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Saturday 22 October 2016

Air travel: the end of a romantic affair

Blame O'Leary - and terrorists - for the endless queues if your shampoo isn't the right size, says Liam Collins

Published 25/07/2015 | 02:30

Michael O’Leary’s Ryanair is now the flag carrier for modern Europe
Michael O’Leary’s Ryanair is now the flag carrier for modern Europe
Al-Qa’ida hijackers turned air travel into a security nightmare after the 9/11 terror attacks

Was it economics or terrorism that took the romance out of flying - or to put it another way, was it Michael O'Leary or al-Qa'ida?

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Both have contributed to the horror of modern air travel, but the reality is that once air travel became a mass-market experience, romance was already gone.

Airports which were once romantic venues are now a frightening combination of shopping malls and food halls aimed at fleecing as many bored air travellers in as short a time as possible, while aeroplanes - once a means of luxury travel - are now sheep pens designed to squeeze as many people into as tight a space as possible while taking as much money off them during the duration of the journey.

We have even sold off the family silver in the shape of the State's stake in Aer Lingus, leaving Ryanair as the flag carrier of modern Europe.

There may be handsome dashing pilots flying the planes these days, but for security reasons you no longer see them. There may also be glamorous air hostesses dressed in designer outfits with cut-glass accents - but not in steerage. There are grand girls (and boys) with good Dublin accents but basically their job is to make sure you don't leave any rubbish lying around to screw up their tight turn-around time.

What you get is what you pay for.

But, and this is a very big but, air travel is infinitely safer and if, like me, you only go up in a plane to get from A to B at as cheap a price as possible, then we should all say a prayer for blessed Michael O'Leary and father Willie Walsh.

But let's remember the good times when you could walk unhindered to the viewing areas at Collinstown Airport in Dublin and watch the Aer Lingus planes landing, or go star-gazing at Shannon as the glitterati sipped Irish coffee in the terminal on their stop overs.

Those were the days when only the rich could afford to fly from one destination to another and, as in the 1970s, a return flight to London was a princely ransom of £275.

It was a time when the occasional reveller would stay in the bar too long and the plane would either be held for them or they'd simply catch the next flight, no extra charge. There was literally no such thing as security. If you were lucky to travel in such an era you were trusted to behave in a civilised manner. The comedian Billy Connolly used to tell the story of travelling first class from Glasgow to London with British Airways.

No matter what time of day or night there was free champagne all the way and Connolly's mission was to drink the difference between the cost of a first-class ticket and an ordinary ticket during the 45-minute flight.

It was an era when the huddled masses kept their feet firmly on the ground. Then the aeroplanes began to get bigger and what was regarded as the behemoth of an era, the Boeing 747 began to traverse the skies between Dublin, Shannon and New York.

But there was another aeroplane knifing through the skies over the Atlantic, probably the most glamorous aeroplane of them all, the E-type Jaguar of the skies - it was of course Concorde. With its hanging nose and ability to break the sound barrier, it went into service in 1976, taking its rich-list passengers from Paris to New York in a little over three hours of splendid luxury. It was a time when the raw-blooded rich males wanted more than just a journey - they also wanted to make love to the beautiful hostesses, and if the movies are to be believed, some of them succeeded.

Various Concordes belonging to Air France and British Airways visited Dublin and Shannon over the years, the last in May 1999.

Today marks the 15th anniversary of the Concorde disaster, when a jet bound for New York crashed in a ball of fire shortly after taking off from Paris, killing 113 people.

Concorde went out of service in 2003, but mainly because it was no longer economic - all the rich guys now had private jets. Those heady days of the 70s/80s also heralded an era of mass travel. It wasn't cheap, but people were prepared to pay for two weeks of uninterrupted sun in Magaluf. It was the first time most people travelled outside Ireland and on landing, they would give the pilot a round of applause.

And of course you could puff a cigarette and the food and drink was free.

It was then that another factor entered the equation, the hijacker, and that in itself killed the romance of air travel stone dead.

Suddenly the barriers went up, and the once affable security staff took on a hard look. I remember arriving at JFK for a St Patrick's Day assignment back in the early 1980s. "Business or pleasure?" the guy at passport control asked, without looking up. I began to babble that it was part pleasure, part work as I was covering the parade down 5th avenue the following day.

He looked at me hard: "I don't want your employment record buddy, I want to know if it's business or pleasure." "Pleasure" I answered. He nodded me through. Today he'd probably put me in the slammer and send me home for not having the right visa.

The first modern hijacking was pioneered in 1970 by a group of 'refuseniks' who hijacked an airline and tried, unsuccessfully, to get from Russia to Israel. It was a technique used with lethal effect in the Middle East in the years that followed.

As usual the only recorded Irish hijacking was a surreal event in which a former monk Laurence James Downey hijacked Aer Lingus flight 164 to Paris on Saturday May 2, 1981, demanding that the Vatican reveal the mysterious 'Third Secret of Fatima'. The then Transport Minister Albert Reynolds flew to Paris to help diffuse the situation, which ended without bloodshed when the French Special Forces stormed the plane.

Asked afterwards what the 'Third Secret of Fatima' was - Reynolds quipped, "the bill for the Last Supper."

Then along came Ryanair and the missionary zeal of Michael O'Leary to turn the skies over Europe into a no-frills zone. The tickets got cheaper, but no passport, no fly. The seats got tighter. The baggage costs prohibitive. Food and drink cost money. Romance evaporated in the face of stern, unyielding economics.

The chorus of complaints reached a crescendo but O'Leary in his rugby shirt held the line and masses stampeded to board his aircraft and almost every airline in the world started charging for everything.

Whatever spark of romance survived was finally snuffed out by the lethal evil of al-Qa'ida. The devastation caused on 9/11 2001 was the 'where were you when JFK was shot' moment of the new century. It also turned air travel into a nightmare of security gates, strip-searching and endless queues if you don't have the shampoo in the right-sized container in the right-sized clear plastic bag.

If you want to restore the romance you can still find a fleeting version - at a price. Buy a business class or first-class ticket and enjoy the free newspapers and magazines and free food and drink (as much as you want), a shower and other perks in the private airport lounge during those tedious waiting times.

Oh and by the way, if you want to avoid the snaking security queues at Dublin Airport, look up the Dublin Airport Authority website. For €5.95 per person you can sneak through a fast-track gate. But don't tell anyone else.

Irish Independent

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