The Jets That Connected America

by John Delach

Three jets revolutionized air travel and unlocked the wonders of flight for the average person.  They introduced casual travel and brought down the curtain on the formal, expensive and restrictive practices the piston era and early jet commercial aviation. Prior to these jets entering service in the mid-1960s, regular, reliable and affordable flights were only available in medium and large-size cities. Flight was such a rarity to ordinary people that it was considered an event. Friends and family members accompanied the traveler(s) to witness this odd, mysterious and dangerous event.

Even growing up in New York City, I remember that time. When I was about six or seven, I joined my mother and her friends for a trip to LaGuardia Airport to see off one of her best friend’s sister on a flight to Los Angeles. An old black and white photo shows our group standing in front of the old main terminal. Her father and mother stand there proudly. So too do her sisters’ husbands and their offspring. All of the men wear sport jackets, ties and hats and the women; Sunday church dresses. I have on what must have been an Easter outfit, sports jacket and even a fedora.

I first flew in 1957 on an Eastern Air Lines DC-6 to Miami courtesy of my father who arranged a visit to see his second family. John, Sr. was then a major in the USAF, assigned to Homestead Air Force base home of B-47 bombers as part of the Strategic Air Command, (SAC) as a navigator / bombardier; the person who actually would drop the bomb.

An entourage drove me to, Idewild, more formally, New York International Airport, (today, John F. Kennedy) to see me off.

Back then, Idewild was half-cooked. Permanent terminals didn’t exist and the airlines were forced to use a collection of Quonset Huts, Butler Shacks and a maze of plywood structures that the Port Authority had thrown together. It was bad. My one disconcerting memory of that send-off was observing my mother going over to a kiosk to buy flight life insurance on me!

Think about it: Your own mother goes to the airport casino and puts her money down that, if you lose, she wins. Yeah, that’s the bottom line: If you lose, she wins; brilliant and then I boarded the airplane…

Sure, sure, I know; in 1957, that was the done thing. Flight was mysterious and potentially dangerous. People were uncomfortable at best so it was the accepted and almost universal thing to do. Few had real life insurance back then so the accepted wisdom was to make that bet just in case. Believe me though, at 13, it didn’t sit well with me at all.

The domestic age of the jet began when American Airlines introduced the Boeing 707 for domestic service between New York City and Los Angeles in January of 1959. But those first four-engine beasts, the 707, Douglas’ DC-8 and the Convair-440 required long runways for take-offs and landings limiting service to routes between major cities.

That all changed on February 1, 1964 when Eastern Airlines inaugurated “Whisper jet” service between  Miami and Philadelphia with the first commercial flight of Boeing’s 727.  This radical looking tri-engine jet and Douglas’ twin-engine DC-9 that Delta introduced on December 8, 1965 began to open the skies to new domestic travelers. Both jets were designed for frequent and short flights to airports with shorter runways. The final entry, Boeing’s 737, joined these two in February of 1968.

When de-regulation followed, a revolution began that continues to this day as airlines try to cope and get it right. Along the way, well-known giants of aviation failed: Pan Am, TWA and Eastern being the biggest losers. Regional carriers disappeared or were gobbled up: Braniff, Southern, Western, National and Piedmont to name a few. Finally, surviving majors merged to stay alive: American and US Air, United and Continental and Northwest and Delta. The new kids on the block, particularly Southwest and JetBlue also soldier on.

The 727 had the shortest production lifespan of the trio, 1962 to 1984. During that time frame, 1,832 were produced. Today, only UPS still operates a domestic fleet of 727s in cargo service. Nine hundred seventy six DC-9s were produced from 1965 to 1982. Kick in its near-siblings, (MD-80) adds another 1,463; a grand total of 2,439 produced over 41 years ending in 2006. American, Delta and several other carriers continue to fly these slender birds. The winner became the 737. To date 9,365 of these jets have been placed into service and Boeing now produces the 737-800 and 737-900ER.

In my time, I flew extensively across the United States mostly on these three jets. That era favored the business passenger like never before with a wide choice of alternative flights, frequent upgrades, mileage credits and flexibility to change flights or airlines at any time. In return, we paid a premium but, from a service perspective, this was a golden age for business travel.

That age came to a sudden, dreadful and permanent end in the aftermath of the disaster of September 11, 2001. Commercial aviation was almost shattered and barely survived. Airlines re-invented themselves to reflect a new world-order. They commoditized operations, forgot why they fly and lost their soul.