The first time I flew in an airplane, I was six. It was an Eastern Airlines flight from Miami to Newark, probably in a DC-8, but I can’t say for sure. I do remember that a flight attendant strung a cardboard bib in the shape of a Teddy Bear around my neck with my name and other information printed on it, and off I went. If my parents worried about me, I was unaware of it.
Many years later when I bundled my own 8-year old daughter off to see her grandparents in Connecticut, I worried some, but I’d already done it myself.
Try to imagine what it was like to be Abram Pheil, the very first passenger on the very first passenger flight – a 23 minute trip from St. Petersburg, Florida to Tampa in 1914. Like the 12-second flight of the Wright Brothers eleven years earlier, this brief time in the air has had an enormous impact on the world.
In June, at the annual meeting of International Air Transport Association in Doha, Qatar, airline executives on their way to meetings, stopped and admired a replica of the plane, brought halfway around the world by its builders, Bill Barnes and Robert Walker, directors of the Florida Aviation Historical Society.
“You couldn’t envision what happened, what came about from that flight,” Barnes told CNN’s Richard Quest and Walker added that the promoter of the airline “had vision farther than anybody else.”
And while the plane provided the context – the desired lookie-how-far-we’ve-come-effect, it was the cutting of the enormous 100th anniversary cake with a ceremonial sword that provided the metaphor for look-where-we-are-headed.
Certainly, IATA director general, Tony Tyler with his urbane British accent and waspy-good looks is picture-perfect representing aviation’s gentlemanly past. He spent 30 years at Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific, the last 4 years as its boss.
His partner in cake-cutting, Qatar Airways chief Akbar Al Baker represents the back then-unimaginable piece of aviation’s future. The combative CEO and host of the 2014 meeting is the noisiest of a group of ambitious executives who are piloting airlines of the developing world into new positions of strength.
One only needed to watch the cake ceremony to be enlightened. A confection so large it required four men just to bring it into the hall, Tyler and Al Baker and Makato Natsume the CEO of Narita Airport each gripped the handle of the ceremonial sword they would use to cut it, but were unable to slice through ten inches of cake and froth.
That’s when Al Baker seized the blade and, with with his left arm in a sling from an injury sustained in an auto accident, single-handedly hacked the cake into serviceable slices.
That’s right ladies and gents, aviation is no longer a gentleman’s game. The next century of flight will only be more push-and-shove. From hard-ball competitors in previously overlooked corners of the world like China, India, Africa and the Middle East, to the hard-to-please customers who want much but are willing to pay little.
IATA likes to point out that Abe Pheil paid $400 to make the hop across Tampa Bay one hundred years ago. But after the flight, the fare quickly dropped to $5 a trip, a price that “barely covered the cost of operations,” according to the Aviation Historical Society. In that respect how different is it from today?
Regardless of what he paid, what Pheil got for his money was a place in world history; the first of billions who have since been able to fly near or far; for business, political, educational or pleasurable reasons. He also got a memory to last a lifetime – just like the little girl the teddy bear bib.
What do you remember from your first flight? Post it on IATA’s One Hundred Years of Commercial Flight website.
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