty million people, of at least twice as many nationalities, fled wars, pestilence, religious persecution and famine- sometimes all four- in an unstoppable flood towards the open, welcoming arms of America, the land of opportunity.  Many literally had nothing but the shirts on their backs.

Final twilight of the Titanic. As she races into the sunset and the passengers savour fine food and wine, the iceberg lies in wait…

The vast profits earned by the steamship lines resulted in a series of ever larger ships. Their first class interiors evolved into palatial spaces, resplendent with ornate wooden panelling,  glittering chandeliers that held sway above swathes of deep, rich carpeting, and random scatterings of plush, upholstered furniture. Palm courts full of wicker seating appeared almost everywhere. Cuisine and service came to resemble levels enjoyed at the Ritz, the Adlon or the Negresco. At least, it did in first class.

The First World War blew all of this out of the water. Quite literally in the case of the Lusitania, the famed Cunard liner that had been one of the ‘Queens’ of the Atlantic in the boom years.

America’s post war imposition of the Volstead Act limited incoming migration to just three per cent of the pre-war levels. Owners suddenly found themselves top heavy with fleets of ageing tonnage, and fewer people to fill them. Necessity led to the invention of tourism.

Former immigrant cabins were spruced up with fancy bed covers and linoleum floors, and the food quality was improved over time. Most ships were converted to oil burning, allowing for massive economies over the old coal burning days. Engine room crew numbers were scythed, and the amount of time needed to turn a ship around was halved.

This all went hand in hand with a burning desire among Americans to ‘see’ Europe. Now no longer the exclusive preserve of the moneyed first class, a whole new generation of young, professional Americans wanted to see the continent so many of them had fought and died for.

The bright lights of Paris were irresistible, as was London, then the capital of the greatest empire in the world. Further afield, the indolent lidos of Sorrento and the spires of Istanbul exerted an almost magnetic pull. Tourism took off like a rocket, and suddenly the liners were full again. Fuller, in fact, than ever.

It was an incredible age; a time of steamships, flapper girls, baseball, prohibition and jazz. Thirsty Americans, travelling abroad by liner, soon discovered that the ocean was wet in more ways than one. It rolled on and on until the Great Depression ushered in the greatest fiscal hangover of modern times.

The crash of 1929 was disastrous for the steamship lines. Passenger numbers plummeted by over fifty per cent in four short years, just as a string of new liners began to emerge to replace the dusty old survivors of the Edwardian era. First out of the blocks came the Germans.

The Bremen and her twin, the Europa, were designed from the start to be world beaters. New, streamlined and gleaming, the two Germans had modern, sterile interiors, and cabin service second to none. For three years, they played ping pong with the Blue Riband of the Atlantic.

The depression hit both of them hard and later, when the Nazis came to power, they suffered again from association with the Hitler regime. And soon they had competition,

The advent of those German giants was a real slap in Britannia’s imperial face, and she picked up the gauntlet with a snarl. In the Clydebank yards of John Brown, work began on a thousand foot long monster, one so vast that she blotted out parts of the skyline. Known as number 534, she was intended to seize back the initiative on the Atlantic. She would be the biggest ship the world had ever seen. But across the channel there lay a slight problem.

The Normandie.

Conceived at the same time as the ship that would become immortal as Queen Mary, Normandie was every bit as huge and impressive, almost as fast and, ultimately, much more brilliant and original. They would be rivals from the day they were laid down in Scotland and France respectively. They were both extravagant to the maximum, and both were sailed with great style and panache. But as a result of financial snarl ups in Britain, the French ship arrived first.

Normandie emerged in the summer of 1935, and thundered across to New York in what remains the single most auspicious maiden crossing in maritime history. More than a quarter of a million people blackened the banks of the Hudson river to witness her triumphal entry into port, surrounded by tugs and fire boats, and flying a thirty metre blue pennant to symbolize her record breaking debut.

A flotilla of biplanes flew over her in salute, as the whole scene was filmed from a blimp that hovered over Manhattan. One of the New York papers put out no less than eight editions that day, covering her progress. Normandie earned media coverage fully equal to that of the first moon landing, some thirty-four years in the future. It remains the most sensational (successful) debut in the history of sea travel.

Inside, she was exquisite, like a Hollywood movie set brought to life. Huge, double height public rooms were lined with exquisite lacquered panels, vast ‘light towers’, and wonderfully obscene amounts of glittering lalique. Those superb, sumptuous interiors would mark out the Normandie as the most beautiful, singularly brilliant ship ever to cut salt water. Even today, she remains very much the ocean liner.

Queen Mary made her debut almost exactly a year later. She was a much more conservative ship; evolutionary rather than revolutionary; a scaled up version of her illustrious predecessors. But she had great style, and a warmth many found lacking amid the glittering, almost overpowering style salons of the Normandie. On her sixth voyage, she took the record from the French ship. For the next two years, they would beat each other now and again by a fraction of a knot, engaging in what remains quite simply the greatest speed race of all time.

From time to time, crews on both ships would glance nervously up at a gleaming, silver grey vision in the sky that ghosted effortlessly past them at a height of several hundred feet. The Hindenburg brought snappy, elegant travel to the skies for the first time. Carrying seventy or more passengers, she could fly to New York in just two days. She had fabulous food and service, and was often wait listed weeks in advance.

Bonfire of the vanities; the Hindenburg bursts into flame at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in May 1937

Only her fiery, still controversial demise at Lakehurst in the spring of 1937 put an end to a string of passenger airships that would have given the liners their first serious challenge. But by then, all of Europe was already twitching nervously at the increasing sabre rattling of Hitler and his Italian lackey, Benito Mussolini. A second global conflagration hung in the skies, one as ominous as the funeral pall of the Hindenburg herself….

Even the sinking of the Titanic did nothing to deter the food of migrants to America in the years prior to the Great War