Is Flying Glamorous?

On Wednesday I was part of a panel focusing on the customer perspective at the IATA World Passenger Symposium. The first question we were asked was “is flying glamorous? Why or why not?”

IATA-Symposium

It’s a simple question with a not-so-simple answer, in my opinion. Chances are that 99% of people would answer “no, it’s not glamorous.” Or perhaps “no, it’s not glamorous, but I’m okay with that, since I can actually afford to fly where I want to go regularly, unlike in the past.”

Popular opinion is that air travel has gone from being something exclusive and luxurious to bland transportation for the masses. And that’s certainly true… to an extent.

When was air travel really more “glamorous”?

Was it the 1930s? A “flight” between London and Singapore on Imperial Airways took over a week. A week!

In a noisy, turbulent, aircraft that went slower than modern trains, at a cost equivalent to over $17,000 in today’s money.

A week.

Or are we talking about the late 1950’s and into the “Golden Age” of the 1960’s? That’s when my beloved Lufthansa introduced their “Senator First Class” which featured “20 de-luxe reclining seats and 12 First Class seats, four of which could be converted to beds.”

Lufthansa-L-1649A-Super-Stars
Lufthansa L-1649A Super Star, courtesy Lufthansa Technik

I don’t necessarily need a separate seat and bed (though it sure is nice!) but I can’t imagine the eight passengers whose seats didn’t convert into beds were too happy.

And still, this was a luxury product only available to a select few.

Lufthansa-First-Class
This hardly seems less glamorous

Looking at economy configurations in the 1970’s, even the “designed for comfort” eight-across TWA configuration doesn’t look particularly great:

Granted, perhaps it was glamorous compared to some of the 10-across seating we see on widebodies today, though at least now we have power ports, wifi, on demand entertainment, etc.

Is it about the crews?

An argument could certainly be made that flight attendants are less “glamorous” nowadays than at the height of the jet age.

We don’t have white-gloved hosts carving roasts in the aisle, and I can’t imagine (and don’t want to) a Dallas-based American flight attendant participating in an ad campaign like this one:

But have you seen a Singapore Airlines crew parade through a terminal? Hardly unglamorous, in my opinion.

Does exclusivity equal glamor?

I think a large part of why travel is no longer perceived as being glamorous is because of how accessible it is.

Let me make a parallel to frequent flyer programs. Last week Delta announced that they’d be raising the Medallion Qualifying Dollar requirement for next year by 20%. In other words, in order to achieve status you have to spend more money.

What fascinated me is how they marketed it. Below is the graphic they used for the email they sent SkyMiles Medallion members, with the tagline “When Everyone’s An Elite Flyer, No One Is.” Think about that for a second. They’re basically telling customers “well, even though your patterns haven’t changed, you’re no longer important to us because everyone else is as well.”

Delta-MQDs

It kind of reminds me of this motivational poster:

Unique

When only the select few are flying, it’s glamorous. It doesn’t matter if it’s actually glamorous, but the perception is there, since most people never had the chance to do it.

The opportunity is actually on the ground

This was my main point on the panel, and something I wish the airline industry would pay more attention to.

For the average traveler, it’s not the airplane that’s become uncivilized, it’s the airport.

Yes, the TSA and security experience is terrible. But that’s what? Maybe 15-20% of the airport experience? It’s the cumulative indignities of baggage unloading and queuing for check-in, schlepping through poorly signed terminals, hunting for outlets near uncomfortable seats, and a lack of communication from airlines.

Domestically, even with elite status and lounge access you’re still faced with lines for nearly everything, you’re still having to navigate through crowds of people and retail, the boarding process is still obnoxious, etc. And that’s all assuming you’re flying out of an actual gate — remote stands are another issue altogether.

I had lunch with Scott Mayerowitz on Wednesday and he made a throwaway remark that “by the time people get on the plane they’re already cranky.”

And I really think that’s true.

We have airlines offering AVOD at every seat on international (and many domestic) flights. Internet is quickly becoming a standard feature. Business class seats are longer and wider than first class seats were ten years ago. We have double beds, tended bars, and showers. The on-board amenities are plenty luxurious.

