Air travel: then and now

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Coming in: A plane lands as workers repair the runway at Cape Town International Airport. Commercial aviation is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Picture Rogan Ward

Cape Town - Until the late 1970s, most people who travelled from the UK and other parts of Europe arrived in South Africa by sea. The regular weekly mail ships, operated in turn by the British Cunard line and the then South African-owned Safmarine, arrived from Southampton once a week.

The voyage to Cape Town took more than two weeks and, although the Boeing 747 transformed air travel and an increasing number of people started to fly from London, the sea route was still preferred by many senior business executives.

Without air travel the globalisation of business and the phenomenal growth of international tourism, which earned South Africa more than gold exports last year, would have been impossible.

In the intervening years the real cost of air travel as a proportion of incomes has dropped steeply, putting international holidays within the reach of thousands of middle-income South Africans. However, inflation and the unfortunate fact that some governments, including that of the UK and many in Africa, see air travel as a milch cow that can be taxed heavily, cancel much of the effect of lower ticket prices.

Commercial aviation is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and it is astonishing to realise the extent of the changes that have taken place since the first scheduled flight in 1914, in the US. According to the International Air Transport Association (Iata), the mayor of St Petersburg was the only passenger aboard the flight to Tampa, where he conducted some business for his wholesale company before taking the return flight an hour later.

In 1920, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, now merged with Air France although each airline has kept its name and identity, launched a scheduled service between London and Amsterdam, which still continues. In its first year, it transported 345 passengers and about 25 000kg of mail and cargo which, as the official Iata international magazine points out, is approximately equal to a load carried by a single Boeing 747 flight today.

In 1927, the Warsaw Convention was signed, which mandated the issue of passenger tickets and baggage checks, and harmonised international liability law for the industry.

In 1936, the Douglas DC3, which could fly non-stop between New York and Chicago, came into use and, in 1939, American Airlines opened the first airport lounge at La`Guardia Airport in New York.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation was set up in 1944, signed by representatives of 52 countries, setting rules that still govern air space and safety.

Iata, to which about 240 airlines, or 84 percent of the industry, belongs, was set up in 1945.

The Boeing 747 – the first widebodied aircraft, which played an important part in developing the international airline industry and making flying accessible to millions of people, came into service in 1970.

South Africa was one of the countries that became accessible to the mass market as a result.

The Concorde supersonic aircraft – a rare example of co-operation between the UK and France – came into service with British Airways and Air France in 1976.

Because of time difference, passengers flying from London or Paris to New York arrived before they set out and, during the flight, saw the dawn several times.

The competing services to New York from both Paris and London continued for 27 years until, tragically, a piece of debris overlooked on the runway in Paris caused a fire aboard the French Concorde when it had been hired for a private function, leading to a fatal crash.

The Concorde services by both airlines were suspended for a time while work was carried out to make them less vulnerable to fire. When they were resumed, I was lucky enough to be invited to join colleagues on a flight from New York by the British Concorde.

But, sadly, the crash reduced demand for the flights. The Concorde was expensive to operate and its services were never profitable and the last two are in museums in France and the UK. - Weekend Argus

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