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Location: Barnoldswick. Nearer to Heaven than Gloria.


Post by Stanley »

I wanted to bump this but couldn't find it.


Here is a bit from me memoirs:

“If you remember, I bought a plane ticket in late summer of 1979. I had done the first term at Lancaster and in early November, I got myself down to London, left my car with Roger Perry and his new lady Annie drove me to the airport to catch the polar flight to Los Angeles. At this time, this was the longest non-stop flight in the world and we are talking about a bloke who has never been out of the country apart from National Service and has never flown before! Apart from anything else, the machine fascinated me, the concept of something weighing 400 tons flapping its wings and actually getting into the air was like a miracle to me.

Here I have to do an even bigger flash-back and go back to my days working for Drinkalls on the cattle wagon. I think it must have been about 1970, I was driving up the coast road where it skirts Prestwick Airport and I saw one of British Airways new Boeing 747s taxiing towards the end of the runway next to the road. I had seen this plane from a distance for a week or two and knew it was the biggest commercial airliner in the world. BA used Prestwick for pilot training because it was the least fog and weather affected of all UK airports. They had this plane loaded up to maximum weight and were training pilots in take-offs and landings with it all day. I realised it was going to start its take-off about 100 yards from the road and so I pulled up to watch.

As I did so a police car stopped in front of me and the driver got out. He walked back towards me, “You can’t park here, can’t you see the signs?” I told him yes I had seen the signs but did he realise that this plane coming up towards us weighed 400 tons and it was going to do the impossible? The bobby considered for a minute and then he said, “You’re right, the roads quiet, I’ll pretend I’m having a word with you and we’ll watch it” He was as interested as I was! I can still see the tyres squidgeing over on the rims as the massive plane swung round and waddled to the end of the runway. We felt the blast as its engines opened up but, as we were directly behind it, we saw no movement, just the impression that it was shrinking. Then it rose off the ground and seemed to go straight up into the air. I have never seen anything so impressive in my life. The bobby looked at me and winked, “On your way and don’t do it again!” I never forgot this and now, nine years later, I was going to go up with it!”

I’ve put this extract in because I think it illustrates nicely the sense of adventure we all felt the first time we got on a big jet for a long flight. My daughter Janet will remember to this day the time we got on a big bird to fly to Montreal. I can still see her straining at her seat belt to get to the window and watch the ground miraculously dropping away from us. It was a miracle and for someone like me, born before modern technology broke into a gallop after WW2, even more of a thrill than for younger people.

Over the ensuing years, as many of you know, I indulged myself in frequent travel. I flew the longest routes, went round the world and was even on a record-breaking flight from LA to LHR aided by the jetstream wind. Today, I wouldn’t thank you for a ticket (unless it was First-Class to Oz…..) and I was triggered today to sit and have a good think why. I soon realised that I would have to write what looked suspiciously like an Economics paper for my mate Martha in Northfield.

Two things started my train of thought, the ongoing credit crunch which is doing so much damage and is all to do with allowing the market to pursue unrestrained greed which infects ordinary people and is going to cause so much grief to the least-able in society to withstand it. (Meanwhile, the smart guys have retreated to their off-shore havens with the loot) The second factor was the oil-crunch which some of have been forecasting for years and which is now beginning to bite. We have the ridiculous situation where the US, China and India, the world’s largest consumers, are having their fuel costs subsidised thus ensuring that demand outstrips consumption and prices rise. Funnily enough, any good market man will tell you that if market forces were allowed unrestrained control, this imbalance would soon be rectified as demand would fall due to higher prices and the oil price would stabilise.

Leaving all this on one side, the effect in the ‘mature’ economies is that people have less money and that basic commodity prices are rising. There is going to be less disposable income and certain sectors are going to suffer more than others. One of these has got to be air travel. We will soon have to wave goodbye to ridiculous deals like fly to Paris for £1. Fight as they may with bigger and more efficient planes, the long-haul carriers are going to have to rethink their business.

All this took me back to my transport of delight in 1979, the Polar Route to LA, and I started to wonder where it had all gone wrong. Never mind the price of the ticket, where had the magic gone? Not just the frisson of the first flight, but the adventure of having a ticket a quarter of an inch thick that could take you round the world. ( I remember Donald, my next door but one neighbour, asking me whether I would get lost. I told him it was easier to get lost going to a village in the Ribble Valley than going round the world. He couldn’t understand this and said he thought I was very brave.) Why is it that the prospect of doing something like that now fills me with horror?

