Here’s What It Was Really Like to Fly During the ‘Golden Age’ of Air Travel
Whether you fly domestically or internationally, there’s plenty to complain about. Ridiculous airline fees, the indignity of airport security, and long lines everywhere are enough to make you nostalgic for a simpler time in air travel. In fact, there was a time when flying was a lot more luxurious — and a lot less of a hassle. During what many people refer to as the “golden age” of air travel, airlines went to great lengths to make flyinfg an elegant and comfortable way to travel.
But flying back then had its downsides and its dark secrets, too. Read on to get the inside scoop on what it was really like to fly during the golden age of air travel.
1. Flying in the 1950s and 1960s was more expensive than flying today
Skyscanner notes that it wasn’t all gourmet meals and glamorous hostesses when you flew in the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, one of the best-kept secrets of the golden age of air travel was that flying back then was a lot more expensive than flying today.
As The New York Times explains, “Adjusted for inflation, the average cost of a ticket has declined about 50 percent over the past 35 years.” Few people could afford to fly to Europe at the outset of commercial aviation. And it was equally uncommon to be able to take a trip from coast to coast. As Fast Company learned, it was four to five times more expensive to fly during the golden age than now. And you could have paid up to a month’s salary even for a short flight.
Next: The golden age of air travel had another surprising dark side.
2. It was also much more dangerous to fly during the golden age of air travel
The New York Times makes another important point. Flying seemed a lot more glamorous back in the “golden age.” But it was also a lot more dangerous. Major crashes today are incredibly rare, especially when it comes to American carriers. But the Times notes that “During the 1960s, the United States saw an average of four major crashes every year.”
Plus, the Times reports that “The 1960s, ’70s and ’80s also were rife with terrorist bombings and hijackings.” The Conversation explains that “In the 1950s and 1960s, U.S. airlines experienced at least a half dozen crashes per year — most leading to fatalities of all on board.”
Next: This common occurrence could actually kill you on some early planes.
3. Turbulence could kill you during the golden age of air travel
In addition to higher rates of accidents, bombings, and hijackings, the early decades of air travel also exposed passengers to numerous safety hazards onboard the plane. As Skyscanner explains, “There were sharp edges in the cabins, glass partitions, inferior seat belts, worse pilot training, and inherent mechanical problems.”
Plus, Fast Company reports that while turbulence will typically give you little more than a scare today, it could actually kill you during the so-called golden age of air travel. Thanks to “lower cabin ceilings and inferior seat belt designs,” an incident of turbulence could actually snap your neck. No wonder many people feared flying!
Next: This did make flying feel pretty glamorous.
4. People did dress up when they traveled by plane
One stereotype about the golden age of air travel does hold true: People really did dress up to fly. Skyscanner reports that “almost everyone wore their finest clothes to travel.” In the 1950s, men wore three-piece suits. Women wore dresses, high heels, and pearls.
In the 1960s, the dress code relaxed a little. But nobody showed up to the airport in their pajamas or in a t-shirt. Of course, people also dressed up to go to the grocery store or to attend a baseball game during this era of American history. But that’s a discussion for another time.
Next: Airlines had this requirement for their flight attendants.
5. Air hostesses — or flight attendants — had to be single
Skyscanner reports that in the 1950s, “air hostesses” were a little like movie stars. These airline employees, the equivalent of modern-day flight attendants, were hired for their looks. And surprisingly enough, airlines didn’t hide that fact. The airlines even enforced regulations about how much air hostesses could weigh.
Skyscanner adds that air hostesses “had to be single, too. And they wore body-sculpted uniforms, corsets, and sometimes white gloves. And always a hat.” Fortunately, things have improved — at least a little — for today’s flight attendants.
Next: You didn’t have to go through this at the airport.
6. Airport security just didn’t exist
Today, most of us hate going through the TSA checkpoint. But how would you feel if there were no airport security at all? As Fast Company reports, passengers today have to show up hours before their flight’s scheduled departure time. But in the golden age of air travel, airlines guaranteed that you’d make your flight if you showed up 30 minutes before departure.
