How Convenient Jetways Helped Kill Airline Glamour

Marilyn Monroe disembarking with little cowboy

Contrary to popular belief, the glamour of air travel didn't disappear with the crowded planes brought on by deregulation and cheaper prices. It started dissipating in the late 1960s, with the coming of jumbo jets and terrorist hijackings. “In the popular imagination,” writes architectural historian Alastair Gordon in his excellent book Naked Airport: A Cultural History of the World's Most Revolutionary Structure, “air travel was now equated with boredom and disaster.”

This Weather.com slide show on “Glamour in the Skies” reminded me of another change--this one a technological improvement--that eroded airline glamour around the same time: the disappearance of the staircase in favor of safer, more weatherproof indoor jet bridges.

If you're a traveler, you'd much rather walk directly into the terminal on a more-or-less level jet bridge. But the old stairs set the traveler apart from the crowds on the ground. They created a dramatic sense of arrival and departure. And they made for lots of glamorous photographs.

Nowadays, we still occasionally see such glamorous images of people set apart from the normal life that includes occasional jet travel. Some, like the star of Fergie's "Glamorous" video, are going up and down the steps of private jets. So, in a sense, are the others. But their private jets are publicly owned.

Obama arriving airplane stairs

[Marilyn Monroe and her small "bodyguard" courtesy of Everett Collection and used with permission. We paid to use this photo, so don't you steal it. President Obama arriving in Ankara, Turkey, by Pete Souza and courtesy of White House Flickr stream.]

British Airways Makes Aviator Glamour Work

These days when airlines try to sell their services with glamour, they usually wind up looking ridiculous, because the real-world experience bears no resemblance to the advertised ease. We hate to fly, and it shows.

But a new ad for British Airways pulls it off--not by promising passengers a glamorous experience but by evoking the enduringly glamorous archetype of the aviator.

Sharing Space With Wide-bodied Passengers

Super-sized On a recent Southwest Airlines flight to Oakland on a tall, obese man sat down next to me. He was not morbidly obese—he could squeeze into his seat with both arm rests in place—but he did overlap his seat enough that I realized that I would have difficulty avoiding contact with him. I had gotten up early that morning, so I crossed my arms, moved as far as I could toward my wife’s seat, and managed to sleep most of the flight. Near the end of the flight my obese neighbor raised the armrest between us to get more comfortable. But he courteously took care to avoid imposing on my space any more than his bulk forced him to.

As humans we desire a certain amount of personal space, and on many occasions we will wait for the next elevator rather than crowd into a tightly-packed group of strangers. Having someone stand too close to us can feel like a form of intimidation, no matter what the person’s size. I can remember three occasions in which short, petite women made me uncomfortable by standing too close to me during casual conversations. In one case it was a colleague’s wife, and it was impossible to look down at her without being distracted by the cleavage being displayed by her provocatively low-cut dress. A petite woman once confessed to me that she sometimes liked to intimidate large women by standing very close to them. She was aware that being close to her tiny, svelte figure sometimes made larger women feel awkward and huge.

If we feel that someone is invading our personal space in an uncomfortable way, we instinctly try to move away from them. On an airplane our ability to move is limited, and the growing obesity rate means that we are increasingly likely to find ourselves sharing seating space with individuals who are too large for a single seat. Film director Kevin Smith created publicity for himself by berating Southwest for denying him a seat on one of their flights. He claimed that he could have fit into a seat with the armrests down, but as I learned on the flight to Oakland, this does not guarantee that the passenger’s bulk will not spill over onto the adjacent seat.

Obese-passenger If the situation is extreme (as illustrated by this photo taken of a unresolved boarding situation), being pinned under the weight of another person can prove injurious. In 2002, after being pinned to the outside wall during an 11-hour Virgin Airlines flight by a grossly overweight woman, another woman passenger required hospitalization. Angered what she felt was the airline’s calloused attitude toward her ordeal, the squashed woman threatened to sue, and won a £12,000 settlement. During the investigation into the incident, the airline discovered that the obese woman’s thin husband had booked himself into the row behind his wife, which suggested that he was fully aware that sitting next to her on a long flight would be an ordeal.

