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Originally published Sunday, June 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Once upon a time, the skies really were friendly

Once upon a time, air travel was exciting and fun. Flights weren't jammed, and seats actually had some leg room. Airline crews were happier...

Once upon a time, air travel was exciting and fun. Flights weren't jammed, and seats actually had some leg room. Airline crews were happier in their jobs and nice to passengers. Real food was served, with china plates and silverware. There were no security hassles; no long lineups; and none of the extra charges, for everything from a crummy sandwich to checking luggage, that bedevil today's air travelers.

Nowadays, domestic flights often have all the allure of a long-haul car trip. But some Seattle Times readers remember the good old days. Here's a sampling of their memories.

Kristin Jackson / Seattle Times

Flying with Bogart on Pan Am

I flew as a purser for Pan American World Airways during the "glory years" from 1948 to 1957, first from New Orleans to Central America and then across the Pacific out of San Francisco.

On the Pacific routes, we operated the Boeing Stratocruiser, a very comfortable plane with a downstairs bar/lounge, seats that converted to berths, upper berths, large bathrooms and carried 44 passengers all first-class. The cabin crew consisted of a purser and two stewards/stewardesses. Our passengers included at least three VIPs per leg per trip — movie stars, politicians, admirals, generals, etc.

A favorite was Humphrey Bogart, who would come back to the galley and help prepare meals. On one trip with the "Caine Mutiny" cast, I was having trouble getting a group of young actors to quiet down in the lounge at 2 a.m. Bogart appeared, put his arm around my shoulder and said, "This little gal is the boss, now get the hell up to bed." And they did — fast!

My all-time favorite was U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who made several trips with me and always invited me to sit and chat (we had time for that back then). I asked him to sign my logbook, and he wrote a long message, all in Latin.

During this period, PanAm operated two flights per week to the Orient and the South Pacific, so we always had three- or four-day layovers in such exotic locales as Honolulu, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Manila, Bangkok, Sydney, Fiji and (not so great) Wake Island.

It truly was a time when flying was fun!

— "Tappy" Schonenberg, Edmonds

A slow and mesmerizing

flight to West Africa

I made my first airline flight at the age of 14 in 1949. My father worked in Nigeria in West Africa, and I was going out to spend the summer vacation from school with my family. (The final days of the Empire!)

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In those days, BOAC (later British Airways) had a large office near the center of London. All the check-in procedures (including the weighing of each passenger with his or her luggage) took place there, and travelers, unburdened by suitcases, took a shuttle coach out to Heathrow Airport.

At Heathrow we boarded an Avro York, a derivative of the wartime Lancaster bomber, which was unpressurized and limited to altitudes less than 10,000 feet. As a 14-year-old, I was enthralled watching the scenery marching past at a stately 250 mph or so.

The first leg took us to Tripoli in Libya. While the aircraft refueled, we disembarked and ate a leisurely dinner in the airport restaurant. The next leg, an overnight flight across the Sahara Desert, took us to the walled city of Kano in northern Nigeria for another refueling stop. After breakfast we reboarded for the final leg to Lagos' Ikeja Airport. Again, a fascinating panorama as the scenery below metamorphosed from tan desert to green rain forest.

The whole journey took 24 hours. I've since flown similar routes in a third the time, but you lose something when you fly twice as fast and four times as high.

— Gerald Williams, Bainbridge Island

18 hours to Tulsa,

but who cared?

It was 1957, I was headed from Seattle for a meeting in Tulsa and flying was still an adventure.

When I got out to the airport, there were maybe 150 people in the entire terminal and about four airplanes on the ramp. Check-in took about five minutes, and then I walked out to the airplane. It was a piston-engine DC-6B, the latest in commercial airplanes, and carried 54 people. In addition to the 54 seats, there was a lounge in back. (In propeller planes, first class was also in back, because it was quieter there.) And when we got up in the air, they were serving free drinks.

I'll tell you that sitting in the lounge with a pretty flight attendant and drinking free booze was a far cry from the Air Force planes I was used to. Of course, we stopped at every city on the way, but we eventually arrived in Denver. There, it was everybody out, fill up with gas ... then it was off again, more stops, and finally Tulsa at about midnight. A total of about 18 hours since I had boarded in Seattle.

