A good friend of mine picked Christmas Day to fly from St. Louis to Los Angeles to surprise her 97-year-old dad. You may recall that Southwest Airlines had major problems that day, and, of course, that was the carrier she was on. Her scheduled 6:30 AM flight never happened. She eventually got routed through Chicago and ended up walking through her dad’s front door at 10:30 PM Christmas Night, singing I’ll Be Home for Christmas with the added lyrics, “but just barely.”

That same friend also was booked to fly from St. Louis to San Francisco to visit her sons and their families about three weeks later. That was the day the FAA computers shut down. She got the last possible Stand-by seat on a flight and had another 16-hour odyssey with the airline industry. (I’ve asked her to let me know of any upcoming travel plans she has so I can avoid booking flights those days.)

Unfortunately, my friend’s experiences and others’ similar ones are all too common today. Airlines seem to cancel flights for any number of reasons. And even if you are fortunate enough to take-off and land on time, it’s a good bet you’ll spend whatever time you have in the air scrunched up in a seat designed to fit the average 10-year-old.

I mention all of the above because there was a story this week about the Boeing 747 planes shortly being put out to pasture. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of riding in one of those huge silver birds, especially when they were brand new, consider yourself lucky. Because when 747s ruled the skies, flying was an enjoyable experience.

Boeing released the plane for passenger use early in 1970. The “Jumbo Jet” was the first to feature the twin-aisle body and an upper deck. There were rows upon rows of seats that held over 350 passengers, opening the airways to many more paying passengers than ever before.

I had the great opportunity to fly several times on those massive planes. The first and perhaps best flight I took on one was the year the 747s were put into service. My family flew on Christmas Day from Ohio to California to visit my grandmother and assorted relatives. We flew first to Chicago where a new United plane awaited us.

Back then, the airline industry was regulated by the government. United, Delta, Pan Am, TWA, et al. had set schedules that they were required to keep. Unlike today, even if a plane wasn’t full, there wasn’t a cancellation. Off you went. Which made this first 747 flight so memorable.

It was a bit unusual to fly on December 25th fifty-some years ago. But Grandma wanted us to be at her house for at least part of Christmas Day. And we were more than willing to celebrate Christmas morning at home and then have another gift-fest that night with her.

When we boarded the 747, it quickly became apparent we weren’t going to have any problem with legroom. When everyone was aboard, we found out there were only 50 passengers on the plane. Plus, three pilots and 10 “stewardesses” (as flight attendants were known at the time). We pretty much had the entire plane to ourselves.

My sisters and I had a great time running all around the entire back half. We got to know the stewardesses well, and they constantly wined and dined us because they didn’t have anything else to do. At one point, somewhere over the Rockies, I asked if the cabin lights could be turned off. My wish was granted, and we all could look out the windows and see the city lights below throughout the West.

One other memorable 747 flight I took was the only time I got to climb the winding stairs to the upper deck. United ran a promotion that offered half-off tickets for future trips when you took any other flight. I was living in Los Angeles at the time and promptly booked a 20-minute jaunt to San Diego. It cost me $44 round-trip. I used the vouchers from that outing to fly to Chicago for one of my best friends’ weddings later in the year. And I treated myself to the pleasures of a big First Class seat and the well-appointed lounge. (It was a morning flight, and the Mimosas were excellent, although I do recall perhaps enjoying them a bit too much.)

Alas, I feel as if the golden age of flying as a whole has followed the same trajectory of the Boeing 747 aircraft that’s soon to make its final run. Maybe it’s time to bring back luxury trains. The Super Chief was nice. But that’s another story.

©MMXXIII. William J. Lewis, III – Freelance Writer