From beauty to beast: the changing face of aviation

Half a century ago, air travel blossomed into beauty. On 21 May 1954, the Caravelle took off for the first time. The jet, built in Toulouse by Sud Aviation, instantly became a design classic. The sleek profile of her fuselage is barely disturbed by the two slim, rear-mounted engines; her wings rake sharply back like a bird in flight; her tailplane looks as delicate as paper and as light as a kite; and each passenger window is a stylised teardrop.

Half a century ago, air travel blossomed into beauty. On 21 May 1954, the Caravelle took off for the first time. The jet, built in Toulouse by Sud Aviation, instantly became a design classic. The sleek profile of her fuselage is barely disturbed by the two slim, rear-mounted engines; her wings rake sharply back like a bird in flight; her tailplane looks as delicate as paper and as light as a kite; and each passenger window is a stylised teardrop.

The Caravelle became standard equipment for Air France's European operations, and can still be found in service in some of the further-flung former French colonies. She also set a standard for grace that bettered even the Comet - with its elegant engines blended into the wing - and has hardly been matched since.

* This week has seen great excitement over an aesthetically bland aircraft. From the outside, the Boeing 777-200ER is about as interesting as its number. It is a big metal tube with a couple of wings bolted on, beneath each of which a great lump of an engine has been slung. The furore over the new jet is simply its stamina. The latest 777 can stay aloft for longer than any other aircraft, bringing some of the world's most distant corners into non-stop range.

Speculation that Manchester is soon to be linked non-stop with Melbourne is, sadly, misplaced. You can deduce as much by considering the important and interesting places without air links from Britain. London, after all, is the world's leading aviation hub, yet relatively few cities outside Europe to which it is possible to fly non-stop are actually on the network.

* British Airways no longer flies to Lima, even though tourism to Peru is rocketing, because the airline believes there is precious little potential for business-class traffic to the Peruvian capital. Indeed, so many air links from Britain to Latin America have been scrapped in the past decade that a huge gap has appeared between Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro. Does this represent a gap in the market?

Not for BA, BMI or Virgin Atlantic. They don't reckon there is enough money to be made. That is also the reason so few of the capital cities of Africa are linked by air with London.

Even on the usually lucrative transatlantic network, a couple of appealing cities are no longer connected with London. American Airlines soon dropped its flight from Gatwick to Nashville because so few premium passengers were using it.

The only way you can fly non-stop from the UK to New Orleans this year is to take the Bath Travel special charter from Bournemouth to the Big Easy in November; British Airways no longer has the desire to fly there.

BA also dropped Auckland and Christchurch from its schedule, as well as Adelaide, Brisbane and Darwin. New-generation aircraft have the ability to re-open some of these routes. Initially, though, the latest Boeing will most likely be used to fly between the world's biggest economy, the US, and the fastest-growing one: China.

For a while yet, you will just have to put up with returning that seat into the upright position, lowering arm-rests and feeling lousy and disorientated at airports you have no wish to visit at strange hours of the night. And then get back on a plane you don't much fancy.

* Boeing has made some handsome aircraft at its Seattle headquarter, including the globe-girdling Stratocruiser and the mould-breaking 747. These days, every new model represents another step towards the aircraft as a commodity, a machine where the cost of production - ie each seat-mile - is driven ever lower. From several perspectives, this is a good thing. The cost savings stem from greater efficiency, and the resultant cheaper fares should enfranchise many more people to travel.

At the other end of the spectrum is (or was) Concorde: ludicrously inefficient and élitist, not to mention deafening for anyone in the same county when she took off. Yet the supersonic jet was, like the Caravelle, exquisitely beautiful. Perhaps it helps to be born in south-west France.

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