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Tuesday, June 17, 2014


THE ONLY WAY TO FLY by Thomas Shess, Editor,
Meet Martha with Etihad Airways.  She will show you to your three-room penthouse suite aboard Etihad's new A380 flying flat that's renting out at $21,000 per flight.
ADD TO BUCKET LIST—Seeing the news item in the Los Angeles Times about a Middle eastern based Etihad Airways' soon to be announced inflight amenity, a newly configured three-room penthouse suite aboard its latest A380 mega jet (for a mere $21,000 per flight), brought back precious memories.

 Back in the day, as my latest unfavorite expression goes, six years of my career was spent as a magazine editor for an inflight magazine.  The late, great publication, PSA Magazine, was the monthly the seat pocket monthly for a hugely popular and successful San Diego based passenger airline.  As a new editor in chief, fresh out of San Diego State’s English Dept., my job was to create general interest magazine fare for the publication that catered to a vast audience, mainly business travelers between PSA hubs San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Francisco.

Because Pacific Southwest Airlines during its 50 years of operations before being bought out by USAir at the end of the millennium operated within the boundaries of California, many of the larger airlines lobbied me to write about travel destinations.

Carriers like Pan Am, British Airways, Air New Zealand, AeroMexico and even Hughes Airwest sent me invitations to journey off (on their dime) to visit destinations they wanted to highlight.   PSA, the carriers perceived, was a giant feeder airline for its national and international routes, and therefore not competition.  PSA was viewed as an ally and I was friendly flyer.

So, it wasn’t unusual for Air France or UTA, for example, to invite me to fly free (as PSA Magazine’s chief editor and travel writer) to far off lands.  It wasn’t lost on my fellow travel media junketeers that Air France wanted us write about the beauties of Tahiti and the romance of the Southern Hemisphere.  When I asked if the junket was a public relations effort by the French to mitigate the dark clouds of bad PR generated by France conducting atomic bomb testing in the warm waters of the South Pacific, I was stripped of my hot face towelette privileges and shunted back to coach.  I was never invited back.

Yet, during that South Pacific junket, a favorite memory arose.  While bouncing along a jungle road in a vintage new New Hebrides bus, Clete Roberts, a then veteran broadcaster with Channel 2 in Los Angeles,  reboarded the bus after we toured a “must see” tourist attraction that had locals jumping off trees with vines attached to their ankles.   Had we known at the time we were witnessing the age of the bungee jump.

But jungle bungee wasn’t the news broadcaster Roberts brought on board the bus.  “I have some breaking news, ladies and gentlemen, he added to the humidity with his stentorian tones, “Vice President Agnew has resigned.”  After the gasp and awe subsided, it gave rise to just how remote 1973 was because the news reached us two days after Spiro bit the dust in D.C.  Clete revealed his sources for the info as a local English language tabloid.

I was not the only employee of the inflight magazine mill, accepting free travel rides, my publisher often accepted junkets as part of the care and feeding of current and future clients. The publishing company that employed me was a vendor to airlines wishing to have an inflight magazine but not wishing to add to its employee roles.  East/West Network was created.   Each contract varied, but in a nutshell the deal was the airline got the magazine for free and accepted a small percentage of the advertising revenues.  East/West Network was hugely successful for a generation.  It eventually folded when all the clients began to merge with themselves and the need for magazines declined.

But one blustery winter day, I was dispatched from Los Angeles with no advance notice to fly to Boeing’s 747 plant near Seattle.  My publisher had forgotten about the trip and I replaced him.  There was no time for packing.  I was whisked to LAX with instructions to put all my travel needs, including new clothes on my expense account.  I was wearing a new wool suit that I wore that day because Southern California was having its week of bad weather per annum.

When I arrived at the Seattle airport, I was greeted by one of the PR persons for Singapore Airlines, who promptly delivered me to the appropriate Boeing hanger. There I hopped aboard a magnificent 747 for the first time.  In the Mid-70s, a jumbo jet the size of a 747 was still rare.  I was in awe.

Soon I was seated in the upstairs first class lounge of the double deck jetliner. I was the only member of the travel media aboard.  With a bemused smile I introduced myself to the ten stewardesses assigned to me.   The flight to Singapore to Seattle would have made a poo-bah blush with such royal treatment.

Half way to Hawaii, the member of the airline PR staff informed me I could interview the pilots about the 747.   I asked for a tour of the huge jet but was informed every inch of the wide-body jet was filled with spare parts.  The only area resembling a passenger airline was the configuration I was assigned to.

My opportunity for an interview began in the relatively spacious cockpit.  “How much test flying time does a 747 get before the plant releases the jet to the airlines?”  At that point the captain looked at the co-pilot.  “How long has it been since we took off?”

The Co-pilot replied four hours.

“Four hours,” the pilot replied.

I assumed weeks.  It was a big plane.  But four hours of testing was not comforting to this aeronautical novice.  “Once all the green lights on the computer appear, the plane is good to go,” the Captain said.   I don’t remember any of my other questions.

And, the stewardesses were not all for me.  They had been in Seattle for training and were returning home.  I never let that fact get in the way of a good story.

But, I do remember landing in Singapore in a driving rain.  Rain at the equator I realized falls straight down in huge drops.  I was drenched and all I remember was the strange stares I received from the population I encountered from the airport to my hotel on Orchard Road.  Evidently, the aroma of wet wool was foreign to the locals.  Quickly, I visited the tailor that the concierge recommended and we negotiated an emergency overnight wardrobe for me.  Afterall, I was on expenses.

But if being treated like royalty went to my head.  It did.   So when I received an invitation to join British Airways shakedown flight on the brand new Concorde jet, I felt it was my due.  The invitation included a morning breakfast at Heathrow in the VIP lounge; take off at 8 am, then lunch in Beirut (before the city fell) and back to the Mother Country in time for afternoon tea.

I arrived at Heathrow via a BA 747 from LAX.  First class was elegant but it didn’t match my Singapore Airlines treatment on the delivery flight mentioned above.  Afterall, I was used to ten stewardesses attending to me and me alone.

Once, at the British Airways desk, I reported in.   I was standing in the VIP line and was greeted with polite nods.   I announced my arrival for the Concorde flight. The staff at the counter politely suggested I was standing in the wrong line.  “Isn’t this the line for the Concorde flight,” I asked.

“Yes, it is (no sir attached you’ll notice) but this line is for the VIP members of the media.” Read Babawawa or Walter.  You’re with the provincial press and the line for you is outside in the rain on the tarmac next to the small tram that carries the paying customer’s luggage.”

I did make it aboard the Concorde, but not in first class.  I’ve remained wounded at the Heathrow slight ever since. 

I’m now hoping that Etihad Airways will soon invite me to fly the new flying penthouse from JFK to Abu Dhabi.   Etihad is the official airlines for the United Arab Emirates.  And, I’m confident my grandsons and I could give the prestige class penthouse a good test drive.

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