By John Lutsch
Barely twenty five years after the Wright brothers first flew, travelers were able to cross the Atlantic Ocean by air in the enormous rigid airship Graf Zeppelin, which first entered service in 1928. She was impressive to behold, measuring 776 feet long; the size of a contemporary ocean liner! Luxuriously appointed, she provided comfort in the form of Art Deco-inspired wood paneling, upholstered seating, dining and sitting rooms, and ten passenger cabins. She could cross from Germany to America in approximately 112 hours, at a cruising speed of 73 mph. Providing lift for the giant craft required nearly four million cubic feet of highly flammable hydrogen, and although precautions were taken, hydrogen proved the undoing of airship travel with the Hindenburg disaster of 1937.
Although Charles Lindberg’s epic nonstop transatlantic solo flight in 1927 paved the way for future travel, aircraft engines were prone to failure, and passenger capacity was extremely limited. Also, there was the very real possibility of an aircraft having to make an emergency water landing, thereby eliminating land-based planes.
Slowly, seaplane and flying boat designs improved, from manufacturers Sikorsky, Martin, and others, along with the reliability of the engines that powered them. By the end of the 1930’s, the Boeing 314 ‘Clipper’ embodied the pinnacle of exclusive, luxurious air travel, providing accommodations for 77 trans-oceanic passengers. Seats could be converted to sleeping bunks, and meals were provided on linen-covered tables, prepared by four-star hotel chefs. The white-coated stewards served six-course meals with accompanying tableware of solid silver. At a cruising speed of 188 mph., the big Boeing could transport passengers between San Francisco and Honolulu in 19 hours, for a one-way fee of $675.00 (in 2019 dollars, $12,000.00) This was first-class ticketing only, reserved for the very well to do.
Today, the common assumption is that even though international air travel has become ubiquitous, it is a rather ‘cattle car’ affair. Emirates Air, based in Dubai, has turned that notion on its head with its First Class suites. The accommodations are magnificent, utilizing the Boeing 777 Dreamliner as a foundation. Six suites span the cross-section of the fuselage in two groups, and the middle suites have ‘virtual’ windows that project a live image of the environment surrounding the aircraft in flight. Hydrating skin care products are provided, as well as leather Bulgari amenity kits, Hennessy spirits, and Dom Perignon champagne. Over 4000 channels of entertainment are available, and aircraft-wide WiFi is provided. The seating is premium leather, which folds into a NASA-designed zero-gravity bed; hydrating pajamas are included. The suite is equipped with a wardrobe where clothing can be stored, and the lighting and temperature are passenger-controlled. A multi-page menu offers freshly prepared gourmet meals at any time, served of course, on white linen. Entertainment is supplied via a 32 inch flat screen television, and the lucky passenger enjoys complete privacy with floor to ceiling walls. Prices begin at around $10,000.00 one way. For the long-haul traveler, there is nothing better in the sky!