Given the rising rates of obesity around the world, unless airlines find ways to deal with grossly overweight passengers (such as the purchase of an extra seat), both the obese passengers and their thinner neighbors are increasingly likely to find themselves in uncomfortable social situations. The thought that you might find yourself on a long international flight seated next to a stranger whose bulk spills onto your seat is a distinctly unglamorous image.

[“Super Size Airline” copyrighted by Flickr user Thomas Boucher and used by permission.]

What We Forget About The Era Of Glamorous Air Travel

Pan Am breakfast in bedThis photo appeared in Sunday's NYT business section, as part of a photo feature on the lost glamour of air travel. (The feature also appears as an online slide show.) The feature makes the important point that air travel is both more common and much more affordable than it used to be: "In 1940, passenger planes in the United states carried only 3 million people, compared with 17 million in 1950 and about 650 million in 2008."

Like many of the images that create our idea of glamorous air travel, this photo is staged. It's a marketing image created by Pan Am, which probably featured a mother and children to emphasize the safety of flying to a public that still thought of aviation as dangerous. But even a staged photo can reveal an unacknowledged flaw concealed in our glamorous image of that lost era.

Why do they need beds?

For the same reason that international airlines compete to offer more and more luxurious beds to their premium-class passengers: Because the flight takes a long time. Only in the case of the Pan Am photo, the flight is a domestic one. And bumpy.

I wrote about the lost glamour of air travel (and tested one of Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class beds) in a 2007 Atlantic column.

A Better Version Of The Amelia Earhart Story

Amelia krak 1 As readers who read my DoubleX piece on Amelia (and Amelia) know, I think the movie deservedly bombed, largely because Amelia Earhart is an intrinsically difficult subject for a biopic. As a glamorous icon, she is not a person but a persona, someone we “know” from the outside, for what she represents rather than who she actually is. Her distance and mystery are a big part of her allure. A movie preserves that appeal inevitably tends to be boring, while a movie that portrayed her as flawed (perhaps not such a great pilot) would lose its audience.

While I was writing that piece, I thought whether you could write a script about Earhart that preserved her glamour but wasn't emotionally flat. One idea would be to tell a story not about her but about someone who observes and is inspired by her. Another would be to emphasize the challenges and hazards of early aviation, something that Amelia did in its best moments but downplayed in favor of a flattened soap opera.

Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean, a graphic novel aimed at tweens, does both. And while the book, written by Sarah Stewart Taylor and drawn by Ben Towle, doesn't have enough plot to make a movie, it demonstrates that the way to portray Earhart is, in fact, to use a sympathetic protagonist who admires her. The graphic novel makes the wise choice to show us Earhart through the eyes of an admirer, a girl who lives in the seafaring community of Trepassy, Newfoundland, and aspires to be a newspaper reporter. Located on the far eastern edge of North America, Trepassy is the point from which Earhart and other aviation pioneers took off for Europe. It's also a shipwreck-strewn place whose name essentially means "the dead."

From the Publisher's Weekly review:

In June of 1928, tweener Grace, the dubious townspeople and a mob of impatient newsmen wait for Earhart to finally get her plane in the air for a transatlantic flight. Grace yearns to leave the little village and to become a newspaper woman, so she observes the commotion and manages to get the aviator's personal encouragement in an interview before her successful departure. Taylor's lean script leaves much of Grace's feelings understated but easy to imagine. Towle's art is also emotionally restrained, but panels showing the bleak landscape—especially double-page spreads of what Earhart called “this broad ocean”—emphasize the courage of people willing to take ultimate risks. Astronaut Eileen Collins's introduction, which describes the inspiration she drew from Earhart's example, carries the theme to the present.
Grace's point of view preserves Amelia as a glamorous, somewhat mysterious figure who represents a different life. You can get a sense from this spread. (As always, click the images to see a larger version.) Amelia2Amelia

[Images reproduced with permission of Ben Towle.]