Qatar-Airways-A380-23
Qatar Airways A380 bar

But even in the premium cabins the airline is starting at a disadvantage, because with few exceptions the airport experience is miserable. It isn’t always as awful as the Etihad Pre-Clearance facility in Abu Dhabi, but in very few instances do the ground services help to create a positive impression of the airline.

That’s part of the reason why I love the Lufthansa First Class Terminal. To me it represents how air travel could/should be. From arriving at the terminal to boarding the aircraft the process is smooth and seamless. And admittedly we’ll never get to the point where that’s offered to all passengers, but even at the pointy end of the plane this experience is the exception rather than the rule.

Air travel in and of itself is glamorous

For me, the incredible thing about flying is the sheer miraculousness of flight. I’ve flown millions of miles now, and I still gaze at departures boards with the same awestruck wonderment I did as a child flying Condor economy class with my mother. The simple fact that you’ll see flights from adjacent gates leaving to different continents is incredible, in my opinion.

Heck, I’ve been on four continents in the past week. It’s amazing that’s even possible.

I think this video of two ladies flying for the first time perfectly captures how glamorous flying is:

Admittedly they’re flying in a private jet, but what are they more impressed by — the plane or the fact that they’re flying… through the sky… like birds?

The world is beautiful, amazing, and terrifying all at once, and being able to hop in a metal tube, watch a few movies, and be someplace new and foreign…I can’t even describe how glamorous that is.

Everything else is just an added bonus.

Comments

  1. With all due respect, I think flying is much more likely to be glamorous for someone like you, with unlimited vacation days and millions of points/miles, than for most of the rest of us. It’s one reason I enjoy reading your blog. But, I’m not sure you are the authority on this question.

  2. I think flying can be glamorous. I fly a ton all year for work – probably get upgraded about 66% of the time – but am often booking so late that I’m in the back, in the middle seat. But when I splurge on a Business ticket with miles between the US and Asia, and have a giant bed, and a nice lounge – even if not the best bed or best lounge – it sure seems fun and luxurious.

    Also – I get what Delta is saying. I worked at a company a few years back that was doing away with Vp/SVP/EVP titles, in favor of just using the regular titles. And people FLIPPED OUT. Until the CEO said “Look. We have 600 employees and 350 of them are VPs. That’s not status anymore.” Apple has approx 40K employees I believe, and 8-10 VPs. Now, THAT’S status.

    I’m DL Platinum. Go on. Change the rules. As long as I know what they are, I’ll play the game. Because to that email’s headline, when Diamonds and Platinums aren’t getting upgraded regularly, and when half the plane boards as SkyPriority, it’s all kinda meaningless at that point.

  3. In most people’s eyes, long distance travel for leisure is glamorous. By extension they think all travel by others for work or pleasure is glamorous. Since long distance travel involves flying, flying is glamorous, even in coach. You can tell this by the large percentage of people who post facebook updates whenever they are at the airport going somewhere. They clearly want to brag about it.

  4. The ground experience is certainly part of the challenge –but so are flight attendants. On U.S. carriers these days, many flight attendants seem burdened by the presence of passengers; they’ve lost the joy that An and Ria share in your posted video. Conversely, welcoming, professional cabin crew make for a pleasant flight.

  5. Flying was “glamorous” even as recent as the 70’s. What made it glamorous was the fact that you had to “dress” to fly. Nobody wore shorts and flip-flops to fly. You wore dress clothes. Also it’s the type of people who are flying now. Prices are so low now, that people who before could only afford Greyhound, are now flying, bringing their manners with them. If you were flying years ago, you were doing something that most people didn’t do, it was something special, maybe “glamorous”.

  6. Ben, as much as I love your blog and your experiences (the information from which is valuable), I have to agree with Joe on this one. You shouldn’t take this personally, and while you’ve been witness to plenty of poor behavior from cranky passengers, you’re travel profile and patterns don’t arm you to put this in perspective to answer for the masses.

    Glamorous is an interesting word. I daresay many would think it applies to a privileged few. The masses don’t live the ‘glamour’ in magazines like GQ, Vogue, etc, nor are they attending red carpet events at the Cannes film festival – things people view as ‘glamorous’, no?

