Friday, 25 November 2011

In search of the Western Airlines Hunt Breakfast

One of my little fascinations, which I'd like to explore on this blog in the future, is inflight service, back in the day when you got a meal on almost every flight, it was very likely hot, and it was free.

Once upon a time, people didn't book airline ticket on price alone, and airlines knocked themselves out trying to differentiate themselves through corporate identity programs (logos and liveries on airplanes), advertising campaigns, uniforms, and inflight service. You might choose to fly TWA to Chicago because they offered steaks cooked to order in Coach, or choose Continental to Hawaii because they offered a stand-up bar (again, in Coach) on their "Pub Ships." Nowadays, you book with whichever airline's fare is $5 cheaper on Travelocity.

In trying to lure customers away from their competitors, airlines gave their inflight service departments big budgets and lots of leeway to come up with unusual, luxurious offerings. Air Jamaica had its stewardesses model for inflight fashion shows. Alaska Airlines had Gold-rush themed flights, with Gay 90s interiors and stewardesses in "period" uniforms. On the West Coast, United Airlines had "Businessmen Only" flights, where stewardesses wore evening gowns and handed out complimentary cigars. We are, after all taking businessmen and not businesswomen back then.

Inevitably, there were going to be some product offerings that were bizarre, excessive or just ludicrous. During Coronation year, 1952, BOAC (ancestor of British Airways) offered an "Elizabethan" meal service on transatlantic flights that, if I recall correctly, offered some fifteen courses, most of them meat. (Try doing that as a Buy-On-Board service). It didn't last long but roast beef, presented on a trolley with all the trimmings and carved at your seat by the Purser, was a staple of BOAC/British Airways catering for years.

One of the daffiest I've heard of was on Western Airlines, I believe back in the 1970s. They offered a "Hunt Breakfast" modelled on the substantial meal that would be served before a fox hunt in Virginia. It was a complete breakfast buffet with eggs, sausage, bacon, pancakes, the whole nine yards, that was served from a cart equipped with a tape recorder on which  played the bugle call that would call out the hounds. I don't recall that the stewardesses changed into hunting pinks for the service but it wouldn't surprise me in the least.

I would kill to find out if any artifacts from some of those services survive, in some employee's garage or forgotten in some musty airline warehouse. Wouldn't you love to see the insert for the flight attendant manual showing how to set up for a 15-course meal? Relics of that era in the form of dishes, glassware, etc are relatively easy to find - passengers routinely walked off their flights with their tote bags clanking with airline-branded "souvenirs" (Virgin Atlantic Airways used to label their First Class salt-and-pepper shakers 'Stolen From Virgin Atlantic'). I'd love to see some of the airline equipment that was used or hear from old-school flight attendants who remember whipping up eggs cooked to order for 30 First Class passengers in the galley of a 707. 

There were a few factors that made these onboard offerings possible. Planes weren't as full back then - when the only channels for booking were calling the airline or going to your travel agent, airlines didn't have the reach to sell every seat on every flight as they do today (or as they seem to do, if you've ever sat in a middle seat). Often, there was more space, even on narrow-body aircraft like the 707 or DC-8 - some airlines offered 5-abreast seating in Coach and might even have a third cabin, Economy, with 6-abreast. 

There were more non-stop flights, meaning you could offer the same service between Pittsburgh and San Diego as between New York and Los Angeles. With deregulation in the 1970s came the "hub and spoke" system, which means today you're changing planes more often.

People had fewer options for entertainment; if the airline offered movies, it was on a big screen at the front of the cabin which meant - hold on kids, this is going to frighten you - everyone had to watch the same thing at the same time. So meal service was intended partly to entertain and divert. I had to laugh the other day when I heard some veteran Pan Am stewardesses saying "The aim was to complete dinner service in two hours or less."

And you know, I think the fact people still had high expectations for decorum and civility played into it, too. Stewardesses wore white gloves in the terminal because their passengers would be boarding wearing white gloves. There were societal boundaries in place, which were accepted, because people understood that that meant everyone sat down when the seat belt sign was on and gave the cabin crew the time and space they needed to do their job. (Later people re-thought those boundaries when they realized those same boundaries required people with different skin colours to sit at different ends of the bus and reserved the really good jobs for people who didn't have vaginas.) Good luck telling a planeload of today's iPod-plugged, Priceline-surfing Generation Me-ers to sit down while you roll a fifteen-course meal down the aisle.

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