Flying Across America: The Airline Passenger Experience

By DANIEL L. RUST

Nowadays, when you’re standing on long, snaky lines, clutching your discount e-ticket and waiting to shuffle shoeless through airport security, it’s hard to remember that air travel was once a glamorous, exotic adventure enjoyed only by the well-dressed rich. While today we think of flying as something to be endured, when commercial air travel began less than a century ago, it was something to be enjoyed. In 1929, when Charles Lindbergh’s Transcontinental Air Transport offered the first air-rail passenger service across the country, you might have boarded a Ford Tri-Motor aircraft wearing your finest fur coat, been served an elaborate lunch on real china with gold-plated utensils, and watched sheep scatter across farmland through curtain-clad windows you could open for air. Then again, back in those days, the noise in the plane’s cabin was deafening and the trip from New York to Los Angeles took about 48 hours. In his large, amply illustrated, and carefully researched new book, Flying Across America: The Airline Passenger Experience, Daniel L. Rust, assistant director of the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, traces how people have experienced transcontinental air travel; his narrative moves from the beginning in 1911, when Calbraith Perry Rodgers became the first person to fly across the country, through the swingin’ jet-set years, to the present day. Rust peppers his history with firsthand accounts, including passenger Jessie Gray’s depiction, in 1933, of the view from above: “As if in the hollow of a great hand, I am upheld serenely to see the entire picture instead of tantalizing detail and unsatisfying incompleteness.” With these sharp observations — as true today as ever — the book takes flight.