Glamour Vs. Charisma: Aviators Amelia Earhart And Pancho Barnes

Pancho Barnes Amelia Earhart women pilots 1929 Powder Puff Derby © Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive Amelia Earhart was daring, adventurous, modern, and beautiful, among the 20th century’s most enduring icons. Sixty years after her disappearance, high-profile advertising campaigns for Apple and the Gap were still employing her image as a symbol of independence and glamour. A movie about her must have seemed like a sure thing. Yet Amelia is a critical and commercial disaster. What went wrong?

It would be easy to blame the project’s specifics. Director Mira Nair did, after all, manage to turn Thackeray’s lively satire into the ponderous, unwatchable Vanity Fair. A less earnest director or more creative script might have produced a more interesting Amelia, one less reliant on half-hearted soap opera and more focused on the challenges of early aviation. But the real problem may be Amelia Earhart herself.

In the 1920s and ’30s, “the aviatrix was the ultimate glamorous and daring modern woman,” notes Kristen Lubben in Amelia Earhart: Image and Icon, the catalog for a 2007 exhibition of Earhart images at the International Center of Photography. Earhart, of course, was the ultimate glamorous aviatrix. She achieved that status not because she was the best female pilot—many were better—but because she was media-savvy and able to embody the public’s multiple aspirations. She was feminist yet feminine, casual yet elegant, modern yet wholesome. “Hers is the healthy curiosity of the clean mind and the strong body and a challenging rebuke to those of us who have damned the youth of the land,” declared a 1928 essayist who saw her as an antidote to Jazz Age decadence. He concluded, “What a girl!” Such a glamorous figure makes an effective advertising icon but an emotionally flattened protagonist. She loses her individuality.

During her life, Earhart was transformed from a person into a persona—idealized, distant, and glamorous, her mythic allure heightened by the mystery of her disappearance. The more time passes, the more her individuality recedes. “She has become an increasingly abstract symbol—of the thrill and danger of adventure, of the possibilities for women, and of the courage to break with … conventional expectations,” writes Lubben. Eternally young, Earhart remains unblemished from the kind of eccentricity or controversy—or ordinary individual complexity—that could make her a compelling subject for a modern biopic. To preserve her glamour, Amelia must keep her at a distance, without flaws, doubts, or character development. We learn nothing of the struggles of her youth, her political commitments, or her limits as a pilot. She ends the film essentially the same as she began it—as an icon.

Here, another recent film about a pioneering aviatrix presents a sharp contrast. Currently making the film-festival rounds and expected to air on public television in the spring, The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club is a straightforward documentary made on a tenth of Amelia’s production budget. Yet for all its still photos and talking heads, it is far more entertaining. While Amelia struggles against the glamour of its heroine, The Legend of Pancho Barnes is imbued with its protagonist’s charisma. The contrast between the two pilots, and the memories they left behind, illuminates the distinctions between these two often-conflated qualities.

Read the rest and see a Pancho Barnes slide show on DoubleX.

[Photo of Pancho Barnes (left), Amelia Earhart, and participants in 1929 Women's Air Derby © and courtesy of Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive.]

Giving Aviator Glamour A Black Face

11759vWith the Tuskegee Airmen headed to the inauguration, let's take a moment to remember what they looked like when they were young and glamorous--and, of course, just how subversive that glamour was. The airmen were not just warriors but aviators, the epitome of masculine modernity: brave and daring, yes, but also masters of complex machines, with all the discipline and intelligence that implied. Their very existence refuted the ideology of white supremacy.

In April 1945, the Airmen were photographed by Toni Frissell, a noted fashion and society photographer (she did the photos at Jack and Jackie's wedding). Frissell knew glamour and, unlike many of her contemporaries, she didn't need a studio or heavy retouching to create it. Her photos of couples cuddling in the park are as appealing as her shots of models on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. And she loved natural light.

