Abbey Victor Kovens, travel agent

He set a record flying around the world and later aided Soviet dissidents

  • Abbey Victor Kovens, a Baltimore travel agent who during the 1970s circled the world in record time, earning him a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records, died of complications from heart disease at his Owings Mills home. He was 67.
Abbey Victor Kovens, a Baltimore travel agent who during the… (Baltimore Sun )
February 13, 2012|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Abbey Victor Kovens, a Baltimore travel agent who during the 1970s circled the world in record time, earning him a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records, died Wednesday of complications from heart disease at his Owings Mills home.

He was 67.

The son of a vending machine manufacturing executive and a homemaker, he was a cousin of the late Baltimore political kingmaker Irv Kovens.

Mr. Kovens, who never used his first name, was born in Baltimore and raised near Mondawmin and later in the Strathmore Park neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore.

After graduating from City College in 1963, he attended the University of Cincinnati for two years. He earned a bachelor's degree in transportation in 1967 from the University of Baltimore.

Mr. Kovens went to work after college as a sales agent in Philadelphia for the old Trans World Airlines, and it was while working for the airline that he and another employee, Frank Barbehenn, decided in 1975 to circle the world by commercial airliner.

The two men had to meet two criteria that had been established by Norris McWhirter, editor of the London-based Guinness Book of World Records: The flight would have to cover at least the distance around the equator: 24,920 miles. And it would have to involve two points that are exactly on opposite sides of the world.

"After much study, we found that about the only such points — with commercial airports — were Lima, Peru, and Bangkok, Thailand," Mr. Kovens told The Evening Sun at the time.

At 12:20 p.m. May 16, after a nine-hour flight from Philadelphia, the two men boarded a plane in Lima and flew to Bangkok.

At 12:40 a.m. May 22, they arrived back home after a trip in which they were in the air 47 hours, 48 minutes and seven seconds, reported The Evening Sun.

Both Mr. Kovens and his partner had planned their trip to cover 25,006 miles but had to make a 600-mile detour to avoid flying over Vietnam and Cambodia, then engulfed in war.

"The detour contributed to our failure to break a nonofficial total-elapsed-time record of 61 hours and 15 minutes, but that one isn't a very legitimate one, according to Mr. McWhirter," Mr. Kovens said. "It was set in a round trip between London and Sydney, Australia, and isn't even listed in the Guinness book."

During their odyssey, the two fliers made nine stops on their 25,606-mile trip, changed planes four times, and traveled at an average speed of 535.7 mph.

The cost of the trip would have been $2,570 for a regular traveler but because of their airline connections, they were able to accomplish it at considerably less cost.

In June 1975, the two were officially notified by Mr. McWhirter that their accomplishment would be listed in that year's October edition of the Guinness Book of World Records.

Their record was subsequently broken.

Mr. Kovens returned to Baltimore in 1975, when he established a travel agency that booked cruises.

For years, Mr. Kovens operated International Group Cruises Inc. in the Pikesville Hilton, and in recent years, ran the business from his Owings Mills home.

"Victor saw that there was a good future in cruises, even though at the time, the industry was in its infancy," said a brother, Michael Kovens, who lives in Pikesville.

Mr. Kovens worked 15 hours a day, and "the business immediately took off, and he eventually converted it to group-only cruises, which grew to become the largest group cruise operator in Maryland," Michael Kovens said. "He was a very special guy and wanted his customers to be happy."

Mr. Kovens was successful, his brother said, in getting Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines to establish and support kosher meal programs aboard its liners.

A devout Jew, Mr. Kovens "always observed the sabbath and kept kosher all his life, including the difficulty of keeping kosher while on his extensive travels," his brother said.

He was an active member of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Congregation.

"On his trips into the communist Soviet Union, he would sneak into the country yarmulkes and prayer books for the oppressed Jewish residents," his brother said. "He had them in his suitcase, and the customs agent became distracted and he was able to get them in without opening it."

One time, Mr. Kovens was asked if he would be willing to be a courier and carry a note from Russia to New York City for a Jewish couple who were trying to get a visa so they could immigrate to Israel.

"Had Victor been caught, he could have been arrested, but he slipped the note into his shoe and successfully got it to New York. The couple were able to get out, and he later visited them in Israel," said Michael Kovens.

One of Mr. Kovens' hobbies was collecting transit company timetables and schedules, including those of the old Baltimore Transit Co., whose streetcar and bus routes, street stops and arrival times he had committed to memory.

"He had a photographic memory. He was 8 years old in 1953, when he had memorized the entire Baltimore Transit Co. streetcar and bus schedules by routes, street stops and arrival times," his brother said.

"At age 13, on a summer cross-country teen bus tour, the driver got lost in the Midwest. Victor came to his rescue by guiding him back onto the proper routing," Mr. Kovens said.

Other hobbies included handwriting analysis, lecturing and practicing transcendental meditation.

Mr. Kovens ended all correspondence with his trademark "Better and Better," his brother said.

"That was his view of life for both today and tomorrow," said Mr. Kovens.

Services were Friday.

In addition to his brother, Mr. Kovens is survived by his wife of 33 years, the former Susan Gondelman; two other brothers, Edward Kovens of Reisterstown and Murray Kovens of White Hall; and many nieces and nephews.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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