Black History in Aviation: Patricia Banks

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In 1956, New York college student Patricia Banks counted herself among the first cadre of young black women to finish flight attendant training school. Sadly, like those other young women, she found it possible to gain employment with any of the major airlines, unlike her white classmates.

“…one of the chief hostesses from Capital [Airlines]…she saw me…she said, ‘Pat, I can’t see you go through this anymore.’ She said, ‘The airline does not hire Negroes.’” “It really never came to me that New York was just as racist as the South. I grew up when the South was having such terrible problems, but I had a thing inside of me…this just can’t be, not in New York!” “It was emotionally upsetting.” “But then I vowed, ok…you’re not gonna do this to us. I’m not gonna let you do this. And I decided that I was going to go with it all the way. I don’t care how long it took. And whether it was me that got hired, or somebody else, somebody was going to get hired.”

Ms. Banks sued, and in 1960, the New York State Commission against Discrimination ordered Capital Airlines (which merged with United a year later) to hire her, two years after Mohawk Airlines hired Ruth Carol Taylor as the first black flight attendant. But she knew that while the legal fight may have been over, the internal struggle was just beginning.

“I was very, very excited, very happy about it, but I also knew that it was going to be a challenge. … Because here I was, this black woman on this magnificent airline traveling all through the South, so I had to be … perfect. … I knew if I made any mistakes, they would be magnified and I would ruin the chance for other black people.”

See Ms. Banks’ entire interview below, then discover other black aviation pioneers at American Airlines‘ excellent Black History in Aviation website.
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Miami is an Aviation Geek’s Dream

Lufthansa A380 at MIA. Photo courtesy of Aero Icarus via Flickr.

Lufthansa A380 from Frankfurt landing at MIA

Despite its setting amid a flat, wildly sprawling car-topia, Miami International Airport is an aviation geek’s dream. Airliners from places as far away as Moscow and Buenos Aires or as close as Key West and Nassau, cargo planes all the way from China, the Airbus A380 – the world’s largest passenger aircraft – riding heavy over Biscayne Bay on its way across the Atlantic; if you look in the sky long enough, you’ll see it all. And unlike most big-city airports relegated to the boondocks, MIA is right in the heart of town.

TAM departing for Brazil

TAM departing for Brazil

Vantage points are everywhere: you can catch the afternoon arrivals from Europe at the LA Fitness on Northwest 12th Street, the planes so low you can almost touch them – Iberia, Alitalia, Virgin, Swiss, and British all in a row. Commuters on the Dolphin Expressway course alongside the south runway, sometimes racing TAM to Brazil, LAN to Chile, or Copa to Panama. Delta and United and Avianca and TACA and FedEx and UPS skirt the towers of downtown Miami throughout the day. But all-day, everyday, it’s American – old American, new American, big American, small American – it could be to Tallahassee or Tegucigalpa, somebody’s going somewhere on American.

AA dominates MIA

AA dominates MIA. They’ve been slow at repainting with the new logo.

Nearby Fort Lauderdale might have the most dramatic landings in the region, jets just barely missing the tops of the semis speeding up and down I-95. But Miami’s got the most diverse range of aircraft, airlines, landing patterns, and striking silhouettes of any city I’ve ever lived in.

Swiss airliner at MIA

Swiss prepping for the return to Zurich

So if you’re driving past the airport and see someone creeping along on the expressway at 5 miles an hour trying to snap a shot of a departing AirBerlin jet on their phone, it’s probably me. I really have to stop that; it’s just not safe.

Terminal J at MIA from Dolphin Expressway

Terminal J at MIA from Dolphin Expressway

Oh…and is anybody else but me excited that Qatar Airways will be flying here come next June?! Nobody? Bueller?

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Brazil’s Iconic Varig Airlines Brand to be Discontinued

Varig Airlines Travel Poster Bahia

Once a standard-bearer of glamour and adventure during the Golden Age of jet travel, Brazil’s Varig brand will cease to exist by next April. That’s when Brazilian low-cost airline Gol, owner of the brand, will officially dispense with the iconic logo and name that it acquired when the original Varig stopped flying in 2006, repainting the remaining Varig-branded planes in Gol’s fluorescent orange livery.

