Airplane Cabins Throughout the Years
These days, we mostly begrudge flying, grousing about everything from epic TSA lines to economy seats that make us feel like sardines in a can.
It's easy to forget just how revolutionary and thrilling commercial airfare was when it began over a century ago. The passenger plane extended our ability to see new places and visit loved ones, and it did so in an undeniably exciting way — by flying us 30,000 feet in the air at exceptional speeds.
What was flying like when passenger flights began, and how has it transformed over the decades? The following gives a glimpse into the evolution of air travel — for better and worse.
The very first passenger flight traveled between Tampa and St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1914. But planes were not the size they are today. Pan American Airways, for example, originally offered single seating in its Ford 5-AT Tri-Motor.
Still, flight attendants were on hand to serve a fresh cup of coffee in the 1920s.
In the early days of commercial aviation, flying was a luxury and, especially compared to what we see today, almost impossibly glamorous. Pictured here is the Martin M-130 clipper, which provided sleeping berths for its overnight flights, offering beds and privacy for passengers. (Can you imagine?)
The first interiors of planes mimicked train compartments, not just with sleepers but with seating around a table to enjoy the pleasure of the company of other passengers.
This photo from 1931 highlights the Art Deco design of plane interiors, complete with real wallpaper in a Curtiss Condor CO Transport plane. Stylish!
The Curtiss Condor's newer planes eschewed actual tables and began using individual tray tables instead. Back then, they were actual trays rather than the fold-down, barely-there tables we see today.
The 1930s saw explosive growth in air travel. Passenger numbers grew astronomically over the decade, from 6,000 passengers in 1930 to more than 450,000 by 1934 to 1.2 million by 1938. Still, though, air travel was out of reach to many, with flights costing as much as $20,000 when adjusted for inflation.
This photo of a TWA flight from 1936 shows that there was plenty of legroom during a flight, although very little overhead baggage storage. Dress codes were also a thing, with proper attire required when boarding.
In the early years of air travel, First Class passengers received more space and luxuries, just as they do today.
Qantas planes in the 1930s and 1940s, like the one pictured here, were so large and luxurious that they were called luxury flying boats, even featuring a "promenade deck" for walking about during a flight.
Delta Airlines originally began operating as a crop-dusting company, but introduced passenger flights for the first time in 1929. The company added flight attendants, then referred to as "stewardesses," in 1940. Flight attendants were required to be unmarried, to fulfill certain height and weight restrictions, and to have "a clear complexion, pleasing personality and high moral character." All these regulations were (thankfully) eventually ditched.
This photo shows one of Delta's first DC-3 airplanes with a flight attendant, in January 1941.
Turns out not much has changed when it comes to the Haves versus the Have Nots. The previous photo showed standard class, while this 1941 shot of a United Airlines flight shows what life was like for seats 3A and 3B — white tablecloth food service!
In 1949, Delta introduced its "coach" service providing discounted fares. Originally offered only on nighttime flights, these "Owly Bird" specials did not provide “the frills of daytime service, such as complimentary meals and double stewardess service.”
One of the most impressive early planes was the Boeing Stratocruiser shown here.
Modeled after the B-29 Bomber, it featured the latest in airfare tech, as well as 28 upper and lower bunks, a lower-level beverage lounge accessed via a circular staircase, and seats for up to 100 passengers. It flew between 1947 and 1950.
In an attempt to make air travel more baby-friendly, British Airways created "skycots." Parents held their infants on their lap for takeoff and landing, just as they do today, but could place their children in hammocks that attached to the bulkhead.
Seems safe to us!
In October 1959, Qantas launched its Kangaroo flight between Australia and London on the Lockheed Super Constellation, another revolutionary vessel in the early years of air travel.
First Class passengers on the flight were served lobster, caviar and fine wine.
Even economy-class passengers on Qantas flights were served meals with real china and silverware. (Today, Qantas travelers who sit in economy are served meals in a cardboard box.)
Children were often showcased in promotional postcards like this one by Pacific Southwest Airways in 1960. Families were welcome aboard for travel.
Family travel has become a problem in modern times, with families forced to pay additional fees in order to reserve seats together and often getting separated. The Department of Transportation required airlines to seat families together in 2016 but is not enforcing it, so the separation anxiety continues. Some frequent travelers support families being relegated to the rear of airplanes and banned from First Class.
