CHARTER PEOPLE

The fun is in the coming and going

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN February 1 1973

CHARTER PEOPLE

The fun is in the coming and going

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN February 1 1973

CHARTER PEOPLE

The fun is in the coming and going

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN

I’m as much of a travel snob as anyone else. And if there was one thing that used to appall me about the low-fare charter-flight revolution, which has brought about the biggest mass migrations in history, it was getting to some place ߞ say, the Baltic Sea — that I’d dreamt of seeing all my life, boarding a steamship, squinting into the wind toward Scandinavia, picturing hordes of invading Goths, and having my reverie broken by the sight of old Norma from the Interior Paint Division or someone I met the day before yesterday in Eaton’s appliance department. I’ve also secretly resented people like one man I know who’s always taking charter flights halfway around the world and bringing back boomerangs and pictures of Fijian stewpots, and of his wife, a plump girl who looks as if she’d make a tasty meal herself, and making it all sound about as adventuresome as a hardware convention in Cleveland. “We had a nice time at the Hilton Aborigine,” he’ll say. Or, “Next year Alice and I are going to Aklavik on the Midnight Sun Tour. Alice thinks I need cooling off,” he’ll say, and close his eyes and giggle.

But I don’t mind all this any more, not since I spent a few weeks trying to find

ing to Statistics Canada, just over a million people — 1,054,862. to be exact — landed or took off from Canada by charter in 1971, and the rate was holding steady at 500,404 for the first half of 1972. I’ve spent a lot of time reading reports by people with a mania for i nitials — IAC (International Air Charter Survey) ABC (Advanced Booking Charter) GIT (Group Inclusive Tours); and listening to-people with a mania for jargon — like one bustling charter organizer with brass-colored sideburns who kept talking about packaging countries. “England is six years ahead of us packaging Spain,” he said, and “Last year Scandinavia packaged 2.5 million Danes.”

I finally went down to Toronto International Airport to look over some RHBs (Real Eluman Beings) traveling by charter flight, and came across more warm, genuine people than I’ve struck in a long time, along with a lot of hopeful signs of a world drawing closer together in spite of its leaders. While the statesmen are trying to outfox one another at peace talks, insulting one another in several languages at the United Nations, and exchanging guns with their allies, ordinary people are making real friends of people in other countries, inviting one another to make return visits, communicating by smiles and sign lan-

guage, and exchanging things like teapots and old magazines.

The new world travelers are completely free of guff and pose, and are a welcome relief not only from statesmen and statistics, but from those travel ads of worldly, sophisticated travelers six feet tall with no hips drinking Drambuie with fashion models by Greek moonlight. Charter-flight passengers are often under five-foot-seven and they don’t look like travelers at all. They look as if they just came in from raking last summer’s asters, or from a fishing trip. They wander around in green cardigans and mackintoshes that Wernher von Braun couldn’t get the wrinkles out of, whistling Scottish tunes, or stand in main airport traffic areas surrounded by so many shopping bags you’d think they’d just come out of Loblaws, holding things they brought back from the old country — family heirlooms, smoked meats, candies, hammered brass coal boxes, jars of strawberry jam, Irish blackthorn walking sticks.

They press together in untidy little groups for psychological warmth, wearing badges in their lapels, like ETHEL, or

FOOTLOOSE TOURS, Or SMITH-CORONA TYPEWRITERS, making remarks that give a strong feeling of family ties, like “If we could only get Mum and Dad out here.”

I heard one strange exchange shouted | over the heads of onlookers. “Where’s £ Jamie?” a voice from the crowd of greet& ers called. “I’ve no idea,” another voice % answered from somewhere around the > customs door. “We came over Green§ land.” I

I talked to a Scottish woman with that » rare kind of beauty in which sheer love 4 and gentleness toward mankind shine through a face as plain as a pumpkin. She said that last year on charter flights she had traveled as a member of the Ontario Cattle Breeder’s Association, a musical appreciation group, and a skiing club, all the members of which were apparently going to use the same skis since there was only one pair on the plane. She insisted on holding my briefcase and topcoat on her lap while I walked around making some notes. An hour later, when I suddenly remembered I’d left them with her. she was still holding them, saying it didn’t matter a bit, and looking as if she would have held me on her lap too, if that were the only way I could get a seat on a plane.

