Has anyone else noticed a marked deterioration in the quality of air travel?

Flying used to be glamorous. Not so anymore.

When was the last time you felt "special" as you boarded an airplane? Now, as I proceed down a jetway, I'm tempted to emit guttural livestock sounds.

Remember when you used to feel like a celebrity getting off a plane? Invariably, someone special awaited your arrival just inside the terminal. More often than not there'd be a cluster of people — with flowers, balloons and a "welcome home" sign.

Now, the only people awaiting are a snarling pack of strangers eager to rush your plane, grab your still-warm seat and fly to from wherever you just came. Following a free-for-all at baggage claim, you're lucky if you possess the strength to elbow your way curbside to hail a relative circling the airport in the family sedan.

I took my first flight in May 1964. I was 19 and had just completed Army basic training at Fort Ord. I boarded a flight in Monterey headed for Santa Barbara and then on to LAX.

For me it was an exhilarating in-flight experience, never to be fully replicated.

I was decked out in my class-A dress uniform and the lovely "air hostesses" treated me like a dignitary. The flight down California's sun-splashed coast that morning was magical, and I walked on air as I greeted my family in the LAX terminal.

Two weeks later, I flew across the county to my next military assignment just outside New York City. When I landed at JFK International, I felt as if I'd traveled light years across the galaxy.

What a thrill!

I've done a bit of traveling since. Thrilling? Only intermittently.

A frequent flier, I've flown to the East Coast more than 50 times, to Europe a dozen times or more, the Middle East twice, Asia twice, Hawaii and the western Pacific more than 15 times, and the Caribbean once. I've also flown to Alaska and numerous times to the Pacific Northwest and to America's heartland.

Now that my wife, Hedy, and I are retired, we travel by air to visit grandchildren every few months — due, mainly, to the fact that we can cover 3,000 miles in hours rather than days.

In 1975, Hedy and I flew on a Western Airlines Boeing 727 to Hawaii on our honeymoon (I distinctly remember the airline's marketing slogan: "Western Airlines, the only way to fly!"). We were pampered with complimentary champagne from L.A. to Honolulu and enjoyed a darned tasty meal.

Last month on our flight home from the East Coast we savored a bag of miniature pretzels and a couple of gulps of soda from a plastic cup.

I fly regularly into airports along the Eastern Seaboard. My favorite is RDU (Raleigh-Durham, N.C.) — it's clean, spacious and uncrowded. The people are friendly, and food service outlets in the terminal are above average. You're always greeted by, "What can I get ya'll?"

My least favorite airport is PHL (Philadelphia International). It's claustrophobic and crowded, and its employees are — on a good day — prickly.

A couple of years ago, as I went through the Philly security check, a Transportation Security Administration agent called me out from 25 feet as I stood in a line placing personal items into plastic tubs to be scanned by machines.

"Keep it moving," he yelled to no one in particular, giving it his best drill sergeant imitation. He then fixed his attention on me.

"Sir, are you wearing anything under that sweatshirt?" Sir? He might as well have called me maggot!