    If flying is glamorous, it’s on a Private Jet. I would agree with your experience in that regard, because it’s exclusive, privileged and by definition not available to the masses. And, it’s priced as such.

    To put this in another perspective, I bumped into a thread on A.net about a brilliant add Virgin America put together. As hilarious as all of this it is, it is so because it’s the sad truth and state of the three largest domestic carriers in the US. Don’t be fooled: the video IS 5+ hours long. The website – and phone number – are fully functional! You should dial the phone number and go through the menu tree. Hilarious – absolutely! And again, sad:

    http://www.blahairlines.com/

  7. “Domestically, even with elite status and lounge access you’re still faced with lines for nearly everything, you’re still having to navigate through crowds of people and retail, the boarding process is still obnoxious, etc. And that’s all assuming you’re flying out of an actual gate — remote stands are another issue altogether.”

    Yup. This is why I take the train whenever I can (3-5 hour trips along the Eastern seaboard) instead of flying. Sure, Amtrak has its problems, but they pale in comparison with being barked at by TSA rent-a-cops, sitting in crowded waiting areas, waiting forever for a checked bag to show up, having to take a crowded bus to a remote stand, paying gobs of money for a car or taxi to/from the airport (train stations are DOWNTOWN!), and having to arrive at the airport 1.5-2 hours before the flight. With Amtrak, I show up at the station 10 minutes before the train leaves, rarely wait in any kind of line, daydream while watching the scenery go by, sit in the quiet car where I don’t have to listen to my neighbors yammer on about their diverticulitis, and, door-to-door, the whole thing take just about as long as flying.

    The only problem is that as airlines make flying more and more painful, more people take the train, so they seem to be getting more crowded.

  8. You really must try LGB, Long Beach airport. There are only 44 flights per day and most are with jet blue but they have the experience down. Our last flight out of there we actually said lets goto the airport early and have dinner there since there are so many option of good local restaurants, the airside also has “outside” areas, you can sit on couches outside at the wine bar and enjoy an afternoon while waiting for your flight. the whole airport feels like a lounge but with alacarte pricing.

  9. You only indirectly addressed part of the issue. All of the examples of “glamorous” travel that you cite are either private jet travel or non-US carriers.

    There is nothing glamorous any longer about traveling on a US carrier.

    Miraculous? Sure – you step in a metal tube and 6 hours later you’re 2500 miles away. A couple of million miles of flying and even a dozen hours of piloting myself, and flight remains a miracle to me.

    Functional? Sometimes? Pleasant? Occasionally? In rare cases, even the food can be good. But in no case of which I’m aware is flying on any US air carrier (save maybe SurfAir, which doesn’t count) glamorous. Flying LH or SQ in First Class? Absolutely. United? Even in First Class? No way.

    Greg99

  10. IATA is clearly stuck in the 1950s….

    glamour
    1. the quality of fascinating, alluring, or attracting, especially by a combination of charm and good looks.
    2. excitement, adventure, and unusual activity: the glamour of being an explorer.
    3. magic or enchantment; spell; witchery

    air travel is none of these today for the average citizen.. maybe if you are traveling in singapore suites or something but that’s about it!

  11. @_ar You kind of hit on what many people here are missing, though you didn’t really point it out. Everyone seems to be fixating on the first definition of glamorous that you posted. However, the second definitely still applies. For many people, flying is unusual – they only do it a few times a year, at most. It’s also exciting and adventurous for these people, as they generally only fly when they are going on vacation. So I would argue that, when applying that definition of glamorous, flying is definitely still glamorous in the eyes of many.

  12. Really, is this a pressing issue on IATA’s agenda? Could there be a more inane, utterly unimportant topic of discussion?

  13. @ Jonh — To clarify, that was just a conversation starter in the panel. I think it’s great that for the first time ever they had actual customers on a panel at what’s ultimately a passenger symposium. It was only one 40 minute panel out of three days of panels and presentations. Time well spent, in my opinion.

  14. I had to GCMap that 1933 route to Singapore. With approximations for no longer existing cities/airports, it looks like this: lhr-lcy-ory-bds-ath-aly-cai-ghk-bgw-bsr-kwi-bah-shj-gwd-khi-jdh-del-knu-ixd-ccu-aky-rgn-bkk-urt-aor-sin. Holy crap, no wonder people thought of travel as exhausting.

