Travel in ‘mini-airliners’: When small-plane travel took hold

“Hello. My name is Charlie. I’m flying you for the first time on a commercial airplane,” the pilot tells you.

Really? OK, check.

But, what, exactly, is stopping him from trying to connect you with another jet, another travel agency or even another large corporation?

“Well,” he says. “We haven’t received any e-mails asking us to make any arrangements for you.”

Well, OK.

So, how did it get to this point, anyway? As most folks will recall, in the waning years of World War II, when airlines were flourishing and soldiers were in short supply, a U.S. executive pondered an idea that for years had taken flight in science fiction movies, and indeed the world.

He wondered: Why can’t we just rent airplanes, rather than buy them? Yes, he did see “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” but he didn’t necessarily consider it a serious proposition.

He called aircraft inventors Henry Ford and Joseph Priestley, and airline magnate J. P. Morgan. He consulted with a United States senator and his law partner and even with Lockheed Aircraft Co. Chief Engineer Fred Kirkpatrick, but nothing came of his inquiry.

Nevertheless, in 1942, manufacturers began to roll out the airplanes referred to as “aircraft carriers,” built for short flights of no more than 40 minutes. They were reported to cost about $50,000 each, and earned themselves the nickname “mini-airliners.” The final number is not known. However, in today’s dollars, it is an investment of roughly $6,000 for every 50 passengers.

Many argued that the shortened trip times promised would mean, in effect, a devaluation of the lower fare classes.

And airlines that forced passengers to pay as little as $5 dollars for short-haul trips threatened to sink to the bottom of a rapidly shrinking industry.

Yet, plans to lease jets as opposed to purchase them took hold, and by 1946, Delta Air Lines was beginning to order small passenger planes for the “mini-airline” concept.

Following the war, however, passenger numbers went up significantly.

Eventually, the “jet airliner” concept was embraced, replacing the larger types that once served short domestic flights.

As the force of the postwar “baby boom” evolved into an extended retirement age, travel companies realized that they could charge less for long-haul trips with airliners.

By the late 1960s, few travel agencies seemed to want to make major capital investments in arranging long-haul trips, so major corporations began to try leasing their own jets.

Soon, more orders came in, and by the 1980s, the idea of a true “jet airliner” seemed to be confirmed. Finally, a big plane from Boeing or Airbus could fly 18- or 20-hour journeys around the world.

The giants jumped aboard.

The travel agency — a small, locally owned operation — once again had more time to fit each traveler into a more efficient flight, as opposed to the 24- or 48-hour trips, sometimes three- day journeys, that once characterized the market.

However, one of the hottest concepts in travel is, of course, small-plane travel.

Like the Japanese food menu, its healthy, affordable fare is bound to be a crowd-pleaser.

As its name implies, small planes — it doesn’t matter how big the company — are also made for short trips.

The Up ‘n’ Down means a few hours here, a few hours there, and you’ve got an itinerary you can tailor to your tastes and budgets.

Most travel agents now offer at least one small-plane charter with every city trip. No need to spend a fortune on another party to entertain at $300 to $500 per ticket — or woe to the banker who can’t pay for a longer, expensive visit.

So, as a final warning, carry a lot of cash: Small planes cost as much as six times the fares that airlines charge for long-haul routes.

Carmen Garcia Murillo is a columnist for American Express Publishing’s American Express Travel Network, Global Website, and Affinity News. The views expressed are her own.

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