Not only was smoking allowed on planes for many years, but cigarettes were often distributed after meals. It wasn't until the late 1980s that North American airlines began to ban smoking, and lighting up wasn't completely banned (with a few exceptions for journeys over six hours) until 1990.
In addition to being served fresh cake, passengers aboard this SAS flight were also the first to use an electronic reservation system to book tickets.
Delta introduced Royal Service in 1969, a step up from First Class, providing dishes such as lobster thermidor and duckling, as well as liquors, champagne and warm scented towels. In attempting to treat passengers like kings, the airline also introduced the first airport lounges, called "Crown Rooms," in 1958.
Today, these lounges are called Delta Sky Clubs. But Royal Service is, alas, no more.
In 1970, Delta upped the game again, creating the 747 Penthouse. Those who purchased this six-seater space on the upper deck were provided with their own flight attendant and catered to from wheels up to wheels down.
Entertainment was added to flying in the 1960s and by the 1970s special pneumatic headphones were offered to passengers. These headphones provided a choice of music for passengers before seat-back entertainment and personal devices became the trend.
Other airlines moved to replicate the First Class upper-deck lounge, including this Qantas 747. Providing a bar- and lounge-like setting, upper-class seats cost the equivalent of 33 weeks of an average wage in 1971.
When the Concorde took its first flight test in 1969, passengers were hopeful about the supersonic plane's purported ability to cut trans-Atlantic flight times to 3.5 hours. The plane made its first such flight in 1973.
Flights were more than $4,000 — too much for most, which is why operations ceased in 2003.
When Braniff, which offered leather seating and plush carpeting, ceased to fly in 1982, it was due to high fuel costs, as well as the Airline Deregulation Act. When the federal government released control over fares in 1978, it allowed the commercial airline industry to become more competitive. Many airlines began consolidating during the 1980s and '90s.
The first no-frills discount air carrier was People Express, which debuted in 1981 and offered fares as low as $23. Customers even purchased their tickets onboard, as if paying a train or bus fare.
Unfortunately, service was so poor that the airline was saddled with the nickname "People Distress." The company lasted a short six years, ceasing operations in 1987.
Delta changed the airline game when it launched its Medallion seating in 1983. Not First Class. Not general class. This was larger seating and separation meant for the ever-growing class of business travelers.
As airlines attempted to outdo one another, the seats began reclining like La-Z-Boy chairs.
Business Class became so big that most airlines ditched their First Class for Business Class seating as the one with all the perks.
Thankfully, entertainment began becoming more of a luxury on flights, with airlines installing seat-back systems to provide passengers with their own movie, television and game system.
More recently, airlines started ditching seat-back screens to embrace direct-to-device streaming instead.
While babies no longer hang from the ceiling, they do get to sleep in bassinets available at bulkhead seating on most modern-day airlines offering long-haul flights.
Is it safer? Definitely safer than in a parents' arms, but a car seat attached to its own seat is the best route.
British Airways brought us full circle in the early 2000s when they brought back seats that converted into beds. Although planes had originally featured beds, and BA had similar seating in First Class in the mid-century, these seats became the first for Business Class. Again, this helped airlines eliminate First Class areas.
The way it feels to fly international on a standard fare ticket these days, it might as well be First Class!
Meanwhile, back in "steerage..."
What passengers gained in entertainment and later Wi-Fi has been lost in terms of leg room. Airlines are squeezing seats tighter and tighter to fit more passengers in an effort to save on costs.
In the early 2000s, rows in economy were 34 to 35 inches apart; now they're typically 30 to 31 inches apart. And the cramping is only poised to get worse in the coming years.
Some airlines have tried to find ways to make airline travel fun again. In 2017, for example, discount airline Southwest partnered with Warner Music Nashville for a Concerts in the Sky program. It didn't last long.
Just as plane travel originally catered to those who could afford all of its bells and whistles, those who can pay for First Class flights that are still available today enjoy modern-day luxuries. This Singapore Airlines flight, for example, provides a private suite with seating and full bed space for long-haul flights.
The cost of a roundtrip flight? $20,000!