Frissell was the ideal photographer to capture the Tuskegee Airmen for posterity. As this DG slideshow illustrates, she captured the glamour--and dignity--of these young men, whether posed looking skyward, working on engines, listening to briefings, playing cards, or receiving "escape kits" of cyanide. And, presumably for hometown newspapers, she noted their names and hometowns, which are included in the slideshow captions.

Not all the aviators will make it to the inauguration, of course. Many, indeed, never made it home from the war--something I was reminded of when Googling Ronald Reeves, the Blair Underwood lookalike in a few of the photos.

"The Ultimate Glamorous And Daring Modern Woman"

Amelia Earhart is among those rare celebrities who are as familiar today as they were in their own time. Photographs of the iconic aviator, with tousled hair, leather jacket, and silk scarf, helped to secure her fame and ensure its perpetuation. Her disappearance over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 is undeniably part of the story; the dramatic and unsolved circumstances of her demise, and the lack of physical evidence, are powerful factors that contribute to keeping her image alive in the popular consciousness, and the trope of the popular hero who dies dramatically at the height of fame is a familiar one. However, her end does not explain the appeal of her image in her own time--particularly for a woman--or its continued currency as shorthand for a range of cultural and stylistic ideals today.

1117_earhart
Two ad campaigns from the 1990s make clear that Earhart's image continues to represent much more than her spectacular finish. In the late 1990s, Apple launched its "Think Different" campaign: a series of magazine ads, billboards, and posters with a single black-and-white portrait of an iconic innovator, along with the Apple logo and the tagline "Think Different," an attempt to underscore Apple's position as rebel to IBM's mainstream (whose longtime slogan was "Think"), and to associate the brand with creative risk-takers. Along with images of Gandhi, Albert Einstein, and Miles Davis, Apple employed an early portrait of Earhart. It shows her in white flying helmet with goggles perched on her head. Her white shirt and tie are out of focus, so that the suggestion of menswear is present without being foregrounded, and creates a foil for her model-like looks, youthfulness, and femininity. Her expression is doe-eyed and determined. Earhart's image needs no caption: it is understood that the viewer will recognize her, and will associate the Apple brand with daring and adventure, as well as unconventionality, conveyed by the gender-bending signals in the portrait. In a similar campaign by Gap in 1993, the company employed a series of American icons to sell khaki pants. The photograph of Earhart selected for this campaign shows the aviator (in khakis) next to her plane. Her mastery of the machine that dwarfs her in the photograph telegraphs her confidence and modernity, while her boyish, almost childish demeanor disarms and lends her an air of vulnerability. Both ads rest almost solely on the array of associations with Earhart's photographic image, identifiable and potent enough to sell clothes and computers seventy years after her disappearance.

In her own time, Earhart was appealing because she represented the physical embodiment of heady new ideals circulating in the culture. Chief among these was the figure of the New Woman, an independent and convention-defying version of modern womanhood...She also represented, whether by design or synchronicity, a physical style that reflected the changing fashion in clothing and body type in the 1920s and '30s. She was in sync with styles promoted by Hollywood and fashion designers, in her thinness, androgyny, short hair, and even sunned skin. An outspoken advocate of women's rights in the postsuffrage era, she offered women a new, seemingly more modern feminist model, one which did not look like the matronly older generation of suffragette activists. Above all else, her profession endowed her with an aura of excitement, advancement, and risk. In an era before commercial aviation, the aviator was a heroic symbol of modernism. His female counterpart, the aviatrix, was the ultimate glamorous and daring modern woman. Earhart stepped into the stylistic template established by other female flyers....But while Earhart's image incorporated existing iconography, it was also essentially authentic: like her name--almost too good to be true--her leather jacket, short hair, and other key elements of her signature style were not the constructions of a publicist but perfected, refined versions of her own (prefame) self-presentation.

Camille Paglia wrote about how Earhart "pulled me out of my tailspin as an alienated adolescent and social misfit" in this 1999 LAT piece.