The charter flight has made it possible for a lot of people to travel for the first time in their lives or to get back to see their homelands again after a lapse of 20 years. After just half an hour at the airport, I under/continued on page 40

CHARTERS from page 37 stood what I’d been told, a few days earlier, by a tour organizer for one large company, a nice woman who sat in a cluttered office among jars of Coffeemate, postcards, Wardair world maps, potted plants and CP Air posters. She said the government could make any regulations it liked, but any time some elderly couple came to her whose family had left them alone with nothing but their arthritis and who wanted to see Ireland again, she was going to make sure that they got on the plane, if she had to swear the applicants had both been members of a Polish weight-lifters’ club for six months, and the government could put her in jail if it wanted to.

Hopefully, by the time this article appears, the government won’t care who she puts on the plane, as long as she does it according to new charter-flight regulations, called Advanced Booking Charters. That would at least be one move toward straightening out one of those epic tangles that governments and large organizations can make out of a simple idea.

A charter flight works, or is supposed to work, like this: an airline rents one whole plane to one group of people, and that’s it. The airline doesn’t have to worry about selling spare seats, or flying empty, or anything else. That’s the group’s problem So the airline is satisfied to take a smaller profit, because the profit is guaranteed And there’s another advantage Airlines can fill in slack travel periods with charters, and keep their planes in the air. Planes don't make money sitting on the ground.

But the governments and the air travel authorities balled this up by insisting on the “affinity rule.” This meant that all the passengers on a charter had to have an affinity for something, like bowling, or marbles, or stockbroking. You couldn’t just grab a charter because you felt like it. You had to belong to a club, or something like a club, and you had to be able to prove you’d belonged to it for six months before you took off on your charter World Airways put out a folder to help clean up the confusion, with all the answers as it saw them

Question“What kind of organizations travel at charter rates?” Answer: “Almost any kind of organization, unless it was formed from the general public for the principal purpose of obtaining low-cost air transportation . .”

Things worked out the way they usually do with unreasonable rules. People with an affinity just for saving money were determined to get on charter planes, and it was such a reasonable idea that most people involved didn’t try to stop them. But along with travel agents guilty of nothing but ignoring a rule they didn’t like, some real hustlers began to get in on the idea. Many had no more connection with the travel industry

than a travel poster and a cigar box with a slit in it to put the money in. They not only organized flights for nonexistent clubs, but disappeared themselves, along with the cigar boxes. At Christmas 1969, out of several plane loads of Italian residents of Toronto booked for charters to Italy, the only person who actually got anywhere was the promoter, who left for South America with $250,000.

Not all the crookedness was on that grand a scale. Organizers scrambled for passengers when they didn't have enough to fill a flight, or swapped them off onto other charters when their flights were overbooked. Normally honest people took to lying their heads off about club memberships The Department of Transport started spot-checking people at the airports, and ticket scalpers were doing business the way bootleggers operated during Prohibition. One

Toronto girl joined an organization she’d never heard of, got a membership card right away, and then received two more in the mail for two other clubs she’d never heard of either. She ended up a member of an ecumenical society, and was told to pick up her ticket at a fish-and-chip store on St. Clair Avenue.

It all came to a head in the summer of 1972 People were left stranded in Europe by promoters who had taken their money for a two-leg charter flight, and only paid the airline for one. The governments decided enough was enough, and designed the new Advanced Booking Charter plan; if all goes as planned, anyone will be able to fly on a cheap charter by booking 90 days ahead, supplying his passport number and 25% of the fare (non-refundable), and then paying the rest 30 days before departure.

It looks as if the situation will be healthier from now on. Certainly a lot of the crooks have disappeared. I phoned four charter flight agencies in Toronto recently, and each time got a recorded message telling me that the phone service had been discontinued. In the mean-

time, all-inclusive tours (charter flights with other things attached, hotel accommodation, for instance) are being operated by reliable, businesslike outfits. The literature for one of these. Great Places, even supplies the names of the company’s auditors, legal counsel, bank and insurance company.

1 took a quick hop to Nassau and back with a tour group called Blue Vista (“three luxury vacations designed for the discriminating”) and ran into the same friendly feeling that I’d encountered hanging around other charter groups at the airport. An enthusiastic Hungarian in a plaid check suit introduced me to everyone for no other reason than that he had noticed I was alone. He kept getting my name wrong, but his heart was in the right place.