Part of it is getting old of course, been there, done that, got the tee shirt. However, I am convinced that anyone taking that first flight today can’t possibly have such a good experience. I took the last NWA flight out of Prestwick before they transferred to the new Glasgow Airport. It was an old-fashioned aerodrome, sparsely populated, plenty of space and a relaxed atmosphere. I remember flying into Mirabelle at Montreal with Janet, an enormous airport built for the Olympic Games which hadn’t reached anywhere near capacity and was a pleasure to use. Leeds and Bradford where you walked out on to the tarmac and up a ladder to get in the plane. Getting on to a 747 the day before the shoulder when the fares dropped and finding I was one of about fifty people on the aircraft. Five seats to myself LA to LHR.

What happened was that the market took control. The airlines chased capacity, their lobbyists gained relaxations in the traffic regulations and the aim became bums on seats and competitive prices. Freddie Laker was one of the first to go down this route, remember Laker and the battle with what was then British Airways for transatlantic traffic. £100 tickets to NY return? With hindsight, things were never going to be the same again. The increased traffic meant more pressure on the airports. The aim became the most economic processing of vast numbers of passengers and baggage. The result was a sausage-machine approach which gradually changed the airport experience from a delightful wait whist indulging in people-watching to an overcrowded purgatory where you weren’t even sure that your flight hadn’t been overbooked and therefore had no certainty that you would even get on the plane. I have sat in MSP hearing the airline offering me $500 for my ticket and two free flights as well. You couldn’t help but feel that the world had gone mad! Gone was your status as a valued customer, you were just fodder for some giant corporate machine.

Then came 9/11 and the collective madness of the ‘War on Terror’ which some of us still think was a political ploy to cover up lack of principle and handed the ‘terrorists’ a massive victory on a plate. Think of what ‘security’ has cost us since, not just in financial terms but in the erosion of our standards. If anyone had told Oscar Bin Liner that the equivalent of three 1000lb bombs on America would result in the biggest retreat from civil liberties in the West since the advent of feudalism he wouldn’t have believed it.

One of the major consequences of this was the tightening of ‘airport security’ which, when imposed on an already over-stretched system, jacked the aggravation factor 100%. (On my return flight from the US after the attack on the Towers I got the bright idea of playing on my bad back and requesting a wheelchair to save me standing in interminable security queues. Martha had a whale of a time passing me off as her elderly father, I was given my own armed guard in the shape of an extremely polite soldier and received preferential treatment, he even bought me a coffee. Only problem was that I spent the rest of the flight dodging wheelchair attendants every time I changed flights and finished up having my cover blown on the tarmac at Leeds Bradford as we walked to the terminal. I had told the story to a lady sat with me on the flight from Schiphol to Leeds Bradford and half way to the building, after ignoring the man with the wheelchair at the bottom of the ladder from the plane, she stopped, flung her arms wide and proclaimed to the world ‘It’s a Miracle!’. I had to grab her and scuttle into the terminal before anyone started to ask questions. Never again!)

Then came the new and stringent rules which demanded far higher security for passports and entry, particularly into the US. It was at this point I decided that my days of air travel were over. However, the question nags at me, could it have been a different story?

What I am about to say will be considered as heresy by many, I don’t apologise, we are all allowed a point of view. Suppose the same regulations had been applied to aircraft seating as the ones which govern the size of farrowing crates for pigs. A pig is about the same size as a human being and it seems logical that roughly the same standards should apply. This would have cut down the number of seats on a plane by say two thirds. Economics dictate that the ticket price would have to be three times as much. It would reduce the pressure on airports by two thirds and enable a more customer-friendly process. If, in addition, the airport authorities and the airlines had taken security more seriously before 9/11 and not tried to save money for their shareholders, who knows, perhaps the attack on the Twin Towers would not have been possible. Perhaps Freddie Laker has more to answer for than we thought…..

All right, this is a whinge and what-might-have-been. I doubt if it is even a valid economics paper. (Sorry Martha!) But somewhere inside it is a kernel of truth. The market is an excellent method for balancing supply with demand until it is subverted by those who profess to believe in it. It cannot work if prices are artificially depressed as in the case of fuel for transport. The market is a blunt instrument and takes no account of the fall-out from the process of ‘balancing’ things out. This ‘balancing’ could have tremendous effects on those least able to withstand the consequences, like 70% of Pakistani people being mal-nourished, not by famine, there is plenty of food, but because they can’t afford to eat. On a far lesser scale of values, by the erosion of the travel experience and the comfort and well-being of millions of travellers every month.

As Maureen once said to me; “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube”. From her mouth to God’s ear. I shall never be able to re-capture that transport of delight. I understand the reasons but this doesn’t do anything for my regret that others will never have the chance to experience what some of us did 40 years ago. The world is therefore, in this aspect anyway, a poorer place.

SCG/30 April 2008
2129 words.
Stanley Challenger Graham
Stanley's View
scg1936 at

"Beware of certitude" (Jimmy Reid)
The floggings will continue until morale improves!
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