Continental Airlines Commercial, Circa 1976

Exhibit / June 28, 2017

Object Name: Continental Airlines television commercial
Maker and Year: Continental Airlines, circa 1976
Object Type: Television commercial
Video Source: Builtfa/YouTube
Description: (K.E. Roberts)

Prior to the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, the fares, routes, schedules, and establishment of commercial airliners were controlled by the federal Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). While regulation meant smaller profits for the airliners, it also meant guaranteed profits: the result amounted to a monopoly that was “too big to fail.” The supposed “golden age” of air travel, as depicted in the commercial above, was actually the result of so many half-empty planes in the sky. Fares were prohibitively expensive (the average round-trip domestic flight in 1979 was $575), and the major airlines fought tooth and nail for their business traveler and well-to-do customer base. Since the CAB didn’t allow discounted fares, the one-upmanship centered around amenities, including the addition of piano bars, wine tastings, steak and champagne dinners, and free booze at the coach “Pub in the Sky” seen here.

“Electronic PubPong” is an interesting piece of the pitch. Continental installed the machines—they appear to be modified versions of Atari’s Pong cocktail tablearound 1975, the year the first Pong home console was released through Sears, so it’s likely the first video game to be featured as in-flight entertainment. The inclusion of “the best of the old-time serials,” “newsreels of yesterday,” and “animated cartoons” is curious, considering the airline had been showing feature films and even double features of “Hollywood’s greatest” for some time.

The pitchman is Nicholas Hammond, known today primarily for playing Spider-Man in the superhero’s first live-action TV series. Buster Crabbe, who played Flash Gordon in the “old-time” serial of the same name, also makes an appearance—as a passenger watching his younger self play Flash Gordon. Crabbe is wearing the costume worn by Tom Tyler in The Adventures of Captain Marvel, another beloved serial adventure. The pop culture safari is rounded out by Dick Butkus, who flashes briefly across the in-flight screen and represents another “no cost” perk: “exclusive interviews with the superstars of sports.” Butkus was retired from football by this time, but he enjoyed a lively second career as a broadcaster, spokesman, and actor throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Although air travel is much more affordable than it was before, the monopolistic power of the major airlines has only increased, and the absence of regulation has resulted in deplorable customer service, understaffing, purposeful overbooking, proliferating fees, and occasional episodes of physical assault. Profits, on the other hand, are sky-high.

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