Monday, February 07, 2005


I finally caught "The Aviator" over the weekend, and my good friend Jonathan Pearce is right: I really enjoyed it and it is a really good movie. Certainly it is Scorsese's best film since at least "Goodfellas".

I wonder how historically accurate it is. Fairly accurate, I suspect, but I am not sure quite how precise the details are. (The Spruce Goose did fly for longer at the end of the movie than it did in real life. It does boggle the mind that someone built an aircraft that large out of wood. It is still in a hangar in Los Angeles, and I must go and look at it next time I am in that city). The historical stuff about how the airline industry evolved is quite interesting, and fits in with what I know happened later. I know the history from the dawn of the jet age reasonably well, but didn't know much about what happened before that. Pan Am boss Juan Trippe is famous for later essentially making a bet with then Boeing boss Bill Allen on a yearly fishing trip that the two men took. The conversation supposedly went "If you build it, I'll buy it.". "If you buy it, I'll build it." and as a consequence Boeing built the 747 and almost sent both Boeing and Pan Am bankrupt by doing so.

In the movie, Howard Hughes is seen fighting for the airline TWA (which he owned) to be allowed to compete with Pan Am on major international routes, despite the fierce lobbying and dirty tricks of Pan Am and Pan Am boss Juan Trippe to prevent TWA from doing so. In the end he wins the argument, and TWA starts flying to Europe. It is quite refreshing to see a businessman being portrayed positively demanding the right to compete.

In reality, though, after the events of the film Pan Am and TWA were actually granted legal duopolies. Whether these came at the request of foreign airlines, Pan Am, TWA, or who I don't know, but it might be that Howard Hughes was not interested in more general competition, but was quite happy with a protected market as long as he was part of it. And of course in many instances the duopolies are still with us, although neither Pan Am or TWA exists as a company any more. (Pan Am's routes were bought by United and Delta before the company went into liquidation, and TWA's routes were bought by (mostly) American before the rump of the company was ultimately fully acquired by American).

Whatever may be said for Juan Trippe, one thing he had in common with Howard Hughes was that he had an enormous love for aeroplanes. When you see him in the film saying "We will force you to sell your airline and we will paint all those beautiful Connies in blue", you can see the two men understanding just how painful it would be to lose a fleet of aircraft like that. The Constellation (and the later and larger Super-Constellation) is regarded by a lot of people as one of the most beautiful aircraft ever built. Australian airline Qantas has one painted in their 1950s livery that they keep in airworthy condition to fly to air shows and use for other publicity purposes. I have seen it fly once or twice and it is indeed a thing of beauty.

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