  15. @John – thanks for pointing the spotlight on my First Class seat on Dope Airlines! 😉

    *Excuse disclaimer: I was traveling yesterday and gogo internet was spotty so may or may not have missed a post on this blog.:)

  16. Oh, for crying out loud, I’m quitting posting comments here: I couldn’t even get Todd’s name right. Sorry Todd – that was meant for you.

  17. @ Bob – I think we are a different breed of air travelers here. My mother in law barely flies once a year and hates it. Yes, it’s unusual, but it’s anything but glamorous for her. In the US, flying is no longer glamorous – it’s a chore. I fly a lot to Asia, and unless it’s a First class award ticket, it’s a chore every time. I rather just be beamed to Thailand!

    IATA needs to focus on the more real issues with flying. Only the 1% are flying anything that can be remotely defined as glamorous.

  18. I guess when the average person thinks of the word “glamour”, they automatically also think “luxurious, expensive and cutting-edge”. But @_ar is spot on for posting the actual definition of the word. “2. excitement, adventure, and unusual activity: the glamour of being an explorer.” In THAT sense – yes. Air travel is most certainly glamorous! But if we’re thinking about the average person who has a 9 to 5, pays a mortgage, has a family and a 401k – it’s likely not luxurious and if you’re like me and have been stuck in coach for a 15 hour flight, you DO NOT use the word “glamorous” to describe your experience. Other words come to mind like…hell…torture…by the time I got off the plane, I wondered how in the hell airlines were allowed to be so cruel and inhumane to people who were paying them. When you’ve been on THAT side of the fence, then you can see how unglamorous air travel come be. There’s no Krug in the back of the plane my friend!

  19. Loved the video of the ladies! Thanks for making me laugh, so sweet. And you’re spot on with just appreciating the miracle of flight and how we have the luxury of going across the world in a few hours. Glamorous might not be the best word to describe those things… but they are magnificent and awe-inspiring when we’re not taking them for granted.

  20. HELL yes ! 🙂 Sure it’s not 1920’s glamorous but it would be stupid to compare it to that era (or any other era)..The world is a different place today and although flying is cheaper and more and more people are traveling it is still the most glamorous way of travel..Nothing beats the feeling of take-off or the view up there !
    Economy or business, for me it doesn’t really matter ..I haven’t been up in the air for almost 30 days now and i’m looking forward to my flight next week (European shorthaul in Y) like its my first one..I know what its like to do that same route by a bus(16 hours) or by car (10-12 hours) ..So when i get at the airport , check-in the business class counter , ask for an exit-row seat and order a DO&CO menu (Austrian is my airline 🙂 )..I feel like it’s the most glamorous way of traveling :)..Imagine my excitement when I travel in C , longhaul , or to a new place !
    I know what your answer is to that question (it’s basically hiding in every travel report you do) and that’s why i love this blog! 🙂

  21. So what if we looked at it from this point of view. If you took away airmiles and rewards and free upgrades. And people had to pay for their ticket each time in the class they could afford, would flying still be fun ?

    I for one am in the mass class where I can only fly First or Business class thanks to award points. Other than that I’m sat in economy when paying for my tickets.

  22. What is glamorous is that you are in a metallic tube, soaring in the sky, 30,000 feet above the earth. You can eat. Have a drink. And then a few hours later you are in a different part of the world. That is glamorous.

  23. Three words: China Eastern, Domestic.

    That said, I’m with you, Lucky. I appreciate the fact that air travel is even possible.

    Also, my 1hr 10min Southwest flight isn’t that bad. It’s the 2+ hrs pre- and post-boarding that are grimy.

    However, a lot of people seem irked by your attitude. I challenge you: take your next 3 flights coach, in the middle seat, then do a report. Your readers will love it.

