American has announced that it will bring back a much-loved tradition from a bygone era of flying: plastic airline kids’ wings. The airline stopped handing these out sometime in the chaotic early 2000s, but ended the decade-plus absence last week.
Kids’ wings hadn’t completely vanished from the skies during that time—depending on the airline, flight attendants would often keep a stash handy and give them out by request, but there was no guarantee that they’d be available from flight to flight. Delta had discontinued its wings but restarted the practice in 2011. With American’s move, most major U.S. now hand them out.
The 2000s were not a good decade for air travel: Since 2001 we’ve adapted to drastic new security procedures, watched as major carriers dwindled in number due to mergers and bankruptcies, and felt the squeeze of new fees and decreased amenities. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that for most people, the business of air travel became anything but a joy and for a long while felt like a hassle even on its best days.
Bringing back kids’ wings has nothing to do with any of this. It’s an inconsequential gesture in the sense that it doesn’t save you money or speed up security lines or magically increase legroom or overhead bin space. It’s purely symbolic, but after years of watching airlines cut back on amenities and perks it’s refreshing to see an old tradition making a comeback. While the post-2001 era was a time of uneasy transition for airlines and customers alike, nowadays flyers are as happy as they’ve been in 10 years. There will always be hassles and screw-ups, but it’s almost as if flying could be—dare I say it—fun again?
This past March my four-year-old son and I flew to Florida on JetBlue to visit family. As we boarded for the return leg, one of the pilots caught sight of him in his airplane pajamas and waived him over, then had him sit in the first officer’s seat for a tour of the cockpit. On the way out the pilot high-fived him and the flight attendant gave him a set of plastic pilot’s wings. He bounced to his seat with glee, and he reminds me at least weekly of the time he got to be a pretend pilot.
The point is, flying is a joy even if it doesn’t always seem that way. I can still recall boarding an Eastern Airlines plane in the early 80s for a flight to Florida. I was probably around my son’s age and while the memory is mostly flashes now, I do remember vivid details: the plane’s polished silver fuselage, my ears popping, and yes, the small set of pilots wings I managed to keep for years afterward.
American’s decision to bring back these cheap little wings (let’s be honest, they’re cheap) speaks to that innate joy of flying. It’s a small acknowledgement that while flying may not be the upscale experience it was decades ago, it’s still a miracle to soar 30,000 feet above the earth on the way to some far-flung destination.
And while we’ve said goodbye to onboard meals and free checked bags, we’ve entered the era of in-flight Wi-Fi and ever-expanding (and in some cases free) onboard entertainment. “The world of aviation is a unique profession,” said Suzanne Hess, a flight attendant enlisted by American to hand out inaugural sets of wings last week. “There’s a wonder to it.”
It’s nice to see a little bit of that wonder coming back.