You didn’t have to go through airport security. And you certainly didn’t have to stand in line for hours waiting to get through a checkpoint. No wonder hijackings were much more common.
Next: You didn’t need this to fly.
7. You didn’t have to show an ID to fly
It isn’t just the security checkpoint that’s a relatively modern invention. The Huffington Post reports that you didn’t even have to arrive at the airport with a photo ID to get on the plane during the golden age of air travel.
“Even as late as 1970, passengers made it onto planes without ID of any sort,” the publication explains. “A quick look-over from security did the trick.” At the time, airlines had a lot more trust that the passengers trying to board the plane were who they said they were. All you needed to board the plane was your ticket.
Next: A pair of earplugs might have come in handy.
8. Early commercial planes were much louder than today’s models
Today’s airplanes aren’t exactly quiet. But believe it or not, the aircraft you would have flown on during the golden age of air travel made a lot more noise. As The Huffington Post explains, early commercial planes were powered by pistons, not jet engines.
“As a result, they were loud, vibrated fiercely, bumped like crazy in turbulence, and were grounded often due to weather.” Plus, Mental Floss reports that on the first commercial planes, crew members who need to talk with passengers “used small megaphones to carry their voices above the airplane’s vibrations.”
Next: Airplane cabins lacked this one crucial quality.
9. Plus, airplane cabins weren’t always pressurized
The Huffington Post points out that in the 1950s, pressurized airplane cabins were relatively new. As The Conversation notes, most planes flown commercially during the 1950s actually had unpressurized cabins. That had some pretty unpleasant consequences.
“With a maximum cruising altitude of 10,000 to 12,000 feet, they were unable to fly over bad weather,” the publication reports. Even worse? “Delays were frequent, turbulence common, and air sickness bags often needed.”
Next: You probably couldn’t get a nonstop flight.
10. Wherever you flew, you had to make a lot more stops
The Times notes that even if you had the money to fly overseas during the golden age of air travel, it would have taken you a lot longer to actually get to your destination. In fact, you probably couldn’t take a nonstop flight. Today, almost any two major cities in the world are now connected through one stop, at most.
But the Times reports, “Overall journey times used to be much longer, and flying from the United States to points overseas meant having to connect at one of only a handful of gateway airports, with additional stops beyond.” In fact, it used to take about 14 hours to fly coast to coast in the U.S., or multiple days to get to many international destinations.
Next: You probably wouldn’t have expected the plane to leave on time, either.
11. Flights were frequently delayed
Flight delays remain common today. But much of the time, you can get to your destination within an hour of your expected arrival time. The Conversation reports that that wasn’t the case during the golden age of air travel. Especially when commercial planes used piston engines.
“Piston engines were bulky, complex, and difficult to maintain, which contributed to frequent delays,” The Conversation explains. Then as now, a delayed flight could throw a wrench in your travel plans, especially if you had a connection to make.
Next: That leads us to our next point.
12. If you missed your flight, you were out of luck
Today, if you miss your flight, there’s probably another one coming in an hour or two. But back in the golden age of air travel, that was rarely the case.
As the New York Times reports, “The next one didn’t leave in 90 minutes; it left the following day — or the following week.” A missed flight today often constitutes little more than a minor inconvenience. But you might have totally derailed your vacation if you missed a flight in the 1950s or 1960s.
Next: Airlines didn’t judge if you overindulged.
13. A flight was a little like a cocktail party
In the 1950s and 1960s, travelers who could afford to fly expected a luxurious experience. So airlines offered “food and drink to match,” according to Skyscanner.
“Back then, champagne and brandy flowed endlessly and a flight seemed like a cocktail party in the sky.” On a flight during the golden age of air travel, you could enjoy delicious cocktails, generous buffet tables, and even meals that lasted for hours. Plus, food was served on real china and cocktails in real glasses — not the styrofoam and plastic you see today.
Next: This permeated the cabin on most flights.
14. You had to put up with tobacco smoke throughout your flight
These days, airlines don’t allow passengers to smoke on the plane. (Even in the restroom, as flight attendants warn at the outset of each flight.) But as The New York Times notes, drinking wasn’t the only indulgence that airlines allowed their passengers in the early years of air travel. No matter how long your flight was in the 1950s or 1960s, you’d have to sit through it in a cabin filled with tobacco smoke.
