Last weekend, I was partying with friends from all around the world at a hotel in downtown San Jose, California. We had gathered for the opportunity to join with like minds and share our mutual love for all things furry, from the art to the costumes to the OMG-I-drank-how-much. Even with the online world always readily available, the convention is the soul of the fandom, the place where we stop being pixels and smileys on a screen and become real flesh-and-blood people. No matter how much we may "*hug*" online, there's nothing like a real hug.
In all the hubbub of the holidays and con preparations, I missed the news that the man who made it all possible passed away a few days after Christmas. So I'd like to pay a tribute to the man who created the furry convention as we know it: Fred Kahn.
You've never heard of him. This is because Fred Kahn was not a known name in the fandom ... he was not a wolf or a fox or a cheetah. He was a species alien to most of us: he was a bureaucrat.
Before Fred Kahn took over the running of the Civil Aeronautics Board in 1977, pretty much every aspect of air travel in the United States was tightly regulated. Airlines had specifically assigned routes they could fly, specific aircraft they could use, specific schedules they had to follow even if it meant flying some planes mostly empty, and specific fares they had to charge. This was marvelous if you were an airline, where the CAB conveniently kept competition off your assigned routes and made sure you had to charge enough to make a profit. It also meant that air travel was very, very expensive. There was a good reason that richer folk were called the "jet set" ... not only did it rhyme nicely, but if you weren't rich, you just didn't fly. Family vacations involved piling into the station wagon, not into a 737.
In 1975, if you wanted to fly from New York to San Francisco and back again, you could do so if you forked over about $450. "Big deal!", you might say ... in 2011, if you want to fly from New York to San Francisco and back again, you can still do so if you fork over about $450. Consider, though, that in 1975 the minimum wage had just been raised to two dollars an hour, and you could buy a typical new car for about four grand. Adjust it for inflation, and that 1975 plane ticket to get yourself from New York to Further Confusion would have set you back about $2,000.
Think about the people you met at the con. How many of them would have been there if getting there had cost $2,000? How much would your enjoyment of the con have been diminished had they not been there? For that matter, would you have been there? Or would you have been sitting at home commiserating with your friends who were also stuck with nothing but online hugs, unable to go? Perhaps even, lacking critical mass, there wouldn't have been a con at all.
What Fred Kahn did, as the head of the CAB, was start the great experiment of airline deregulation. What would happen if you kept the regulations related to safety and the like, and then told the airlines, "Fly where you want, when you want, charge what you want, but we're not protecting you from your competitors any more"? Before deregulation, every route was "owned" by a certain airline: if you wanted to fly from New York to San Francisco, you were going to do so on (say) Trans World, period. Now, if Trans World was charging too much, United or American or Delta or Eastern or Pan Am could come in and charge less. Airfares plunged, and suddenly even people of average means could afford to fly. The first time I ever flew in an airplane I was ten years old, and my parents wanted to give us kids the thrill of actually FLYING to Washington, DC instead of driving there (OK, they probably also wanted to avoid ten hours of tedium listening to my sister and me bicker in the back seat of the car). That was in 1979. Had it been a few years earlier, we would have been consigned to the car.
Of course, the end of the "jet set" era also meant the end of the romance of air travel. Before deregulation, going to the airport was something you actually dressed in your Sunday finest to do ... we were going to meet our grandmother as she got off a PLANE. Look nice, children! Now one of the biggest manufacturers of aircraft is called Airbus, and no one thinks it's a funny name. Air travel has become so taken for granted that we find it easier to complain about it than to marvel that we're doing it in the first place. Look, I was in New York ... and six hours later I'm in San Francisco! How cool is that?
I just came from a place where a few thousand people of perfectly ordinary means were able to fly in from all around the country, just for a weekend, just for a party, just to have fun, and do so at a cost that left them with enough spare change in their pockets at least to go to Pita Pit. Beyond that, some of those people of perfectly ordinary means manage to do this again and again, several times a year, gallivanting off for something so frivolous as hanging out with friends for a weekend and putting on funny costumes. It used to be getting on a plane meant you were either an important businessman, or you were rich. Now, whether wolf or fox or cheetah, we are all the jet set.