  24. Interesting query – my two cents is that it was all so new for those in the past – the ads the glamour was that folks who had only a car to move about now could experience a whole new world and culture and to that, air travel provides a bit of glamour in saying “I flew to London for vacation” vs. “I drove to the beach”. agree that the tedious airport holding bay takes the fun out of things and despite all the bells and whistles of the premium product most travelers will be stuck in coach, hoping for a free middle seat and maybe a bit of legroom. the glamour of it being new and sexy is long gone, it is now (at least in the US) just like a bus, except the bus has free Wi-Fi. If you are a coach traveler who gets to experience biz or first then you get a taste of the premium life

  25. When you fly on Netjets OR own a G-550/Global Express/Falcon 900 going around the world. Then talk to me about glamorous.

    Everyone else is just a chump.

  26. Glamorous, means different things to people, but flying is not glamorous it’s full of stressful seniaros that causes the bad in people to come out. The airlines rush you on board and and rush you to sit down, nothing is as relaxed as it was. Until the airlines stop putting presure on thier employee’s to get the “bird” out of the gate on time, and the FA being held accountable to the lack of service they provide, flying will be just a task that we do daily.

  27. For someone who until recently hadn’t ever flown long haul,flying is mind blowing (24 hours ago I was at my desk in an office in the UK, now I’m on a beach in Thailand kind of mind blowing) but it is not pleasant or glamourous in economy, particular after taking a flight Manchester-Abu Dhabi-Bangkok in two Etihad 777 with the 3-4-3. I’m by no means fat, but I do have broadish shoulders (42-44″ chest) and frankly I’ve had more shoulder room on a 30 minute train journey than those flights.

    Etihad btw did the worst food I’ve ever come across in economy (ok I’ve only flow long haul a handful of times) but Thai Air were far better food and space wise and even Air Berlin were better in my opinion. The only thing Etihad won on was the seat amenities (usb/powerpoints) and the staff were lovely. But rock hard bread, tasteless watery food and a seat too small for me does not mean glamourous to me!

    love the blog btw, even if only if it lets me dream what to spend my lottery winnings on! 😉

  28. Loved the video of the women flying for the first time!!!
    I agree with you about the airport experience. Thanks to this hobby, in the last few years we’ve had lounge access for the first time. It’s amazing how it changes the experience and makes it that much more pleasant. 5hr layover in Dallas? After a nice meal, some sparkling wine, and a massage, all in a quiet and visually appealing area, it does almost approach glamorous.
    Now, if everyone boarding that a380 to Sydney in the gate just across from us had been in the lounge, it wouldn’t have been glamorous at all 😉

  29. I must agree with @gregg’s comments. Having just arrived into LAX on Suites Class with SQ, I can reconfirm that ‘glamourous’ and elegant travel does still exist, both in the air and at airports BUT neither description can apply to North American airlines. The glamourous and elegant travel of past eras is still available and still limited to a smaller sector of the travelling population, much as it w,as in those past eras.

    I do not believe that the North American inability to compete at the higher level is solely due to economics – it also reflects the North American loss of concern for caring and civilized service (remember good manners?).

  30. Air travel remains a remarkable means of traveling a long distance in a short amount of time. It has opened the world up to those of us who can afford plane tickets and who have the desire to see far off lands and destinations. But glamorous? No, not really. When I was little, living in Miami, National Airlines used to sponsor $10 ‘Flights to Nowhere’ when you could buy a ticket just to be able to go up in a plane, fly around, be served a Coke and then land back at MIA. It gave people who had never flown the opportunity to see what it was like. That’s how uncommon air travel was in the 60’s and 70’s….and maybe you could have applied the term ‘glamorous’ to it back then (my Mom certainly put a coat and tie on me whenever we traveled by air). Now…..it’s a bus with wings. But is it still amazing and fun? Sure!!! I still get as excited as I was when I was five. And the whole ground experience is what you make of it. If you go in thinking you will be flustered and annoyed, I am pretty sure you will. I just go with the flow, and I tend to find the whole experience rather fun.

  31. Setting aside the physics of flight, flying economy on vast majority of carriers is far from glamorous (especially given bedlam at airports). However, I’d venture to say that most casual once-/twice-a-year travelers who are familiar with domestic Y (and therefore have very low expectations) would view travel in a long-haul premium cabin as glamorous if they get to try it for the first time. Talking to other people, it applies even when they travel on a not-so-great J/F product (e.g. UA).

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