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The High-Flying Times Are Now a Thing of the Past

I remember once, a decade ago, waiting in the San Jose airport for a flight home to L.A. It was late on a Friday night, that grim hour in airports, and about 50 of us were sullenly milling around the PSA gate. First the stewardesses marched by, then came the captain and co-captain.

Only something was odd about this pair. One of the two men was pushing the other in a wheelchair. As they drew closer I remember studying their epaulets and deciding that it was the captain himself being pushed. The lids of his eyes hung low, and when he passed onto the boarding ramp I noticed his right arm flopped limply in his lap. From the end of the sleeve appeared not a hand but a chrome hook.

We passengers stared at each other, checking reactions. Only the boarding agents seemed oblivious, and when they ushered us onto the plane I wondered if anyone was going to bolt, just turn and run.

No one did. We all sat down like sheep, the door was sealed, and then the PSA captain appeared. Walking on both legs. The lidded eyes were now bright and he was laughing, twirling the chrome hook like a baton. “Excuse our little joke,” he said. “We wanted to show you that things are not always as bad as they seem, even on Friday nights.” When the plane got in the air, he said, the drinks would be free.

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Do you miss PSA yet? If you don’t, you should. PSA was our own, the only airline I ever came across that institutionalized a sense of humor. But this is not just a matter of nostalgia. After a year and a half, it is only now becoming clear how much California lost when PSA and its competitor, Air Cal, were taken to airline heaven.

PSA was bought out and absorbed by US Air in December, 1987, only a few months after Air Cal was sucked up by American Airlines. When PSA turned the keys over, it was charging $140 for a full-fare, round-trip ticket between L.A. and San Francisco.

Today US Air charges $296 for the same ticket. So does American, so does United, so do they all. In the space of the 15 months since the majors took over the California market, they have doubled the fares. Get invited to a wedding in Berkeley now and it costs $600 per couple just to show up.

It is over, that long era when we could jump on a plane and go north or south for the hell of it. To San Francisco for New Year’s. To Tahoe for a summer weekend. A generation of Californians grew up in this era, accepting cheap air travel almost as a birthright, as if the West Coast was exempt from the high air fares of the East.

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I remember, in the ‘60s, there was a way to fly on PSA that seemed cheaper than hitchhiking. If you were young, or sufficiently desperate, all you needed do was show up at 11:55 p.m. and catch PSA’s Midnight Flyer. No reservations, no meals, no assigned seat. The charge was $10.

What few of us realized was the fragility of it all. California’s air market, it turns out, was unique in this country, having two home-grown airlines slugging it out for domination in the busiest air corridor in the world. The home-grown part of the equation was crucial, because the L.A.-San Francisco route was all that really mattered to PSA and Air Cal. They needed market share to survive, and to get it they had only one weapon: low fares.

Paul Barkley was the last chairman of PSA. He remembers a time when there were 90 flights a day between LAX and San Francisco. So many flights that both companies were losing money on the route. So many that if you missed one, there was another in 20 minutes. Neither airline would back away.

“You could have gotten to San Francisco by walking on top of the planes,” Barkley says. He seems to savor the memory.

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No airline bleeds itself for a bigger market share in California anymore. We have become just another region feeding passengers into the hubs. Into San Jose, out to Denver. We now pay about the same as passengers in Boston, or Washington, or Atlanta. Which is to say, a lot more than we used to pay.

And so what happens? If you live in L.A. and grew up in Oakland, do you stop going home for Easter? Do legislators hole up in Sacramento, their travel budgets drained? It is hard to say, but already US Air has reduced the number of flights between LAX and San Francisco by about 40%. American has done the same.

A new age. Before leaving for San Diego to see Barkley, I had intended to fly down on US Air. I wanted to check on the humor level, see if the stewardesses loved to tell jokes like they did on PSA. After all, the San Diego-Burbank route was part of PSA’s very first flight. But when I called and asked the reservation agent for departure times, there was a pause.

US Air had no such flights, the agent said. I asked what I should do. Over the phone line I could hear the computer clicking, and then the agent had his answer.

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“Try Delta,” he said.


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