Airlines permitted passengers to smoke cigarettes, pipes, and cigars. Fast Company reports, “The only time people weren’t allowed to smoke on airplanes was on the ground, because airlines were afraid that smoking might ignite refueling fumes.”
Next: Most flights were long and pretty boring.
15. There wasn’t much in the way of in-flight entertainment
Today, there are plenty of ways to pass the time on a long flight. For instance, you can stream your favorite Netflix show, listen to Spotify, or watch a movie thanks to the in-flight Wi-Fi. But Fast Company reports that in-flight movies didn’t become popular until the mid-1960s.
Skyscanner adds that you really had limited options for entertainment in the 1950s and 1960s. “To break the monotony you could read a book, or a newspaper. You could smoke another cigarette and have yet another glass of booze. Or you could describe your flight to your friends back home on postcards provided by the airline, often with a picture of your plane or inflight meal on the front.”
Next: A common myth about legroom doesn’t exactly hold true.
16. Plus, planes didn’t offer much more legroom than they do today
The New York Times also points out that one thing that travelers gripe about today was already a problem in the 1950s and 1960s: the lack of legroom. Conventional wisdom has it that airlines have only crammed more rows of seats onto each plane in recent decades. But “it’s not necessarily true,” according to the Times.
“The spacing between rows, called ‘pitch’ in the business, is, on average, less than it was 20 or 30 years ago — and yes, passengers themselves have become larger on average — but only slightly.”
Next: When you landed, it could take a long time to accomplish this.
17. Collecting your luggage took a lot longer
It’s safe to say that in the 1950s and 1960s, people weren’t dragging huge suitcases onto the plane with them. They’d just check those bags. But as The Huffington Post points out, it took a lot longer to be reunited with your belongings once you landed.
As passengers got off the plane — walking across the tarmac instead of taking a jet bridge straight into the terminal — the airline unloaded their luggage. An airline employee would arrange everybody’s luggage on the counter. One by one, passengers would point to their suitcases, tip the employee, and go on their way.
Next: Most people don’t talk about discrimination during the golden age of air travel.
18. The golden age of air travel had a racist side
Fast Company reports that most accounts of the golden age of air travel gloss over this dark secret. In the 1950s and 1960s, only white people really flew, and the racism of the era was reflected at 30,000 feet. “In 1950, the median income for an African-American male was just $1,471 per year,” Fast Company explains. “The average white male was paid nearly twice as much, and since air travel was such a luxury, few minorities could afford it.”
But even if you could afford a plane ticket as a minority, the airline likely wouldn’t have allowed you on the same plane as white passengers. Some airlines would train their phone operators to try to identify the voices of African-Americans, so that they could put black passengers on specific flights.
Next: Originally, airlines didn’t offer separate classes.
19. There was only one class during the golden age of air travel
Most travelers today wish they could afford to travel in first class or business class. But as Skyscanner reports, there was only one class during the early years of air travel. “Forget about economy, economy plus, business class and first class, initially there was only one class — and it was pretty luxurious.”
In the 1950s, aisles were wider and seats reclined a lot more comfortably. Wherever you sat on the plane, you could have free drinks, or socialize at the cocktail bar. It wasn’t until the end of the 1950s that airlines began to introduce a tourist — or economy — class. And as Skyscanner notes, that’s when “things started to go downhill.”
Next: The golden age of air travel sounds great, but we should feel grateful for what we have today.
20. Yet first class today is far better than what came before it
The golden age of air travel still sounds sort of fun. But The New York Times contends that if you’re willing to pay for a first class ticket today, that experience far exceeds what you’d get when flying during the 1950s or 1960s. Sure, some jets featured Pullman berths, caviar, tuxedoed stewards, and piano lounges.
But as the Times notes, first class passengers today get a “state-of-the-art sleeper seat and 25-inch screen; the electric privacy barrier and five-course dinner presentation. It’s no contest; premium class has never been as swanky or as comfortable as it is today.” Flying is safer, cheaper, and more accessible than ever — and those are all things to be grateful for.
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