I spin this tale, incidentally, just to let you younger people know how much air travel has progressed, or regressed, since then.

— John Kuller, Edmonds

Please, sir, take your

ice ax on board

Early in the 1970s, I was on a backpacking trip in British Columbia. As our route traversed some glaciers, we were equipped with ice axes. On my return trip from Vancouver, B.C., to New York, I had strapped my ice ax to my backpack. As I prepared to check my backpack, the airline check-in agent expressed concern that it might puncture other luggage (even though the points of the ice ax were protected) and asked if I would carry the ice ax with me on board the plane.

— Daniel C. Lee, Normandy Park

Dressing up

for a flight

In 1963, my husband was a graduate student at the University of Chicago. We lived in student housing. Imagine how thrilled we were to be flying to Philadelphia tourist-class on United Airlines to visit our parents, dressed in high heels and a tie. We were served champagne and filet mignon. How elegant! Student housing and student budgets hadn't allowed that treat all quarter.

— Lane Gerber

Real food,

and real service

Flying is no longer a pleasurable experience ... but I fondly recall flights on Thai International Airlines. The seats were roomy, and there was no need to fight for a storage bin. At dinner time, the cabin attendants lowered your tray, covered it with a linen napkin and placed a china plate and silver on it. The second attendant would serve your meal from a large platter. In this way you chose your entree and veggies. This was not in first class. We were in back with the huddled masses, but it didn't seem so bad then. We began our 20-plus years of wandering with a 1-year-old who often made eating an adventure. It was not unusual for the cabin staff to whisk her away for an hour or so, and we could eat in peace.

— Barbara Strong

Royal treatment for child flying alone

I took my first airplane trip in 1952 when I was 10 years old. My parents sent me by myself from Texas to Georgia on Eastern Airlines. Needless to say, it was a big adventure for me.

The stewardess was very attentive, bringing me special treats and talking with me about flying, making sure I wasn't scared or airsick.

Then the pilot came back and invited me to come into the cockpit. I was so excited to see how they flew the airplane and overwhelmed to see all the controls. I'm sure my eyes were huge in awe. The view out the front was fantastic.

When the pilot walked me back to my seat, he gave me a pin of a pair of wings. I was so proud to wear it and did for days afterward.

When we landed, I was loaded down with many gifts from all the staff, and each shook my hand as I left the plane.

— Dick King, Kirkland

Remembering

a fabulous job

In 1975, I'd broken off a difficult romantic relationship and decided it was time to take a leave from college. Back in Portland, barely 20 years old, dressed in a white miniskirt, brown suede boots and my long, brown hair shiny and straight, I scurried down to Lloyd Center, where I interviewed with two different airlines. United Airlines seemed the better choice, and a few weeks later they flew me to their one-month flight-attendant training school in Chicago. Since I was next to the youngest in my training class, I had only one domicile choice. New York, N.Y., here I come!

I found working for the airlines a thrill. I loved the airports, I loved the planes, I loved traveling and I loved the people. I took free trips on my days off, rarely even having to wait. I took trips to Hawaii, South America and all over the United States. I rarely paid more than $12. Being a flight attendant in those days meant respect, envy and admiration. I was written up in the local paper, and I received plenty of attention and respect from everyone I met. My parents were proud. I felt grateful to have landed such a fabulous job.

My training dealt with landing emergencies, first aid and how to serve food and drinks. There were no terrorists. The biggest trouble I had were with young grad students pursuing a date in a dogged manner, and when a guy almost choked to death on his large lunch. The work was very hard, especially on the brand-new 747s, but great fun on the small 737s.

We served a full meal, usually with at least three choices, along with a beverage cart.

At that time, passengers dressed up; women wore dresses or nice pantsuits, men wore suits or dress shirts and sweaters. People were polite, helpful, well-intentioned and not in a hurry.

On flights from New York to Portland and return, the brand-new Boeing 747s and DC-10s had huge open spaces for business class. Passengers were assigned their own seats, of course, but then the center of the airplane was open for people to move about, graze the buffet table set out with silver plates full of bagels and lox, cream cheese, a variety of fruits, cheeses, crackers and breads. ...

I loved flying back then ... it's a shock to compare service and the joy with flying nowadays.

— Jannelle W. Loewen

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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