Today's travel stories in the newspapers and on the internet are all about the discomforts of flying: check-in procedures; security hassles; additional fees for changes, for cancellations, for checked bags or for two or three additional inches of legroom; crowded planes; $10 bags of trail mix replacing actual meals; and on and on. For all us ordinary folks who ride in the back of the plane, flying has become an ordeal.
Boeing built just a dozen of these big planes exclusively for PanAm. They were referred to quite appropriately as "flying boats" since they took off and landed on water.
The Clippers were big and slow -- gross weight of 42 tons, top speed of only 200 miles per hour -- but they cruised at 19,000 feet and had a maximum range of just over 5,000 miles. It took a crew of 10 to fly the plane and look after as many as 74 passengers. Meals were served at tables and seats converted to real beds. It's hard to imagine, isn't it, that these planes first went into service more than 75 years ago.
Those pleasant and comfortable amenities make all the difference. They're why I much prefer spending two days in an Amtrak sleeping car to six hours on an American Airlines flight. Rail travel is, in fact, the only civilized way for travel that's left to us. If you can get up and stretch your legs … if you're served a nice meal at a real table … if you can nap when you feel like it … or sleep through the night in a real bed … then your trip has ceased to be an ordeal; it has become a journey.
In some ways, we haven't progressed a whole lot over these past 75 years, have we?