Planes, Trains, and Waterfalls

A South African company revives a 1950s airliner and the lost art of elegant travel.

Fifty years ago, Metroliners plied short-haul routes around the world (above, a Swissair 440). (NASM 00023486 (SWISSAIR PHOTO+ VERMESSUNGEN AG ZURICH NEG. #7453, METROPOLOTON))
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We were nearly two hours behind schedule, and Rose Orenstein's husband George had taken notice. "It's been about six hours since we got off the train," he calculated. "Despite all of the elegance, and all the comforts, and the pure joy of this flight, the reality is if you have to get someplace, this is a thing of the past." Christof Helbing of Switzerland appraised the day more succinctly: "It was nice. Not a second time. Once was enough."

Vos recognizes that the Convairs are not ideal, but he has no plans to sell them. Operations chief Vere-Russell would like to see a change to a jet, perhaps a Fokker 28. "From a business point of view, an economical point of view, we definitely need a stronger, more powerful airplane," he says. But he can sympathize with Vos as well. "[Rohan] has put a hell of a lot of money into these things. To just sort of up and leave them...he's quite hesitant to do that."

Even with the delays, I wasn't sure that such a change was necessary. By definition, a journey with Rovos is not point-to-point transportation. A ticket buys you the time to soak up the finer details of a vista or a passing town, of a steam locomotive or a half-century-old airliner, of fine food and the companionship of fellow travelers. Rovos marketing agent David Patrick had once told me Vos' "whole ethos behind this thing was that he wanted to give people a chance to relax and to restore the lost art of conversation." When the luggage (and Wolman) landed and passengers hugged and parted company for the last time to claim their bags, I couldn't help but think he'd succeeded.

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