Varig-Gol

Founded in Porto Alegre in 1927 as Viação Aérea Rio-Grandense, the airline known as Varig once connected Brazil with destinations as far-flung as Copenhagen, Tokyo, Maputo, and Toronto, carrying with it idealized exoticism, the promise of sun and sex south of the equator. Jet-setters, when not flying Pan Am, flew Varig down to Rio. Even the plucky Holly Golightly adorned the walls of her Manhattan apartment with Varig’s eye-catching posters as she dreamt of a new life in Brazil in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Sadly, as air travel became more accessible to the masses, Varig’s stellar service waned, as did its profits, and by the 2000s, the airline found it hard to compete against nimble competition in a stormy economic environment. After an embarrassing bankruptcy in 2006, with planes repossessed at JFK and soccer fans stranded in Germany during the World Cup, competitor Gol snapped up a few bits and pieces of the legacy carrier, hoping to bank on Varig’s international brand recognition and global image. Subsequently, as archrival TAM has taken up the mantle as Brazil’s de facto flag carrier and Gol has steadily built its own brand awareness through aggressive advertizing and solid service, Varig’s name proved irrelevant and, come next April, will be consigned to history, alongside Pan Am, TWA, Swissair, and a few other paragons of 20th century air travel.

I only flew Varig once, round-trip from Miami to Salvador da Bahia via São Paulo. It was my first trip to Brazil. The seats on the Boeing 777 were cramped, the flight attendants on the international legs mostly surly, middle-aged men. Our return domestic flight was late and an agent had to rush us through the concrete maze that is São Paulo’s airport to make our connection to Miami and as I approached the door, one flight attendant smiled at me and asked, “Baiano?” “Não,” I responded, flattered to have been mistaken for Brazilian, “americano.”

Varig, you will be missed.

Varig Airlines Travel Poster Rio2

Varig Airlines Travel Poster Sao Paulo

Varig Airlines Travel Poster Brazil

Varig Airlines Travel Poster Rio1

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Vintage Travel Posters: The Caribbean

As fall turns to winter in the Northern Hemisphere, travelers have always looked to the Caribbean for a little warmth. But it wasn’t just exotic beaches that were advertised; the region’s exoticized black bodies have always been a part of its allure. I’ve got mixed feelings about some of these. What do you think?

BWIA_CaribbeanPanAm_Caribbean

BOAC_Caribbean

PanAm_Caribbean2

caribbean-air

BWIA_Caribbean1

PanAm_Caribbean1

KLM_Caribbean

PanAm_Caribbean0

AirFrance_Caribbean

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Introducing the 787

Just over a year ago, Boeing debuted its newest jet airplane, the 787. Designed to take fewer passengers a much farther distance than other long-range jets, the 787—nicknamed the Dreamliner—will allow airlines to make money by serving farther-flung destinations that people want to get to, but that the current crop of planes that can fly the distance are just too big for. For example, there may be 200 people wanting a daily nonstop Miami-to-Tokyo flight, but until the 787 came around, the only planes that could fly the route all seated at least 300 passengers. No airline could financially justify such a route with that many empty seats, no matter how much they charged for first class. Well, times have changed.

Right now, eight of the nearly fifty airlines that have ordered 787s are operating the type and new nonstop, such as Japan Air Lines’ Boston-Tokyo, ANA’s San Jose-Tokyo, and United Airlines’ Denver-Tokyo, have already begun or are slated to begin soon (Tokyo’s seeing a lot of 787 action!). Other carriers, like United, Ethiopian Airlines, and LAN, are using the plane for “rightsizing” existing routes, with United flying the new-new between hubs in the US.

The airlines aren’t the only beneficiaries, though. Besides getting access to additional nonstop markets, passengers will experience larger windows, more room throughout the cabin, and better pressurization, and lightweight composite materials create for a less-gas-guzzling airplane that, in theory, should result in lower fares but don’t hold your breaths on that one.

