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June 25, 2019

An Airline Blast From the Past

by Todd Sturm

Ok, I’ll say it. I’m a total avgeek. I have been since my first flight at the age of 14. And while the airline industry has changed a lot since the early 80s, so to has the world of the airline enthusiast.     

If you’re reading this article, chances are pretty good that you know what an ‘avgeek’ is. Very likely, you’re one yourself.

For the uninitiated, avgeek, is short for ‘aviation geek,’ which refers to a person who loves airlines, or more generally, aviation. The word avgeek is commonly used as a hashtag, for all kinds of aviation related social media posts.

Even the main-stream press has picked up on the term. Unfortunately, that hasn’t translated to them seeking out the knowledgeable perspective of avgeeks when reporting on aviation related stories. If they did, they might actually get things right once in a while (insert eye roll as the local news reporter insists that Boeing and Airbus will put Jacuzzis in their latest ‘jumbo jet’).

But something else the term avgeek has accomplished, is to give us airline and aviation enthusiasts a name, and in doing so, a shared identity.

Getting Our Thrills

For an avgeek, there’s nothing better than flying to – oh, I don’t know – anywhere! A close second in an avgeek’s life is plane spotting – staking out a prime viewing spot near an airport to watch or photograph planes taxiing, taking off or landing. It’s quite a rush when an A380 flies directly overhead as it approaches the runway.

But enjoying the camaraderie of other avgeeks is what makes our lives most fun. Weather it’s travelling together on a plane, spotting from the ground, or just chatting online, the act of observing the airline industry, and the discussion of it, is enough to keep us avgeeks entertained for hours.

Common questions up for discussion can range from “What aircraft will airline X or Y order next?” or, “Will airline Z ever change their color scheme and what will it look like?”

To non-avgeeks, the questions we ponder may seem as endless as a trans-con flight on an Ultra-low-cost-carrier, and as varied as the fleet makeup at a Chinese airline. It seems as avgeeks, we are in a constant state of anticipation.

Growing up in the 1980s, I could only dream of that avgeek comradery, not to mention the internet and social media connected world that made it possible. Back then, I thought I was the only kid who was fixated on airlines and airplanes.

Old School Avgeek

As wonderful as our connected world may seem though, today’s younger avgeeks missed out on some pretty cool stuff. Growing up, I would write letters to airlines. Yes, actual hand-written letters, which I would pop into the mailbox for delivery. I would then anxiously wait for a reply, eager to see what airline goodies might come back.

Looking back on it, I have great affection for those airline employees in the public relations and marketing departments. In return for my requests for “information,” they would dutifully respond, sending me all kinds of airline treasures – items that today, we’d call memorabilia.

Running to the mailbox, I would find official looking packages and envelopes, some big, some small, but all fixed with a familiar airline name and corporate logo on the top left-hand corner.

Whether it was the majestic duck logo of Republic Airlines, the green swallows of Ozark, the Air Canada maple leaf, Pan Am’s beautiful blue globe, United and its (greatly missed) red and blue tulip, or the dozens of other foreign and domestic airlines I eagerly sought out, finding a package addressed to me made every day feel like Christmas.

 Collectors Rejoice

To my great joy, I received all kinds of gifts from the airlines. Of most value to me, were the printed timetables with their wonderful route maps and schedules. Some airlines, (Ozark comes to mind) even had me on their timetable mailing list. Every 6 to 8 weeks, a new timetable would arrive automatically.

Airlines like American and Pan Am, featured aircraft seating charts in their timetables. You could glean all kinds of information about an airline’s operations from a flight schedule.

To this day, I love sitting down and studying those flight schedules and route maps, especially the ones that were in effect on the day of my first flight, in April of 1982. They provide a detailed look at the schedules and routes of that time, which can be fun when researching all the different possibilities of airlines, routes and aircraft that I could have flown that day – not that I would change anything about my first flight experience, of course! It’s a fun exercise nonetheless.

The flashy sales brochures were another favorite of mine as they were filled with promotional photos – everything from the fleet and aircraft cabin interiors, to the on-board service offered, and uniformed employees in random poses. Some of the glossy brochures I treasure most, came from Republic, American Trans Air, Jet America and Lufthansa.

Herman the duck on a Republic DC-9 tail

Herman the duck on a Republic DC-9 tail

From 1982 to 1986, I would amass quite a collection of airline treasures. For me, anything with an airline logo on it was something to be collected and cherished. Other common items airlines would send me, were logo stickers and pins, postcards depicting a flagship aircraft in the fleet, annual financial reports (which today offer some fascinating reading into the early post-deregulation days), and of course, logo playing cards.

Getting home from school one Friday afternoon, the phone rang. My mother answered, telling me in a casual way that the call was for me. Expecting it to be one of my friends, I was surprised when the caller announced that he was from American Airlines and that he was calling from their Dallas headquarters.

Stunned, I wondered what he could possibly want with ME! As it turns out, he was calling in relation to one of my letters, and asked if he could send me an American Airlines t-shirt, compliments of American Airlines.  I was thrilled! Emblazoned with American’s big AA eagle logo, I proudly wore the t-shirt for years.

Oh, How the Times Have Changed

I am thankful for the connected world in which we now live. In just a couple clicks, I can access all kinds of airline information. I can instantaneously pull up the schedules and route map for any airline. I can book a flight without picking up the phone or visiting a travel agent. Today, everything is done on line, communications are via social media. Quick, efficient, easy.

But I can’t help but long for the day, when an airline relished the promotional side of their business, when through a slick brochure, timetable or colourful travel poster, they could capture the essence of travel, and with it, the imagination of avgeeks and holiday seekers everywhere.

It turns out, for all the instant gratification we enjoy today, a click and a swipe will never replace the joy I felt when receiving a phone call, or when opening the mailbox filled with the day’s postal deliveries.

Even when I wasn’t flying, airlines back then had a way of connecting with me personally, as a young enthusiast. In doing so, they opened my eyes to the exciting world of aviation and travel. It was like the magic of flight, delivered to me through the mail, and for that, this avgeek is eternally grateful.

Todd Sturm is a freelance writer based in Nashville, TN and Brisbane, Australia

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