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The empty Boeing 707s

One night in the summer of 1968 I boarded a Boeing 707 at the old TWA terminal at JFK in New York city and headed for Geneva. As I waited that evening in the lounge area, I noticed that there didn’t appear to be many passengers, and once on the plane I learned I was right.

Besides the flight crew, there were only six other passengers, conveniently spread out through the plane.

In the days, before airline deregulation in the late 1970s, the old Civil Aeronaurics Board crawled all over flight schedules requiring airlines to fly all kinds of unprofitable routes while attempting to leave enough crumbs for them to still make an overall profit. It was a mess, and sometimes — frequently as I recall — passengers would climb on airplanes and be outnumbered by the flight crew, not that the flight crew cared. Less passengers = less work.

In those more gentile days flight attendants were stewardesses, and were young, lithe and sweetly bedecked out in white gloves. Flying was quite civilized. The airlines catered to passengers; this was long before passengers were eyed and surveilled as if we were all terroriists, or aspiring to be such.

There were several versions of the 707, but by today’s standards the number of passengers was quaint — roughly 140, or slightly more than the 137 seats that Southwest has in most of its Boeing 737s — and significantly less than Southwest will have on the 737-800s they plan to begin flying in 2011 or 2012. In part this was because there was room between seats. Cram the seats closer and an airline company can pack in a lot more passengers.

consider this is a works in progress …

Wednesday, September 22

Today I’ll spend the day flying back and forth across the state of Missouri. By the time the sun sets I’ll be a Southwest Airlines “A List” passenger and will get priority seating ahead of almost everyone else. But to do this I must fly four more flights before September 27. To do this I must find four short trips that I can make within the space of a single day.

This is well worth the effort. I’ll no longer have to wait until precisely 24 hours before my flight with a finger poised to check in. Now Southwest will assign me a high boarding ass number three days before and I should be able to – well, if not breeze onto flight – at east not wind up buried between two fat people in row 912.

I had planned to knock off my four remaining flights several weeks ago. I had found a cheap fare from Orlando to Jackson MS and had pounced on it. But then my shoulder began bothering me – and soon it was killing me. I figured give the shoulder a couple of weeks – heck, I ad until September 27.

So two weeks later I’m in St. Louis and it is just before 6 am – and my shoulder is killing me. I’m lying on the floor at gate E 14 eying my fellow passengers on my first leg of the day – a quick dart of less than an hour to Kansas City International. The pickings are slim this morning for Southwest – they barely have enough passengers for the A Group, which is the first 60 out of 137 passengers they put on most of the 737s: Southwest has three series of 737s. The 737-300s are the oldest, and the 737-700s are the newest. Both carry 137 passengers. Southwest also has twenty or thirty 737-500s that have 120-something seats and its exit row configuration is flipped from the 300s and 700s.

The morning starts well.

The flight is on time, and surprise of surprises, the exit row is open and I settle in next to a plastic bag salesman from St. Louis on his way to Los Angeles. I learn that most plastic bags cost the stores an astounding 1.4-cents each, but that plastic bags are in such short supply and so recyclable that the manufacturers are buying them back as fast as they can. Wal-Mart I am told actually bids its used bags that it recovers from customers every three months and lately the bidding has been brisk.

The first peril of the day lifts its head when halfway across Missouri the skies darken and ominously the pilot warns that it will be a bumpy landing coming into Kansas City. There is weather. I ask the plastic bag salesman what his worst flight ever was, and he tells me the exact date back in 1994 when he was on a flight landing in Dallas that got caught in a wind sheer and dropped so low to the ground that he could read the sales items in the window of a Win-Dixie. He tells me that flight was eventually diverted to San Antonio and they took a lot of passengers away in ambulances. “That’s why I always keep my seat belt fastened,” he says fingering his seatbelt. I gaze down at my seat belt and tighten it.

The good news is we taxi into the first stop of the day on time; the bad news is that the Kansas City airport was built in an era before security regulations and the gates are now strung now a narrow long crowded hallways. They have added restrooms, but just barely. There is a lengthening line for the one urinal near Gate 43 so I drift down the concourse until I find another restroom: same thing. One stall; one urinal. But this one is tucked away and hidden behind a food concession. I know about it but apparently no one else does. I pee in peace, and then head back to my gate. I have only an hour here before I return to St. Louis, but a problem has cropped up. Incredibly I have set forth today with my wife’s computer. We talk and will swap computers when I land in St Louis about 10 am. They are identical, down to a little green dot on the cover which and repairman placed on both of our computers when he upgraded the size of the hard drives earlier this year.

Flight #2 of the day
The return from Kansas City was about an hour after I landed in Kansas City. The second flight unlike the first that originated in St. Louis, and would schooner on across the country from St Louis to Kansas City, Los Angeles and beyond, was coming from Nashville. It was not late, but it wasn’t early either. Again the flight load was light and this time seated a few rows behind the exit row (in Row 13) I found myself with a row to myself and so I spread out and considered sleep.

Nonetheless the flight was 15 minutes getting off the ground and the pilot was on the loudspeaker telling us that the flight would be wandering here and there trying to bypass bumpy weather, but that they expected a rough ride. Flight attendants would remain seated for the short flight, and there would be no coffee for me or for anyone else on this flight.

