Air travel these days often feels like being in a flying tin of sardines, especially if you are in coach seating on a plane.
There is precious little – if any – space. Luxury items? Well, in first class, you get a bit more space, and you can board first. Maybe you are wondering, “How the heck did it get this way, where I am jammed in with hardly enough room to breathe?”
Believe it or not, the answer has tentacles to one of the iconic aviation disasters in history: The 1937 crash of the German airship Hindenburg in Lakehurst, New Jersey.
You have seen the film clips and heard the radio broadcast from Herbert Morrison of radio station WLS at one point or another. The disaster left 13 of the 36 passengers and 22 of the 61 crew dead. Worse, many of the survivors suffered serious burns.
In the 1920s and 1930s, airships had been seen by many in the industry as the future of long-distance flights. Back then, airplane technology was not developed for long transoceanic flights – Charles Lindbergh’s crossing of the Atlantic had required a special plane, and the Spirit of St. Louis couldn’t exactly carry a lot of passengers.
The best options for those were seaplanes like the Pan Am Clipper, but that limited things to coastal areas. Airships were seen as a way for a country like Germany to get passengers across the Atlantic, and they were about two and a half times as fast as an ocean liner. But after the Hindenburg disaster, much of the public was spooked at the prospect of flying in airships. Soon thereafter, World War II intervened, spurring rapid advancement in aviation technology that would lead to bigger, better, safer commercial aircraft. And the insatiable corporate quest for profit led to more of us being packed ever-more tightly into those aircraft.