Flying Then and Now
Have you ever found yourself staring out the plane window, daydreaming about a time when flying was much more glamorous — and way less exasperating?
You’re not alone.
Today’s cramped seats, tiny bags of peanuts, fees for everything under the sun, harried flight attendants and horribly behaved passengers make many nostalgic for the glory days of air travel, when airlines like Pan Am and TWA reigned supreme.
Like a scene straight out of the 2002 movie “Catch Me If You Can,” flight attendants catered to passengers’ every needs and pilots were on top of the world. The booze was free-flowing and the food was world-class; you didn’t need to get to the airport at the crack of dawn to wait in long security lines, either.
Commercial air travel began in the 1920s, but didn't really take off in popularity until the late 1950s. For a couple decades after, flying was a sophisticated and even fun affair. Being on a plane was a privilege, plain and simple.
Not all changes over time have been for the worse, of course — I think we can all agree that cheaper fare, better security and a lack of in-flight smoking are signs of progress. But in many ways, things have definitely taken a nosedive.
For better or worse, here are 15 ways flying has changed since the so-called Golden Age of air travel.
In the 1920s, airlines mostly served foods that could be eaten cold — fruit salad, cheese plates and sandwiches, for example.
Later, in the 1930s, airline chefs actually began to prepare hot meals in kitchens aboard the aircraft, historian Richard Foss explained to “Travel and Leisure.” Some airplanes even had special dining rooms where passengers could visit and eat in groups.
In the '60s and '70s, restaurant-quality meals were common; airline catering services provided seafood platters, dessert bars, Beef Wellington and more.
In modern times, full meals are generally reserved for international flights only; on domestic flights, you’re lucky if you get a sorry bag of pretzels or peanuts.
Even if you do get a meal, it's unlikely to be very good; some of the worst offenders serve undercooked mystery dishes that barely even qualify as food. (“Reader’s Digest” has singled out airlines including Spirit, Hawaiian Airlines and Ryanair as dishing out some of the most dismal fare. You’ve been warned.)
So why has the dining situation become so terribly sad?
Back in the day, there were so few passengers that it didn’t cost airlines much to serve them all meals. Today, airlines serve far more passengers and must compete for the lowest prices, which means cutting corners — and cutting out free high-quality meals.
Believe it or not, alcohol once flowed freely on planes, and passengers could drink all they wanted. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, “It was not uncommon to have passengers come off transatlantic flights completely drunk,” Guillaume de Syon, a professor at Pennsylvania’s Albright College and an aviation history buff, told “The Atlantic.”
In fact, flights from the United States to Europe would sometimes stop over in Iceland not only for maintenance, but to load up the plane with more alcohol.
Today, while some airlines will pour you complimentary drinks during long-haul international flights, you’ll generally pay at least $5 for a small (and we do mean small) glass of wine or cocktail on a domestic flight.
As with food, it simply became too cost-prohibitive to provide the good stuff at no charge.
Though it’s hard to fathom now, there was a time when leg room actually meant, you know, room for your legs.
In the glory days of travel, airlines weren’t as focused on squeezing as many passengers as possible onto each flight — instead, they made sure that fliers were totally comfortable. Photos from the 1950s and 1960s show passengers fully stretching out their legs, or even lying flat in their seats.
It seems like every month or so an airline makes headlines for announcing even less leg room; there’s even talk about seats that require passengers to basically stand the entire flight. (Seriously!)
Some airlines have squeezed leg room down from 34 inches in 1985 to as little as 29 inches today. Airlines like Thomas Cook, Frontier Airlines, Iberia and Spirit Airlines are some of the stingiest when it comes to leg room, offering as little as 28 inches of space.
Flight attendants were once called stewardesses, and they wore more risque uniforms to work every day — everything from mini skirts and go-go boots to extremely short shorts called “hotpants.”
The profession was almost entirely female-dominated during the olden days of aviation — stewardesses were the picture of glamor, sophistication and sex appeal. Airlines used them in advertising and marketing campaigns, highlighting the beauty and sexiness of their stewardesses compared to other airlines.
At various points throughout history, there were rules requiring that stewardesses remain unmarried, not pregnant and under the age of 35. (Yikes!)
These days you'll encounter plenty of men serving fliers in the cabin, though true gender parity remains a ways off — still today, about 75% of flight attendants are women.