Anybody else as excited about the new 7-8 as I am? Prolly not. :-/

Check out this video of ANA’s 787 interior. It’s pretty fly.

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Happy 85th Birthday, Pan Am!

On October 19, 1927, a tiny seaplane flew mail for the U.S. Postal Service a quick 90 miles, from Key West to Havana, in a little over an hour. Within the next few decades, the company that sent that air mail to Cuba would be the first to launch commercial airline service across the Pacific Ocean, the first American carrier to fly jet aircraft, the first airline to use a custom-built computerized reservation system, and the first airline to fly the Boeing 747. This company founded the internationally renowned InterContinental hotel chain, built the world’s largest commercial office building when it opened in 1963, and connected 86 countries on 6 continents by 1968. This company transported Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor and Sean Connery and The Beatles. Towards the end of its life, this company facilitated economical air travel for the common man. But for the first half of its life, this company—Pan American World Airways—ushered in the Jet Age, created the Jet Set, and epitomized the glamour, sophistication, and absolute magic of intercontinental air travel.

Pan Am, sadly, ceased operations in 1991, after 64 years. And like a screen legend from the Golden Age of Hollywood, all we have left to remember her by are a few well-preserved artifacts, fading memories from previous generations who experienced her at her most vivacious, and flickering images that captured her at her peak—bittersweet reminders that the Golden Age of Travel, or at least the one we choose to imagine, is an era long passed.

For more colorful history, read about Pan Am’s first black pilot, Marvin Jones, and one of Pan Am’s “Black Birds,” Dr. Sheila Nutt, both part of a select group of black flight crew members hired after 1965. And if you’ve got an hour, take a gander at this phenomenal BBC documentary about Pan Am, which tells the story of the company’s rise and fall, the stringent physical standards for stewardesses, salacious tales of flight crew sex lives, and includes commentary by the pilot impostor who wrote Catch Me If You Can:

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VTP: NYC

In commemoration of my recent weekend in The City, VTP (Vintage Travel Posters) is back with a few artistic flights of fancy that enticed travelers from the world over to spend a weekend in … The City!










If you liked these, check out VTP India, Rio, and Paris!

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Vomit Bags and Hail Marys

My craziest landing ever was on a Varig flight from Brazil listing as we came into Miami and almost scraping the wing on the runway. Couldn’t imagine this, though. Knocking on wood at this very moment.

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Airline Geekery: Timetables

As a kid―and a nascent nerd―in the late-80s/early-90s, I used to collect airline timetables, that magical tome of times and places that would transport you from Caracas to New York to Frankfurt to Rangoon and back with the flip of a few pages.

My first timetables were from domestic carriers that flew to my hometown of Jacksonville: Piedmont, Delta, Eastern, USAir. I especially loved the American Airlines timetables because they were thick with flight schedules and included shaded airport maps and detailed seat diagrams of planes like the Airbus 300 and MD-11.

Soon, I hit the phone book and dialed the 800-numbers of every airline listed: British Airways, Canadian International Airlines, Air Afrique, Varig, Thai Airways International. By the time I hit age 10, I pressed my parents incessantly to take me to the airport whenever we went to Orlando so I could bum timetables from strange-sounding foreign airlines like Alitalia, LACSA, and Lufthansa. I even had timetables from tiny operations like Air Nauru, Air Malta, and Aero California.

By my teenage years, my collection of timetables (and travel guides and AAA city maps) began to overflow the raggedy file cabinet my mom had brought home from school, and their pressure for me to just throw all that crap out became more and more intense. Eventually it all went into the trash, just as the internet took off and all but a scant few airlines stopped printing their flight schedules in book format. In the end, my parents forced me to destroy a collection of items―obtained for free―that now would be worth hundreds of dollars each. I remind them of this each time I hit them up for money.

Now I’m relegated to much bulkier in-flight magazines. They just aren’t the same.

What did you geek out about as a kid?

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Fly Favorites: February 2012

  • Don + Whitney =

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