It was the same with the rest of the tour group. They were returning from an eight-day visit to the Bahamas and they were sitting around in the middle of the airport floor, at three o’clock in the morning, as if they’d been swept there with a push broom along with a lot of straw hats. Babies lay sleeping bellydown on baggage like stuffed toys in pink sleepers. Many people were sunburned and hung over, but everyone greeted me like an old friend. “Tell Mr. Roberts,” my host would ask, “did you enjoy?” He was fascinated by what they’d learned of the relaxed Bahamian way of life, and said it had made a changed man of him. Once when 1 asked him where the washroom was, he led me toward it, calling to me. “Don’t rush, Mr. Maclean’s,” and drawing my attention with a smile to how slowly he was walking and how much more he was enjoying life since he'd seen how other people live.

I thought of the dozens of flights I’ve taken, including those businessmen’s flights between Toronto and Montreal, with everyone smelling of Brut and reading data sheets on pipe fittings and not speaking to anyone for 300 miles, including the moment when they all get up and try to beat everyone else off the plane with their attaché cases.

Charter flights have just about ended Travel Snobbery, but a bit still lingers on. A committee member of the Art Gallery of Ontario told me over the phone in a voice suggesting fine old pewter that they took tours of French chateaux and Italian art galleries and Mayan ruins, but they were all groups made up of specially good people. She sounded as though she really wanted to say, “the right people,” and she made me reach for my dictionary when she claimed they were the best recherché tours in North America. {Recherché: sought out with care, of rare quality, elegance and attractiveness.)

But most charter flights are about as recherché as a bowling league. Chartercontinued on page 53

CHARTERS continued flight passengers sing Glasgow Belongs To Me, play bingo and sometimes the bagpipes, make funny personal announcements about their fellow passengers over the public-address system that would have stuffier travelers suing somebody. They have birthday parties, give three cheers for the captain when he lands the plane smoothly, and get so sentimental about the prospect of seeing England or Scotland or Ireland or their grandchildren that they frequently arrive tight. I’ve heard three accounts of people being wheeled onto the old sod in wheelchairs.

Generally the wives are running interference between the pilgrims and the free drinks. Flights to the Caribbean and other warm regions are different; women over 35 go after the men like barracudas, and some flights develop into real binges. On one charter to Hawaii, 180 women members of the Sweet Adeline Club drank two bars dry on a Boeing 707. After the flight engineer went down into the belly of the plane and brought up two more, they drank those dry, too. That was before the ladies went through 36 bottles of red and white wine with their meal, although by then the color didn’t bother anybody much, and just before landing they were showing signs of attacking the flight crew.

Some groups do get drunker than others. High on the list are postmen; apparently because of all that walking and fresh air on their jobs, they get corked pretty fast.

There’s a lot of wandering around the aisles on charters, and a lot of noise, especially when the people who aren’t used to drinking lock themselves in the washroom, and can’t or won’t come out. Pilots can usually quell the revelry by giving the plane a few dips, announcing mild turbulence and putting the seatbelt sign on, but this only works up to a certain point, after which the passengers don’t care if they die or not.

Charter flight arrivals and departures are usually emotional affairs, drunk or sober. People are going back to see their birthplaces for what they feel may be the last time, or parting from sons and daughters, or meeting new members of the family. I watched grandmothers seeing grandchildren for the first time, oblivious of the bedlam of the airport, leaning over to tie the kids’ shoelaces, button their coats, tighten their scarfs, anything to get as close to them as possible and touch them. One cold Englishman who looked as though he owned six railways and a bank gazed down with very little expression at his new daughter-in-law, who suddenly reached up and kissed him. He accepted this without apparent feeling and probably would have gotten away with it, but a woman his age, whom I judged to be his

sister, suddenly stared at him in surprise and said: “You’re trembling!”

Watching a charter flight for Italy depart, crowded with grandparents who have been visiting their families, is an experience that reminds you that there are parts of the world where there are more important things than dandruff' shampoos and new cars. I watched two homely little gnomes of women with red, wet, puckered faces clinging to one another until I found myself hoping the plane wouldn’t be able to take off. Girls were staring into space, very carefully not crying, but you knew if you shook them the tears would fall like ripe Mediterranean olives. Women were dragged to the departure lounge, heads lolling. Husbands supported wives. Friends tried to rescue friends from the awful fate of going somewhere away from their families.

Some made startling efforts to behave like Canadians. A dapper, moustached, middle-aged man in a natty mustardcolored hat looking cynical and exasperated by all this display of emotion, suddenly buried his face in a handkerchief, pressing it to his face with both hands. A fashionable woman in purple cork-soled sandals and rust-colored shaggy coat and purple pants laughed, threw kisses into the departure lounge, until her chin suddenly started to jerk up and down and she clapped her hand over her face like an oxygen mask and you knew this land of ice and snow

wasn’t hers. There were great smacking sounds of men kissing grandmothers, grandmothers kissing babies, men kissing men, men kissing women. A wailing sound arose from the group. People faced one another in circles all crying and looking at their toes. I started to cry myself. 1 knew what they were going through. I get homesick if I go to Ottawa. A CP Air stewardess worked her way through the crowd muttering with tight disapproving lips, “Jesus!” Finally, everyone went out to watch the screaming CP DC8 like a big orange and silver lizard gliding through the night.