Thankfully, in modern times, airlines and passengers tend to treat female flight attendants with more respect (most of the time). Uniforms are also more conservative, though no less fashionable.
Though being an airline pilot is still a pretty cool gig today, there was a time when pilots were glorified celebrities. Naturally, since flying was a luxury that not many people could afford, the people tasked with safely navigating the aircraft to and from its intended destination were held in high esteem.
In the 1950s and 1960s, many pilots came to commercial aviation after careers in the military, a trend that continued into later decades.
Because of a confluence of factors, there’s actually a pilot shortage now — and a lot more demand. Many “baby boomer” pilots are retiring, and new federal regulations mean that pilots-in-training need a lot more hours in the air before they can become licensed than in the past.
"It doesn't seem to be the glamour job it used to be, which is part of the problem," said flight school owner Terri Super, who spoke to CBC News.
During the glory days of travel, of course, there weren’t internet booking sites like Expedia or Travelocity to help you plan your trip — there wasn’t internet at all. Instead, you had to go through a travel agent or the airline directly.
Once you booked your flight, you had to pick up your ticket from a travel agent or at the ticket counter, or receive it via snail mail. Tickets were printed or even just written on paper.
Most airlines offer e-tickets, sent direct to your phone via email or text, and airports come equipped with DIY kiosks.
This change is, in many ways, a positive one. According to the International Air Transport Association, e-tickets save the industry up to $3 billion every year. Lost airline tickets have also become much less common.
Until not that long ago, passengers could smoke all they wanted during flights — and they often did, much to the chagrin of flight attendants and other crew members. Their uniforms always reeked of cigarette smoke and they had to dodge errant cigarettes in the aisles as passengers rested their elbows on the armrests.
Flight attendants also often experienced symptoms of second-hand smoke, like shortness of breath, stinging eyes and sore throats.
Smoking on planes is, thankfully, a thing of the past.
In 1990, the federal government banned smoking on nearly all domestic flights. A decade later, it banned smoking on all flights into and out of the United States as well.
Interestingly, while smoking is a no-no today, planes are still mandated to include ashtrays — in part so if someone breaks the rules and smokes anyways, they don’t throw their cigarette in the trash and start a fire.
While food, booze and leg room were far superior decades ago, these luxuries came at a cost — literally. In the ‘50s, 60’s and into the ‘70s, only the wealthy could afford to fly.
“Varying on the route, it was four to five times as expensive to fly in the Golden Age,” de Syon told “Fast Company.” “If you were a secretary, it might cost you a month’s salary to take even a short flight.”
A vintage magazine ad for Trans World Airlines — aka TWA — shows exactly how much you’d pay to fly in 1955. If you wanted to fly from Kansas City to New York, for example, you’d pay $52. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $490 in today’s dollars. (In modern times, you can book the same flight for less than half that.)
International travel was even more exorbitant; to go from New York to Rome, Italy, in 1955, you’d pay $360.20, or an incredible $3,340 in today’s dollars.
Happily, air travel is far more accessible to the average Joe today. And for that, we can thank deregulation.
Prior to 1978, when new laws took effect, the government exercised a lot of power over the commercial aviation industry, including what routes planes could take and the prices airlines charged for fares. Though the government is still involved in the industry, most notably through the Federal Aviation Administration, airlines are now competing more freely with each other, which has led to lower prices.
Time in the Air
In addition to costing passengers more money, flying also used to take a whole lot longer.
In 1955, TWA told customers that a nonstop journey from Pittsburgh to San Francisco would last 13 hours, and a flight between Phoenix and Chicago about six hours.
In 2019, thanks to improved technology, that Pittsburgh-San Francisco flight will set you back just five hours and 30 minutes. And a nonstop between Phoenix and Chicago is about half as long as it used to be, at a little over three hours.
Interestingly, though, flight times have actually slowed down some since the 1970s and 1980s because airlines realized that flying just a bit slower is more efficient, and thus less expensive.
In the ‘60s and late ‘70s, security was incredibly lax.
For one thing, you weren’t required to show identification to get onto a plane — airline staff simply looked you up and down and decided whether or not you were suspicious, and thus required further screening.
Additionally, checked bags were almost never scanned or checked.
Oh, and friends, family members or whoever drove you to the airport could walk with you all the way to your gate, no questions asked.
Oh, how times have changed.
The government began screening passenger items in 1973, following a string of airplane hijackings, and the process has only become more strict since then.
