In their heyday, Lockheed Martin Super Constellation “Starliners” operated by Lufthansa could shuttle 30 people on the world’s longest airplane ride: 23 hours and 19 minutes, from London to San Francisco.

Privileged passengers lounged in luxury aboard these “Super Stars,” and could cloister behind curtained beds while enjoying the latest in-flight entertainment: recorded music, played over loudspeakers.

Locals know these aircraft well. Three have been parked at the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport for years. They were sold in December to Lufthansa, which is refurbishing one whole Starliner from pieces of the three.

The Wall Street Journal chronicled this effort on June 16, in a front-page story.

In the article, the Journal reflected on the Starliner’s gilded history as the last primary propeller-driven passenger plane, before jets revolutionized air travel and forever changed how we fly.

Now, we get there faster, but not always better. The childlike wonder about air travel has been replaced by bargain fares, crammed fuselages, a la carte menus, SkyMall and delays, delays, delays.

As an affordable form of transportation, air travel’s days appear numbered. Fuel’s climbing price is sending profits plummeting, forcing certain airlines to charge extra for checked baggage and seat reservations.

Fiscal forecasters think rampant airline bankruptcies are likely, unless petroleum prices return to Earth – a hope that is steadily, like the noise of a distant jet, growing faint.

James May, the chief executive of the Air Transport Association, told a Senate panel on June 17 the industry may lose a record $13 billion this year, amid a cumulative fuel expense of $61 billion.

The majority of airlines, it appears, have never faced a darker future.

Some are still experiencing success, though. Singapore Airways, for example, is thriving by catering to higher-fare clientele. This leads one to believe that air travel is again becoming a luxury item, as it was with the Starliners.

This is a move of survival, however, not nostalgia. But the romance of flying isn’t dead.

Lufthansa is keeping this era alive, by spending millions to return Auburn’s Constellations (in their myriad parts) to the skies. A team of volunteers with Starliners-in-their-eyes is doing the work.

The crew chief is Jurgen Rowher, an aircraft mechanic who worked on Lufthansa Starliners in the 1960s, the Journal reported. While the planes are in Auburn for now, engineers in Hamburg, Germany, will build a brand-new Starliner cockpit and ship it to Maine later.

When a glorious Starliner is back in the skies, aero-nuts will have an airborne museum to stir their souls to when flying was a treat, not such a trial.

After years of immobility, to see one of the Auburn Starliners soar again will be tremendous, and ironic. For these planes represent the last evolution of air travel, as the model switched from luxury to mass transit.

Now, with airlines facing turbulence ahead, the industry’s future just might be found in its starry past.


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