This is a story of two men who started airlines.

One grew up amid fabulous wealth in Europe; one grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Queens, N.Y.

One regularly flies in first class; the other books economy for shorter flights but will splurge for a business-class ticket if crossing an ocean.

One is decked out in finely tailored suits; the other dresses much more casually, with an open collar and -- could this be right? -- orange socks.

One began his career in aviation as a CEO, the other as a reservations agent.

One started a premium-positioned airline, the other a no-frills carrier.

One has been knighted, the other favors the honorific "Grandpa."

Just who, exactly, is who?

Queens native Dale Moss, founding managing director of upscale airline OpenSkies, started his career as a res agent with the British Overseas Airways Corp. (now British Airways), but now  he typically boards with the other well-groomed swells in the front of the plane. When his airline was being developed, it was called Project Lauren, after his granddaughter.

Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, scion of a Greek shipping magnate, grew up in five-star luxury. He asked his dad to finance a budget airline that he named EasyJet and subsequently created an empire of orange that now adorns everything from his planes to his cruise ship to his hotels. And his socks.

By coincidence I interviewed both men last week, and their contrasting origins and destinies got me thinking about how a career in the travel industry can allow for an expression of life as beautiful as any created by a novelist. One would be hard-pressed to create fictional worlds as unpredictable and complex as these two men have carved out for themselves.

Stelios, to the villa born, created EasyHotel after the success of his low-cost airline. The chain is known for 64-square-foot rooms and for charging fees to provide any service more extravagant than changing a burnt-out light bulb. "The day I see a chocolate on the pillow in an EasyHotel, I will know we've lost it," he told me. "I'll sell all my shares to private equity and get out."

Prior to opening his first hotel, Stelios said, he had slept in budget lodging only once. "I stayed in a Motel 6, doing research," he said, his face contorting slightly as if he were smelling something unpleasant.

But since starting EasyHotel, he said he stays in his no-frills hotels "regularly."

Dale Moss took a contrasting path. "I wanted to be a baseball player," Moss said, looking back on his youth in Queens' Ozone Park neighborhood. "When that didn't work out, I thought I'd get a job with an airline, travel around the world for a while and then get a real job."

Last week, 30 years later, having spent a lifetime traveling the world for British Airways (and, for periods, for Rosenbluth International and India's Jet Airways), he was charged with launching an airline on behalf of British Airways.

"They asked if I was interested," recalled Moss. 'I said, 'On a scale from 1 to 10, my interest is an 11.' "

Moss' I-can't-believe-I'm-actually-doing-this enthusiasm is contagious, and though he referred to himself as an "old man," he said he could not imagine stopping work.

"Retirement is something you do to airplanes, not people," he said. "This is so exciting, getting a chance to run an airline."

Though I had been thinking of Stelios' and Moss' lives along the lines of a novel, Moss said his odyssey recalled a song lyric: "As the Grateful Dead sang, 'What a long, strange trip it's been.' "

So rich kid Stelios now flies in a cramped EasyJet seat and spends an occasional night in his orange-doored cubicles, while working-class hero Moss is pampered in the front of the plane, stays at five-star properties and is launching an airline. This isn't exactly "The Prince and the Pauper," of course, but both success stories hinge on the protagonists veering from the roles they were supposed to play.

And because they're both in the industry, they've ended up influencing the travel styles of people they didn't run into very much when growing up. A man born to privilege provides cheap digs for penny- pinchers. Another, who grew up with more ambition than cash, ultimately tailors an airline with a preponderance of premium-class seats and a focus on service.

Long, strange trips indeed.


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