By BOB SCHULMAN
Squished into your economy seat at 35,000 feet over Puebla, it’s hard to picture yourself sauntering down the aisle to a lounge the size of your living room, plopping down into an overstuffed chair and listening to someone bat out your favorite tunes on a Wurlitzer piano – and all in coach.
On other planes, instead of using seat-lock gadgets to defend your tiny turf against incursions by the guy in front of you, passengers could relax in what amounted to flying taverns with entertainment by guitarists, folk-rock-pop groups and caricaturists – again, all in coach.
If this sounds like some kind of an economy-class fantasy, it’s not.
In the early ’70s, passengers riding in the back of the plane really did enjoy perks like these.
Here’s what prompted the airlines’ largess:
Business was booming and airline traffic forecasts looked rosy in the mid-’60s when the carriers ordered their first jumbo jets, some twice the size of their workhorse Boeing 707s.
But five years later, when the big Boeing 747s and McDonnell Douglas DC-10s started rolling off the production lines, a severe recession was raging – and the airlines had fewer bottoms to put in all those added seats.
Clobbered by the awful economy, the airlines’ load factors (the percentage of seats filled) fell to incredibly low lows of under 50 percent.
Things got so bad that air crews sometimes found themselves outnumbering their passengers.
So the airlines decided to boost their headcounts by giving the folks in coach a taste of the perks enjoyed by the silky set in first class.
The competitive frenzy that followed came to be known as “the Great Lounge War.”
American Airlines fired the opening salvo in March of 1971 by ripping out 40 of the 270 coach seats in its new 747s to make room for a wall-to-wall coach lounge while stretching out the legroom on the remaining seats.
American’s pr blitz billed the lounge, featuring a standup bar, plush armchairs and cocktail tables, as “the ultimate in informal conviviality in the skies.”
United Airlines cut loose with a double-barreled counterattack by ridding its 747s of enough seats to install not one but two coach playrooms.
A press release said passengers could now enjoy “a club-like atmosphere, styled with standup bars, swivel lounge chairs and double-leisure chairs flanking multi-purpose tables.”
TWA – the third of the era’s Big 3 airlines — jumped into the fray with this policy statement from company executive Blaine Cooke: “We will not be outsold or outspent in this top-priority effort.”
Besides creating “a unique living room” on its 747s, complete with a seven-foot-long bar and clustered seating around cocktail tables, TWA went on to put scaled down versions of the lounge on its fleet of 41 smaller 707s.
TWA touted its munificence as “the most dramatic service innovation in jet history.”
American fired back with this bombshell: the in-flight piano bar.
Escalating the battle to fever pitch, American Vice President Kenneth L. Meinen added amplified 64-key Wurlitzers to the carrier’s lounge attractions aimed at “making an event of every flight.”
By December 1971, passengers were merrily singing piano-led songs like “Let It Be” and “Joy to the World” as they zipped through the skies on all 16 of the airline’s 747s.
By mid-1972, it was all-out war.
Not only had zillions of seats been ripped out to make room for coach lounges on the 747s of most carriers as well as on their new DC-10 tri-jets (Lockheed’s jumbo, the L-1011, came along a little later), but the battle had been stepped up with a colorful — some said bizarre — menu of aerial fun and games.
United stunned the industry when it debuted guitar fests, caricature portrait sessions and wine tasting parties among a broadside of what it tagged “in-flight happenings.” (A writer for the Wall Street Journal, seeking an interview with United officials, reported that he found them “busy auditioning guitar players in a conference room.”)
Other airlines got into the fray, too.
Pan Am, for instance, offered Latin-style crooning by the Los Romeos Trio.And Continental came up with a folk-rock-pop group called The Pineapple Splits.
The first hint of a return to the cramped skies came a few months later in 1972, when the recession started easing.
Asked whether it had plans to counter United’s aerial happenings, TWA said, “We prefer to stick with good, sound service based on comfort, convenience and consistency without the gimmicks.”
Asked the same question, American said it would never sully its image with tacky stunts.
Along with the economic recovery and the resultant upswing in demand for air travel, the missing seats returned, and the coach playrooms began heading toward what one wag called “lounge heaven.”
Helping to speed their ascent was the world oil shortage of 1973, which led to fuel rationing for the airlines along with government-ordered flight cutbacks – putting airline seats at a premium, particularly on the jumbo jets.
Fast-forward to today, with airline load factors soaring as high as the ’80s and even the ’90s – all those perks of the Great Lounge War are just a distant memory.
NOTE: Sadly, Bob Schulman, who was one of the most esteemed and respected travel writers in the United States and a founding member of Pulse News Mexico, passed away on Dec. 28, after a courageous battle with cancer. This story was filed with Pulse News Mexico prior to his death. We will all miss him and his extraordinary writing.