An old commercial for an airline we can’t remember depicted first class as the place of champagne and revelry while business class passengers brought picnic baskets, chickens and their clothes wrapped in bundles. If we’re not mistaken, first class might even have been shown in color while business class was in drab and depressing black and white.

The point of the advertising gimmick was to demonstrate how much better first class was and no matter what it cost, it was worth it, according to the prices of the day.

These days, even in first class one can usually expect second-class treatment.

Flying in the 21st century is nowhere near the luxury of the past. It’s little more than a chore, with cramped seats, lost luggage, late flights, missed connections and more like a trip across the prairie by wagon train.

And I’m not the only one complaining (although I admit I did get a little testy on a flight last year that took about 13 hours and airports in four states to complete a three-hour journey home).

The Airline Quality Rating Survey, conducted each year since 1991, is not one of those surveys that can be considered suspect because of where its figures are massaged: The research is sponsored by the Aviation Institute at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Wichita State University.

In 2007, according to an Associated Press report on the survey, on-time arrivals dropped for the fifth consecutive year. In recent months, three airlines have grounded themselves permanently, while several others have cancelled flights for inspections. It would be comical if it were not so frightening that one airline found “some problems” with its planes after a wing part fell off — during a flight.

Six airlines — Frontier, Northwest, SkyWest, Southwest, United and US Airways — declined in every category of customer satisfaction.

And for this, the prices equal some mortgage payments.

My husband and I recently flew to Washington, D.C. for a dinner. The company picked up my ticket, but we paid for his, a fare that would have equaled two tickets on the same airline to London’s Heathrow Airport. There would have even been enough left over to have quite a lovely high tea, thank you very much.

And for the cost of two tickets to the nation’s capital, we were treated to a choice of peanuts, cheese crackers or cookies, along with a half-can of soda or a cup of really bad coffee with powdered cream.

Oh, for the days when first class really was, when air travel was preferable to anything else, when there was a movie and if not a hot meal, at least a decent sandwich.

Heck, even wagon trains might have had more legroom.

(Bonnie Williams is the editorial page editor of the Anderson, S.C., Independent-Mail. E-mail williamsbc(at)

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