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Remembrance of Things Past

I was appalled to learn that Emirates Airlines was now providing in-flight mobile phone service and that other airlines might follow suit. Since the public has already displayed epic rudeness on the ground, imagine the cell phone nightmare in an enclosed space at 30,000 feet! Along with sardine-like seating, charges for food and luggage, minimal in-flight service and delayed and cancelled flights, airlines seems hell-bent on creating new customer inconvenience. To realize how bad it’s become, consider what was available for air travelers seventy-five years ago.

The Pan Am Clipper was the most luxurious plane ever built.

The Pan Am Clipper was the most luxurious plane ever built.

In 1939, Pan American World Airways introduced trans-Atlantic passenger service between New York and Southampton, England. Their plane was the Boeing 314, dubbed “Clipper” in homage to the graceful “greyhounds of the seas.” The Pan Am Clipper was the most glamorous airliner ever built. A behemoth seaplane taking off and landing on water, it was described as a luxury ocean liner in the sky or the Orient Express train on pontoons. It cut travel time to Europe from five days by ship to 25-30 hours by air. For the 1939 traveler, such speed was nothing short of miraculous, and from the moment passengers walked across a floating dock and stepped aboard, dressed to the nines of course, they were cocooned in extravagance.

Look like any airplane you've ever flown?

Look like any airplane you’ve ever flown?

The Clipper was handsomely appointed with luxurious carpeting, burlwood walls, and wide, well-upholstered seats.  A main lounge offered gathering space for conversation (remember that?), cocktails and card games. At mealtimes, the lounge was converted to a dining room with three seatings for 74 passengers. Six-course meals were prepared by chefs recruited from deluxe hotels and served by stewards in white coats. Crystal, china, silver and fine linen tablecloths were, of course, de riguer, as were fine wines and liquors. Because Clipper flights were overnight journeys, sleeping accommodations were required, and at bedtime the airship went through a remarkable transformation. Stewards removed seat cushions and installed posh bunks equipped with privacy curtains. Separate lavatories and dressing rooms were provided for men and women to change into sleeping apparel. Another transformation came at breakfast time when the beds were replaced by seats.

This cutaway view shows how space was utilized in early commercial aircraft.

This cutaway view shows how space was utilized in early commercial aircraft.

Such pampering came at a price. Airfare from New York to Southampton was $675, the equivalent of a round trip ticket aboard the Concorde in 2001, and there were other downsides. Flights were much longer due to the Clipper’s cruising speed of 188 mph, compared to 555 mph for modern jetliners, and turbulence was worse since radar was not as sophisticated as now, and planes could rarely spare the fuel to fly around bad storms. Service between Los Angeles and Honolulu was nonstop, but trans-Atlantic flights from New York required refueling stops in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Foynes, Ireland, before arrival in Southampton.


The life span of the luxurious Clippers was less than a decade, 1939-48. With the arrival of World War II, their water landings were rendered obsolete by heavy bombers requiring concrete runways. Eventually dismissed as uneconomical, these flying boats were withdrawn from service by the end of the war, and the last was scrapped in 1951. The fabulous Clippers are gone forever, but you can get an idea of what they were like by watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent or reading Ken Follett’s 1991 thriller, Night over Water. It helps to fantasize about them when you’re wedged in a middle seat in tourist class.  A double bourbon might help too, but expect it to be way overpriced.

Gone but not forgotten.

Gone but not forgotten.






  1. Karen Derderian
    Mar 24, 2014

    My father flew on the Concorde and hated the tightness of the seats. He would have loved the Clipper. I’ll have to settle for renting Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent to experience the thrill from my couch.

    Can’t agree with you more about the cell phone usage on planes. I’m hoping the concept won’t fly (excuse the pun). If not, I will be spending more time on the couch rather than on airplane seats!

  2. Bebe
    Mar 24, 2014

    Just a beautiful piece. Ralph Nelson, my stepfather, flew on the Concorde. He loved aviation so he loved the trip, and I’ll bet he flew on the Clipper, too.

  3. jeff b
    Feb 24, 2016

    @Karen – due it’s design, the Boeing 787 actually cuts off most cellphone signals in the cabin. I fly it weekly and it’s nice not having people chit chat on their phones before takeoff and after arrival…nice and quiet. The composite(s) used in the manufacture of the fuselage required a wire mesh to be incorporated mostly in case of lightning strikes.

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