On the 5th October 1930 the British airship R101 crashed in France during its maiden flight, killing 48 of the 54 people on board. Two days after the accident, a London-based medium reported that she had made contact with the spirit of a deceased airman from the flight, and that he had described the crash in technical details that were then unknown. The story began to spread that R101 had been a cursed flight. It was one of the greatest dirigible disasters of the 20th Century, destroying customer confidence in airships, and it signified the end of the age of Zeppelins. Although the Hindenburg crash in 1937 is a better-known flight, it was only the last gasp of a dying industry – the decline in airship travel had begun in Britain with the R101.
There’s an oblique connection between the R101 crash and me. This week I’ve been trying to buy an aeroplane ticket. I’ve never done this before – I’ve been places and paid ridiculous amounts to go there, but somebody else has always done it for me – so I had no idea what a frustrating, nightmarish activity it is. In difficulty levels it ranks up there with getting a bank loan or removing a wisdom tooth with a breadknife. Finally I paid a small fortune to sit in a bucket seat surrounded by my bags in a plane that is only notionally air-worthy.
I had to have a good hard think about why it is this way. The first time I went on a plane I was only a few months old, travelling East to West across the Atlantic. At this point air travel was still, at least notionally, an exotic thing – or it was if you were flying with British Airways or Pan Am. On a flight like this, there was the possibility of a meal. There might be an in-flight movie. You might even see the Captain, if you were lucky. I’m only working on assumption: my brain hadn’t moved much beyond the wonders of bottled milk and warm blankets. I think my parents enjoyed it, if parents can ever be said to have enjoyed anything.
But I’m digressing – I had a point to make, and it was this: the R101 can be said to be a prime example of where consumer confidence was rocked in such an astounding way that it spelled the end of a luxury form of air travel. Up until 1930, the airship industry had been booming: airships had been decisively used in the First World War to drop bombs on cities, carry troops and used as peace envoys. In a consumer sense, airships were the ocean liners of the sky, promising luxury, quiet, and time to reflect. Airships and Zeppelins crossed the Atlantic at a stately pace. Moreover, airships were a symbol of comparative opulence: if you could afford to take your time, you could afford to take an airship. They were,in short, an example of a time when balance-books and comfortable profit margins took second place to whether a thing could be done at all.
Another example of this kind of thinking is the joint French-British Concorde program to design a supersonic, trans-Atlantic flight. I have to be careful when talking about Concorde because it’s the sort of technical innovation that can bring me to tears. Concorde was, in short, beautiful. It was immensely unwieldy, impractical, and costly to run. It was intensely loud when taking off, it drank fuel like it was champagne, and it never really made any money. It was a stupid, costly and wasteful endeavour. And it was beautiful.
Concorde ran on Rolls-Royce engines that provided enough thrust to get it to Mach 1.7. It had a nose that angled to provide a reduced signature, improving airflow. It was almost entirely made out of milled aluminium, and the heat from breaking the sound barrier could cause the whole plane to lengthen by nearly a foot. It flew nearly 20,000ft above conventional aircraft, raising concerns that solar radiation could cause cancer in the crew. Concorde was, in short, a marvel, until a combination of disaster, public opinion and low profits caused the entire fleet to be scrapped. It was Air France 4590 that spelled the end of the Supersonic Era: in July 2000, 4590 struck a piece of debris on the runway as it was taxiing towards takeoff. The debris caused a tire to explode, sending pieces into the fuel tank. Everybody on board was killed instantly. It was the only disaster on Concorde’s 27-year history.
Like R101, 4590 brought to an end an age of luxury and helped destroy a symbol of technical excellence. Since Concorde was retired a decade ago, there have been no further plans to create Supersonic aircraft. The market no longer exists. It never really did, of course, but Concorde was invented anyway. it was a triumph of engineering genius over accountancy.
Actually, 20th Century air travel was dominated by such disasters. R101. The Hindenberg. The USS Macon. Pan Am 103. Air France 4590. Each of these was a devastating occurrence that put paid to a beautiful, ridiculous and impractical form of air travel. The things they destroyed were iconic; the things that replaced them less so.
My first flight across the Atlantic was, interestingly, one of the last of its kind. The previous year, Pan Am 103 had crashed into the small Scottish town of Lockerbie after a bomb, placed on board by some pissed-off Iranians and Libyans, detonated at 31,000ft. This incident spelled the end of Pan Am, but it also spelled the beginning of the end of enjoyable flights. As a direct result of 103, stringent security checks became the norm and little niceties like leg room, complementary service and even a smile from your hostess became unaffordable luxuries. The collapse of Pan Am in the wake of Lockerbie was indicative in a change in trends. Pan Am, with its iconic imagery, didn’t make the grade.
The 20th Century, from which I’ve cited all my examples, was a century of notable excess. Nearly everything that could be done was done. We built skyscrapers because it was possible to do so. Mount Rushmore was built for no reason other than to glorify a boring stretch of mountain. We built canals and dams, bridges and structures that would immortalize the age. It’s true that many of these feats ended in disaster, as in the examples I’ve given. Many of them did not. They were done by people who could do things without asking whether it was expedient, or practical, or even necessary.
Which brings us to today. The connection between R101, Pan Am 103, Concorde and my budget flight is one of history. As a consequence of changes in the way we do things, these symbols are no more. Our world is less governed by taste, symbols and iconic imagery and more governed by cost-cutting, expediency and frugality. Each of these events led to an industry realising its precarious position: as airships and supersonic craft were too dependent on public interest, they went the way of the dinosaur. Air travel, however, is an inescapable fact, and so as a result aeroplanes became pared down to the bare minimum, maximizing turnover per flight. The symbols of luxury disappeared, replaced by the stark brutality that marks the truly frugal. Air travel became the domain of budget airlines.
My flight will be with one of the many budget airlines that now exist (this one in particular uses orange as its singular colour, but I’m loathe to give them any publicity at all), flying in a plane slightly older than I am. That’s literally all I can afford. I shouldn’t expect a window seat, unless I’ve paid extra. I can’t expect a drink, a packet of peanuts or even a boiled sweet to take the edge off my inner ear pressure. I can’t take more than one bag with me without paying extra. All of this makes me very, very unhappy. Air travel, at least to me, seems like a thing that should be exciting. The idea of getting into a pressurised cigar tube to fly higher than Mount Everest via a series of controlled explosions seems like it should be exciting, but it’s not. I am miserably unexcited by my flight. Flying has ceased to be a wonderful thing; instead it is just a thing a person does.
Perhaps I’m being overly romantic about a bygone age. Yet it seems to me somehow wrong that budget airlines should exist at all: the symbolize a world that is somehow meaner, more governed by accountants and balance sheets, less filled with wonder. The 20th Century, for all its faults, was marked by symbols of greatness and wonder. There was an Age of Airships. There was an Age of Skyscrapers. There was an Age of Supersonic craft. My question is this: what’s our era? What is the defining symbol of our time? When people look back – and look back they definitely will – how will they define our age? Or is it the case, as I’m starting to believe, that the Age of Things is no more?
Or – and this frightens me – are we living in the Age of Maximum Profit?