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Maybe it was never all that glamorous. Maybe it was always hobbled with high fares and delays and that aroma of "coffee, tea, or me?" sexism hovering over the aisles. Still, it's hard not to long for a time when you weren't compelled to walk around shoeless or assure an armed guard that you are not, in fact, carrying any nail scissors.
Twenty-first century traveling may be unpleasant, but what can you do? Take our advice and retreat into a total fantasy world: It's easy to capture, at least vicariously, the golden age of travel with a vintage flight bag from a defunct airline. At Flying A (169 Spring Street), a huge and cheerful Soho emporium full of surprisingly affordable items, a scruffy sky blue and white bag issued decades ago by Pan Am is $59; TWA's version, at $79, is beige and red; and a particularly nice if well-worn number from Piedmont Airlines with a picture of a plane on itit's a Piedmont 737costs $59.
Across the street at Le Sportsac (176 Spring Street), a brand-new and rather more commodious backpack looks sturdy enough to withstand the rigors of a Thanksgiving voyage via Greyhound. Putatively designed by Gwen Stefani, it features her trademark L.A.M.B. fabric printed in white on black with Gothic letters that say love, angel, music, and baby (Lamb, get it?), for $98. (This L.A.M.B. line is wildly popular, and not just with vegetarian fashionistas who love the shapeless Sportsacs because they never employ leather.)
If Gwen's valise is too achingly hip, there are any number of more eccentric items at Flight 001 (96 Greenwich Avenue), a shop dedicated to travel accessories practical and goofy, and sometimes both at once: neck pillows covered in baby blue flannel (it's printed, no surprise, with planes) are stuffed with buckwheat husks ($28); an item called the squid ($34) has an oval body and three tentacles that turn out to be flashlights. (The squid's carcass doubles as a hook, which is apparently good for people who go camping, something we personally have never tried but that acquaintances swear is fun.) Anyway, this squid is surprisingly powerful: "It saved my life during the blackout," the saleswoman confesses. It is cute, but for our part we much prefer the miniature pink leather circular jewelry box that has a little strap on top and in a real pinch could double as an evening purse ($38).
When we ask what else the store's got that's really special, the clerk shows us something called the Mobile Foodie Survival Kit, a metal case with small round pots that could contain eye shadow but turn out to hold things like paprika and thyme and coriander. According to our salesperson, the kit is indispensable "for livening up pit stops or fast food."
The food at Song in the City (98 Prince Street until December 21) doesn't need any livening up, at least according to the super-enthusiastic spokesperson who shows us around. The store is a sort of walk-in advertisement for Song airlines, a new low-cost venture from Delta along the lines of JetBlue, and the food, which is for sale in the shop and on the plane (the Asian chicken salad is $7 in either place), does look a lot better than typical airline fare, not that that's saying much. In addition to the novelty of offering airplane food on the ground, the Song store has other odd features: There's a snowy-white replica of that dreariest of locales, the airport lounge, which on a recent weekend afternoon was overwhelmed with Soho shoppers looking for a place to flop after a long day of shopping at H&M and Prada, both of which are just a block or so away. If the lounge is full, an installation consisting of two rows of airline seats is available. (Useful tip supplied by the Song spokesperson: If you're booking Song, row nine and seats 10A and 10F have the most legroom.)
In addition to offering meals and chairs, the Song store sells items you can also buy on board, including a velvety neck pillow (you have to blow it up yourself, but it's only $5) and a game of Yahtzee ($19.95) that will surely drive napping fellow passengers nuts. For $7.99, you can also purchase a tiny version of the Song plane itself: It's adorably pudgy, it has flashing red lights, and though it doesn't actually fly, it taxis across the floor under its own steam and makes a mordantly amusing noise when it crashes into the wall.