And wander we did – first heading north across northern Missouri and then crossing into Illinois and turning south and finally west over the old Chain of Rocks Bridge and to the airport which is on the northern side of St. Louis. We were fully 30 minutes late.

Back in St Louis I now have two hours – and then another half hour as my return to Kansas City is already twenty minutes late. Outside security Carol Anne and I swap computers – inadvertently I had taken hers at 5 in the morning in the dark. She heads out to a museum and I return through security, stop at Starbucks and then – after checking what happens to me if I miss my final flight from Kansas city to St. Louis I settle in at gate 22, new and never used in the southwest terminal. Alone. If I miss the 240 pm back to St. Louis I will have two options – catch a 250 to midway and then to St Louis, or wait until 5 and come directly back to St Louis. But the southwest people don’t think that will happen. Cheerfully they assure me I’ll make my 240 pm flight – too cheerily. It makes me uneasy even though it appears logical and true. So we’ll see.

Flight #3
Back to Kansas City.

This time, seated in row 13 ahead of the exit rows, I lounge next to a drowsy young cattleman. This flight will terminate in Kansas City so no one is going anywhere else, and other than a few cordial grunts, the cattleman falls asleep. There’s never much to see in Southwest’s Row #13 – there’s no window unless you lean far back and squint out the window in Row 14.

Landing in Kansas City we’re rocked around a little, but the flight attendants brave it and even offer peanuts (first peanuts of the day). Inside the terminal (gate 40 instead of gate 43 this time) I check out the flight monitor. This should be a tight flight. We have left St. Louis a little late – I should have thirty minutes, but probably only 10 to the time they start loading.

But no. The weather has finally caught up with us. Alarmingly, my 2:40 flight, inbound from Phoenix, is now listed as leaving at 4:10 pm. I have been here before in Chicago in March when every hour the departure time of my flight kept being pushed back until, in the end I arrived at 2 in the morning. And the same thing happened in July in Baltimore.

But there is good news. Kansas City has free wireless Internet. And decent food. A Wolfgang Puck cart and others. I will have time finally to catch up on my email, to check the stock market and even read the newspapers on line. Moreover, the terminal is not crowded. That’s good news for me, but not good news for Southwest. Even in the cramped now ill-designed Kansas City airport, there is lots of room.

The big surprise of the afternoon is that shortly before 4 pm up glides my flight and, even bigger surprise, we’re pushing back fuller than anytime during the day but still with an empty middle seat (I am this time in Row 14) and no screaming kids.

But I do have a bad moment in Kansas City.

These flights are all about getting “A-List” status and I thought I only needed 4 more flights to do it. I log onto the Southwest web site and check my page discovering that Southwest is right up to speed – they have credited all three of my flights for the day with only one more to go. But I have miscounted – I needed 5, not 4, more flights and that last flight must be flown, the web site tells me, “by September 27”.

What does that mean?

I’m flying on September 27, but does it mean “by” as in “before” September 27, or does it mean by midnight on the day of September 27. I fret and dither and finally call Southwest Airlines. “It means ‘on or before’ September 27,” a good-natured bemused woman tells me. I go back to eating.

My shoulder is killing me and we have had to have a détente for the day. I mostly am lying flat, but now with all the walking I am doing, I seem to be figuring out just how to hold my shoulders so that it doesn’t hurt as I walk.

I study myself walking in an empty bathroom mirror and I immediately see the key to making my shoulder and arm not hurt. Good posture. I should have thought of that a few decades ago. Oh, well.

Eventually I have time to call my barber (9 am Friday since I look like an English sheep dog. I write a publisher of a newspaper I once owned – is she up for coffee? She always is – and I thank her (I’ll be covering the last NASA shuttle launches for her). I write an old friend who once worked for me and went on to fame and fortune to schedule dinner at the end of the week (my shoulder will just have to make do). And I eat.

Flight #4
Kansas City to St Louis

Kansas City airport feels empty. A Chicago flight departs full, but no other flights seem to be having much traffic. Our flight is about half full – perhaps 75 people, but no more.

Carol Anne will meet me on the concourse. We count fingers as they bundle the plane up. Weather has cleared. It is a tidy 38 minutes in the air from Kansas City to St Louis and when 10 minutes are added on each end for taxiing it comes to exactly one hour. We agree she’ll meet me no earlier than 5:15pm. During our computer swap between flights #2 and #3 she lingered too long in the free parking and it cost her $5 and she was bummed about that. It isn’t likely to happen a second time.

We land nearly two hours late, but the day has been a success. Plenty of room. Lots of work done. And no screaming kids. In fact, the kids I do see are downright adorable.

Blog photo: Me slounging on floor between fights, feet in foreground, in the Southwest Airlines Terminal in St. Louis on September 22, 2010. The Southwest terminal is located on the site of the old TWA maintenance facility which once sported a red neon sign reading “FLY TWA” on a southeast portion of Lambert Field. After American Airlines bought TWA, Lambert Field lost a huge number of flights and much of the terminal now is walled off and its gates empty.

Blog header: Making an east to west landing at STL, St Louis Lambert Field inbound from KCI, Kansas City International, on September 22, 2010. The Southwest 737-700 aircraft is over Illinois with St. Louis downtown, to include the Arch, in an 11 o-clock position ahead on the opposite side of the plane. And, yes, those are the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers in view from the right side of the aircraft looking to the northwest. The two rivers flow together just north of St. Louis.