Thursday, June 26, 2008

LOOK! Up in the Sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

NO! It's a Mixed Plane!

I figure we need a little reprieve from the dire, more dire and exceedingly dire news of today's airline industry and its impending implosion.

So I dug in my mixed bag of airline trivia looking for a less ominous distraction; considered and rejected the mixed message and the mixed drink and chose instead a mixed metaphor!

What is a mixed plane you ask? Or, more appropriately, what was a mixed plane? It was not so named because it carried different classes of passengers. Commercial flights were all one class 50 years ago. An airplane held either all first class or all coach passengers, with appropriate service according to class. Everybody on the airplane paid the same amount for their ticket, depending on destination. Then bigger and faster jets came along and we were introduced to economy class, tourist class, business class and no class in addition to the familiar first class and coach. That was when all passenger classes began occupying the same airplane and we coach passengers found out how much fun it was to board just aft of the flight deck and slink along the aisle between those huge comfortable seats while avoiding eye contact with first class passengers on our way to our cheap seats in the tail.

The mixed plane was immortalized in a New York Times article on August 5, 1956. "FLYING VIA THE MIXED PLANE - Airline Freight Flights Also Take Travelers at Reduced Rates." The article announces that Northwest was the first airline to operate a freight-passenger flight in the United States, five nights a week, Mondays through Fridays (except holidays.) It took seven hours and twenty minutes for the eastbound-only flights between Minneapolis-St Paul and New York's Idylwild Airport (now JFK) with stops in Milwaukee and Detroit. The stalwart DC-4's on this run were outfitted with seven rows of removable tourist-type seats placed two and three abreast. A dark-colored curtain separated the passengers from the freight. Stay tuned for more about what lay beyond the dark curtain in a future blog post.

One had to weigh the pros and cons of traveling on a mixed plane. No surprise, the biggest "pro" was a cheaper fare. MSP to New York, one way including tax, was $39.60 or the equivalent to about four gallons of gas in today's dollars and gas prices. This would be a good time to tell you that the regular one-way tourist fare back then, MSP to IDL, was a whopping $52.47. By comparison you would have paid coach train fare of $46.92 or $29.48 for a bus ticket over the same route in 1956.

The biggest detractor on the "con" side was the seven-plus hour flight. And sometimes the loading and unloading of freight interfered with the routine. Extra-large or cumbersome consignments might cause the plane to leave MSP late or stay longer than its alloted 48 minutes in Milwaukee or forty-five minutes in Detroit. Typically the flight left MSP at 10:30 p.m. C.S.T. and arrived at IDL (JFK) at 7:50 a.m. E.D.T. Passengers could be roused from slumber in Milwaukee or Detroit or both and asked to wait in the terminal while a bulky piece of freight was loaded or off-loaded through the passenger portion of the plane.

I flew the passenger-freight schedule a few times. We're talking no frills here, folks. For the most part these all-nighters were quiet, easy flights for cabin crew; sleeping passengers and no meal service. The most excitement came when delivering beverages to the flight deck. One had to pick one's way carefully through the darkened freight section, trying to avoid hazards like ropes and floor brackets while carrying a tray of hot coffee. The eerie glow of distant cockpit instruments helped illuminate the path but lent a decided creepiness to the surroundings. A mixed blessing, metaphorically speaking.


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