I know middle-aged men who still dress in suit-and-tie for a flight, even if it’s a hop from New York to Boston and has nothing to do with business. They are an ever-more rare breed: Though the Wall Street Journal recently ran an article titled “An Argument for Flying in High Style,” you have a pretty good chance of finding yourself next to a schlub in sweatpants the next time you fly.
The diminishing of style in commercial aviation comes amidst a general souring of that industry’s mood. Glamorous flying belongs to another age, like writing letters and speaking non-ironically. Your Toyota Camry probably brims with more glamour than the tired cylinder shuttling back and forth between Tampa and Pittsburgh.
Jack El-Hai’s new book, Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines, is a bright chronicle of one of the nation’s legacy airlines, one that started flying commercially in 1934 and was subsumed by Delta in the fall of 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession. A year later, a Northwest flight (the merger would not be complete for another year) was nearly taken down en route to Detroit by “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
In the end, the Minnesota-based airline that came to be called “Northworst” fell victim to more nimble low-cost carriers like JetBlue, among other ruinous forces. But Non-Stop is generally a sunny book, reminding us of the days when commercial aviation was a symbol of American might and planes were cocktail lounges in the sky, when nearly everybody smoked and nobody forced you to take off your shoes and belt. Full of mid-century cool, this book soars along on a powerful slipstream of nostalgia.