IDs became a requirement during the Clinton administration.
As for the luxury of walking friends and family to the gate (or meeting them there)? That came to an end after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, though some airports are now letting non-passengers into the gate area with a special permit.
These days, there’s no airport in America not staffed by an army of federal TSA agents enforcing stringent, federally mandated security standards.
It’s impossible to discuss the change in airport security without mentioning hijacking, which was a pervasive problem for airlines in the 1960s and early 1970s. In those days, hijacking was an almost guaranteed way to make some quick money — and it was startlingly common.
According to the BBC, between 1961 and 1972, more than 150 flights were hijacked in American airspace. When the epidemic was at its worst, planes were hijacked at a rate of nearly one per week — passengers simply came to expect it when they traveled via air.
Hijacking was such a prevalent problem that it even entered pop culture; a 1970 episode of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" featured a sketch about an apologetic, bumbling criminal trying to hijack a plane.
Many hijackers requested large sums of money and to be flown out of the country, often to Cuba. Since they worried about alienating law-abiding customers, airlines were reluctant to implement security measures that could have prevented the hijackings and typically acquiesced to the criminals’ demands.
Luckily, over time, airlines realized that preventing hijackings should probably be a top priority, and began implementing strict security measures.
The public image of a hijacker changed over time with the rise of Islamic extremism and terrorism, most notably the attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001. But these days, hijackings are exceedingly rare.
The odds of a plane crash or accident were about one in 50,000 during the 1950s, which isn’t bad. Still, safety had a ways to go.
“It wasn’t safe to land in fog, so there were many crashes. Mid-air collisions were common,” de Syon told “Fast Company.” “Engines dropped out of planes so often that they weren’t even recorded as accidents if the other engine could land them safely.”
Today’s airplanes are equipped with technology that can make quick adjustments in changing circumstances, like when the wind changes direction. There’s also ground radar and runway status lights to help reduce the number of collisions and accidents on runways. And landing guidance systems have helped pilots make smoother landings.
As a result of these and other measures, the odds of a crash in modern times is one in 50 million.
If you think we spend too much time staring at screens these days, you would have loved flying during the Golden Age. Of course, back then there was no in-flight WiFi, no TV screens built into the back of every seat (though some flights did have movies that everyone watched together), no iPads, no gaming consoles and no cell phones.
Passengers chatted with their travel companions, got to know their seat-mates, read books and newspapers or simply (can you imagine?) sat quietly.
Some travelers wrote postcards to friends and family members. On many flights, airline staffers would hand out postcards featuring a picture of the day’s meal service or the plane itself.
In-flight entertainment is an option on almost all wide-body aircraft, with some of the most tech-savvy airlines (like Virgin and JetBlue) offering a seemingly endless selection of movies and TV shows.
Between this and increasingly available (if often pricey) in-flight Wi-Fi, you'd be hard-pressed to find a passenger not spending their flying time in front of a screen.
In the glory days of travel, passengers actually dressed up before flying — they donned three-piece suits and ties, skirts, hats, heels and generally looked presentable and clean. Even children wore nice clothes while traveling by air, and women always had their hair impeccably coiffed.
Traveling was such a rare occurrence that it was important to look your best, which meant pulling out the finest pieces from your wardrobe.
If you’ve been on a plane recently, chances are you’ve seen someone wearing their pajamas or walking around the airport barefoot — or worse. By the smell of it, some passengers choose to forego showering and other basic hygiene habits, even though they know they’ll be in close quarters with other passengers.
But it isn't all bad; many would argue that they much prefer being able to wear sweatpants while enduring a long and often uncomfortable flight.
Passengers generally behaved better during the olden days of travel, since flying was more of a luxury and a novelty. Travelers were polite, calm and courteous. (Though we can imagine that male passengers were a little more handsy — okay, a lot more handsy — with stewardesses than they are today, so some things have definitely changed for the better.)
These days, it’s another story altogether. Some passengers tend to act as if they’re the only ones on the plane, subjecting everyone else to their antics. In fact, there’s an entire Instagram account dedicated to documenting the misbehavior and habits of airplane passengers — it’s called Passenger Shaming and shows everything from people putting their bare feet on the footrest in front of them to using the bathroom sink as a toilet.
You can read about some bizarre behaviors here...and reminisce about the days when travel was a more glamorous affair.