Some of these flights create a wholesome confusion about the difference in races. Stewardesses, who can give instructions on how to survive at sea in tones that sound as if they’ve just been chosen runner-up in a Miss Canada contest, find themselves involved with raw emotions and fierce family love. They get their hair in their eyes and their blouses come out as they try to cope with people who get up to the crow of roosters and the sound of oarlocks.

A lot of stewardesses are ready to quit the business after flying with charters of Greek villagers whose idea of the modern bathroom is to put ridges on those treadles you grip with your feet over a hole in the ground. After telling baffled little women from the hills that what you do with a toilet is get on it, and finding them standing on it instead, and continued on page 55

CHARTERS continued then arriving in Canada with the five washrooms of an $11-million jet all abandoned and the only clean part of the plane forward of the flight-deck door, the stewardesses are frequently in a state of collapse brought on by a form of culture shock. But there is a lot of warmth and friendship mixed in with the shambles, and afterward girls sometimes suddenly stop describing the chaos to look thoughtful about the way old Greek women reached up and stroked their hair with affection when they brought them cups of coffee.

There’s no doubt that charter flights often seem casually organized. Sometimes there are long delays. One woman told me of being in Reykjavik airport for 36 hours, a delay so long that a lot of the younger passengers started to put in the time by finishing up their marijuana with older folks going around sniffing curiously, figuring they were getting the scent of some kind of lichen indigenous to the far north. Charter-flight passengers enjoy exaggerating tales of breakdowns and diversions, making it all sound more torturous and adventuresome than it really was. Often when you ask them how the trip went they’ll say something like “ghastly” or “a disaster!” then tell you of the charter flights they were on the three previous years, which were terrible, and the one they're going on next which will probably be worse.

The myth that charter flights are cheap because the planes are makeshift contraptions is still cherished by passengers. One imaginative girl told me that she had stood looking out an airport window watching a charter she should have been on, but had missed, while beside her a flight captain muttered to himself, prayerfully, “Hang in there, baby!”

All this is nonsense, of course. Chartered planes are the same planes, operated by the same crews, as the ones used by presidents of oil companies. The delays often have to do with low inventories of parts and waiting for repair items to be flown in from other countries. But often one small thing, like a crew of Bahamians not bothering to come to work to, say, move the meals for the return flight up from the belly of the aircraft, can cause hours of delay.

One man told me of a fiasco of a flight from Toronto to Gatwick which started when the passengers, who had been at the airport at four ready for a departure at six, were told that their plane was at Niagara Falls. The group leader tried to see the station manager, who wouldn’t talk to him, and the passengers w'ere told they’d be taken to Niagara Falls by bus, which they reached at 11.30. when they were served drinks out over the Atlantic but no food, on the orders of the captain, whom the charter organizers called a pompous pot-bellied little Englishman

who, in turn, said he was going to have the charter organizer arrested as soon as they arrived at Gatwick. Things weren’t much better when they returned three weeks later, in an even worse state of confusion. This time, they had to wait from two in the afternoon until 4.30, when they were told to take their dutyfree goods back into customs because they wouldn’t be leaving until seven the next morning. They would be taken to Brighton and put up for the night, it was confidently announced. But they were taken to London, where all the young single people were put up in a good hotel and all the married couples and children put up in a whorehouse with boot marks on the bedsheets. After they registered everyone went to the local pub to forget their troubles and got there just in time to hear the owner announce, “Time, gentlemen, please." Next morning they got off on time but were served dinner of steak with wine for breakfast and breakfast for lunch, a strange idea worked out by the captain and the steward, who apparently had been through too many time zones, or charter flights.

It was the kind of thing that makes charter flights memorable. As one man, a veteran charter-flight passenger who works for a big department store, put it, pacing the aisles of the store’s main floor, “You’d be surprised at how close it makes you feel to people you work with.” He stopped in mid-sentence to wave to a girl in the silverware department. “I don’t know her name, but she was on that flight too and, well, you feel you’ve been through something together.” From his tone you had to agree it was something pretty good. ■