Even with a controllers' strike, airline travel remains part of the background drone of daily life. Each year, around the world, 750 million plane tickets are sold. Either everybody's crazy, or commercial aviation has become as commonplace as psychiatry. It certainly seems hard to believe that the airlines began only 60 years ago, at a time when Sigmund Freud already had 40 years of experience with the couch.
The history and impact of carrying passengers by air is the subject of a seven-part BBC series, "Diamonds in the Sky," which begins at 8 tonight on Channel 5 (WTTG). From the opening shock of Anga tribesmen in New Guinea boarding twin-engine commuters to the silly, stereotypical shots of a 747 slicing into the sunset, this is an entertaining, informative introduction to the world of lost baggage, holding patterns and foil peanut packets. Upcoming one-hour segments will focus on United Airlines (the largest in the world), early routes before WWII, the conquest of the Atlantic, vacation travel, problems of maintaining service (ho-ho), and the promises of aviation in the next 60 years.
It certainly seems apt to present New Guinea as a fascinating microcosm of what commercial air travel has done to the world. Motivated by greed, passenger planes were brought there in 1931 when gold was discovered in the mountains. No other form of transportation was capable of carrying the materials needed to construct refineries out in the boonies. There's eye-opening color footage shot back then by pioneer aviator Jim Taylor, who recalls flying over areas to signal the natives that they were about to encounter something strange down below. Little did they know . . . After landing, "I made a humming sound and pointed to the sky," Taylor says, and then everything was hunky-dory. Talk about Deus ex machina. Taylor would enlist the aid of the locals to clear landing strips, and then have them do their tribal dances right on the runways, which just happened to be a perfect way to get the ground tamped down solid.
As late as 1973, there were still parts of New Guinea that never had been connected to any other part of the country, let alone the globe. It used to take the natives a week to walk to the coast, and maybe they still wish it did. Now these very same grandchildren of headhunters know what it means when the sign says FASTEN YOUR SAFETY BELT. The friendly skies are quite small: Along with the arrival of flush toilets in the outback came TB, influenza and VD, all courtesy of commercial airlines. Not to mention tourists.
They are seen in true gawking splendor here, snapping away in wild abandon with every conceivable type of camera, obscura and Instamatic, as the natives act out the slaughter of a warrior and all the latest tribal dance steps. "What's he eating," a British woman asks a friend, "smoked fish?" When the answer comes back in native tongue, she says, "No understand."
Indeed. It's tough to comprehend life when the Concorde will get you back to the U.S.A. from London before-you-took-off o'clock, and a person in Washington can slip off to New York for a date at the unbelievably low price of $29, and -- wonder of wonders -- a piece of mail deposited this afternoon will actually be delivered tomorrow in L.A. by 3 p.m.
Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Michael Somare sums up the what's-it-all-mean eternal verities of instant travel like this:
"Here we are . . . There is no rat race . . . no telephone . . . I like to leave the problems of government behind . . . I turn up trying to relax, trying to go for a swim, AND I HAVE BBC FILM CREW."
Thank you, Prime Minister Somare.