by John Delach
Boeing has announced that building new 747s may be in doubt. Reading the piece in the Wall Street Journal, I gathered that part of this is a ploy to force Congress to put up or shut up about authorizing the funds to build the two needed replacement aircraft specialty designed to serve and protect the President of the United States, the ones commonly referred to as Air Force One when our national leader is on board.
Boeing will most likely prevail; two much planning has gone into the requirements for these new birds for the government to begin again with 777s or 787s as replacements. Recently, I saw a piece where former living presidents were asked what they miss most about being our national leader and to a man they replied: “The plane.”
The Journal reported that Boeing has delivered more than 1,500 747s since 1970. I first flew in one belonging to Pan American in 1974 on a flight to San Juan, P.R. from John F. Kennedy (JFK) and my last was in 2010, a British Airway jet from London Heathrow (LHR) to JFK. I have travelled a total of 133 flights on board those jumbos, 125 of them business related. More than half those flights were to and from London but 747s also carried me to and from places like Paris, Stockholm, Oslo, Zurich, Rome, Tokyo, Manila, Singapore, Kula Lumpur, Hong Kong and Beijing.
My number one provider of 747s was TWA by choice as I was both a valued frequent flyer and a member of their Ambassador’s Club. This combination gave me almost automatic upgrades from coach to business class. Before Carl Ichan ruined TWA, they had terrific on board service and even, post-Ichan, when many good flight attendants quit; TWA still retained an edge due to their seating setup.
TWA made the upper cabin of the 747 all business class seating. This meant the space was exclusive to 18 passengers who sat two and two with an aisle in the center (ten seats on the left side, eight on the right to allow for the spiral staircase.) We had access to two rest rooms that we shared with the flight crew and a happy flight attendant exclusively assigned to this section. Happy because the attendant only had 18 clients all of who were in business meaning no first class drama and no jerks from coach.
On one particular occasion, Mary Ann, joined me for a business / vacation trip to London. TWA was desperate so we both wound up in this cabin with upgrades after I bought heavily discounted coach tickets. At best, there were only four or five business travelers accompanying us up in our perch. As we approached the start of the descent into LHR, a baby Ichan bred stewdess presented us with a bottle of champagne explaining, we were the best passengers on the plane. We thanked her and when she left, I shook my head and said to my wife, “She’s sweet and trying, but in an emergency; worthless, damn, I miss those TWA women who mattered when you needed them.”
I flew with Alexander, the deposed heir to the Yugoslavian throne who enjoyed my father’s heritage and sent me Christmas cards for two or three years, two former presidents, Jimmy Carter and Dick Nixon. Dan Rather was the most interesting. This happened because TWA cancelled their evening flight and re-booked my mate and me on an Air India 747. That was January of 1981. I was flying in first class with Leo Whalen; (need I say more) as was Rather. Rather hustled off the plane to make a BA connection at Heathrow. Only later did we realize he had been tipped off that Iran was about to release of our hostages the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. Rather was on his way to Algeria where they would be released.
When TWA was forced to sell their lucrative London service to United, I switched to British Air and soon achieved gold card status. This came with a sensational bonus; whenever I flew business class or, as BA referred to it, Club Class, there was always the chance when I checked in for Flight 178, (the 10 AM morning flight to LHR,) that the clerk would ask, “Mr. Delach, would you be interested in changing over to 004?” (You have to love British subtlety; BA 004 was the 1:30 PM Concorde.) Leave three and one half hours later and arrive two hours earlier. It did happen more than a ½ dozen times! Loved the 747 but, the SST: the only way to fly when it’s on someone else’s dime!
The 747 was the greatest venue for international travel back then before the world and airline travel went into the crapper after the horror of September 11, 2001.
My favorite flights were those Friday afternoon return trips out of Heathrow bound for JFK; all of the victories and horrors of negotiations with Lloyds over; win, lose or draw. Back then the last flights left at about 3 PM meaning we were out of London by 11 am at the latest. It meant going home. The best were those homebound flights when we found other New York insurance guys on the same flight. No matter that we worked for rival firms; school was out; time to play…One time six of us took over the large empty space in the tail of a half-empty 747 to drink and smoke our way across the Atlantic. We tipped the flight attendants, none of us hit on them, they enjoyed us and we’d spin our fingers to let them know it was time to “sprinkle the infield.”
What a flight! I still remember the price I paid due to my condition when I arrived home.
Oh hell, it was worth it.