A lot has changed since the Golden Age of Flying. Air travel in the 1950s came with roomy seats and a stylish flight crew, and without security hassles and add-on fees. But truth be told, it was a glamorous luxury few could afford: over the years, ticket prices have dropped approximately 40 percent, making it much more reasonable for an average Joe to take to the skies. In fact, approximately 38 million people flew in 1958 compared to 809 million 50 years later.
Paleofuture found an ad from the 1950s and looked into how much it cost for to travel by plane in the 1950s, and what the relative value would be in today’s dollars, accounting for inflation. Here are some sample one-way fares:
New York to Paris, France: $310 in 1955, $2,622 adjusted for inflation
New York to Rome, Italy: $360.20 in 1955, $3,046 adjusted for inflation
Pittsburgh to San Francisco: $96 in 1955, $812 adjusted for inflation
San Francisco to Chicago: $76 in 1955, $643 adjusted for inflation
Phoenix to Chicago: $69 in 1955, $584 adjusted for inflation
Sure, we have to deal with fewer amenities and less legroom than they did in the 1950s, but in the grand scheme of things we can get from point A to point B for a fraction of the cost. We might not get there comfortably, but at least we get to save our money for when we get there.
9 Things That Were Awesome About Air Travel Back in the Day
In the good old days, there was something intensely romantic about the idea of air travel. Not only were you leaving your home to discover somewhere new, but you were high above the clouds in a grand silver machine, populated only by the most glamorous travel companions. Similar to traveling the ocean liners of their day, air travel used to be something in which people took pride. It was an excuse to dress up, to hobnob, to flirt. Nowadays, as Orson Welles famously quipped, “there are only two emotions in a plane: boredom and terror.” Couple that with planes tragically being used as mass murder weapons, increasingly cramped quarters, and always being in line behind the hippie with stinky feet, and you’ve got modern-day air travel. Here are nine great things, now defunct, about the glory days of the air.
- Security: Leave it to a few bad apples to spoil the whole barrel. No matter how you slice it, the one thing that was undeniably more awesome about air travel back in the day was the security process. And here, “back in the day” wasn’t even that long ago. Prior to 9/11, you could meet your lover right at their gate for that welcome-home kiss, and you could take mom’s homemade-cupcakes-and-milk snack right onto the plane. Also, you could travel without having to practically undress or smell fellow passengers’ feet. Ah, those were the days.
- Stewardesses:“Coffee? Tea? Me?”Now represented by both genders and called “flight attendants,” the elegant stewardess of the olden days is perhaps the most glamorous perception about vintage air travel. These sexy, uniformed vixens took theplainout of airplane, and boy, were they eager to serve you. Sounds unbeatable, right? Because air travel in the 1950s and ’60s was prohibitively expensive, most flights back then were populated by those with money: white businessmen. Advertising campaigns and hiring practices were geared toward raising hemlines, not awareness. Despite labor unions, strikes, and protesting the no-marriage rule, these ladies proved to be the most iconic travel image of all time.
- Delicious (Free) Food: From five-star meals to $5 mystery meat, airline food has wildly changed. In the late 1950s, first-class passengers were provided with a decadent seven-course meal, included in the price of their ticket. Even in coach, hot meals and drinks were included for no extra charge. People would fly dressed to the nines, and would in turn be served equally fancy meals and cocktails. Long gone are the days of champagne breakfasts — in the 21st century, gonenoweven are the days of free stale pretzels. The culprit? The ’80s. In a 1987 cost-cutting measure, American Airlines removed one olive from each in-flight salad, thereby spurring the decline of the in-flight meal.
- Smoking: Though the health benefits for all, in this case, well outweigh the liberty of some, smoking during air travel was allowed in some capacity on most flights until the 1980s. You have to admit, there is something awesome about the idea of sparking up with one of those sexy stewardesses. And, though non-smokers don’t understand, the truly addicted now see a trans-Atlantic flight as sheer torture. Luckily, with the advent of electronic cigarettes, as well as nicotine gum and patches, smokers need not live in airborne agony anymore.
- No Body Scans: Back in the day, the only person you had to worry about being able to see through your clothes was Superman. Now, however, all of TSA can see right through you. Cancer worries due to radiation exposure and growing concerns over these naked pictures being leaked (it’s happened) make us nostalgic for the simpler times.
- Fellow Travelers: Some people just have bad foot odor. Thanks to TSA, now you will find out about it. Some people just like to chit-chat with every single stranger they encounter. Thanks to new-school, tiny, cramp-inducing seats, now you will be seated next to several of them. Some people just have bratty, screaming malcontents for children. Thanks to the changes in the airline industry, now you will most definitely get an earful from them. Back in the day, air travel was a luxury – and considered much more like a treat. These days, anyone and everyone takes planes. Though the lack of classism as a barrier to travel is a good thing about the present, the lack of the common civility of the old days is not.
- No Hidden Fees: In terms of price per mile, airfare has declined steadily over the years – from 41 cents in 1957 to 12 cents in recent years. But in terms of the overall cost of travel, hidden fees have popped up almost everywhere. As of 2010, American Airlines began charging $8 for the use of a pillow and blanket. Checked baggage fees, non-complimentary drinks, and charging for headphones are all newer developments that would never, um, fly in the golden age of the air.
- The Concorde: The Concorde was a supersonic turbojet – in other words, the most awesome sounding airplane of all time. Besides flying at a top speed of Mach 2, these bad boys carried 100 passengers at a time on transatlantic flights from London or Paris to New York or Washington, D.C. These one-way flights took just under four hours to complete, and, because the Concorde flew faster than the speed of sound, included a rather startling experience for first-time passengers: the sonic boom. Talk about a quick commute!
- Respect: Whether flying first class, coach, or cargo (hopefully that’s just your luggage), the glory days of air travel were all about respect. Airline personnel were kinder to customers, their bags, and each other; travelers took care to be mindful of the effects of their actions on those around them. Additionally, it seems like the airlines just used torespecttheir customers more. The glamour of air travel may well be behind us, as flights now resemble cattle lines to a public sky-bus, but it never hurts to practice basic respect and personal courtesy, and act just like you want to be treated.
When we think about the Golden Age of Flying—the glory years of Pan Am and the Concorde in the 1950s and 1960s, before flight became cheap with the rise of the jumbo jet—we imagine a colorful, lavish era in which our every comfort and requirement is catered to. Gone are the inconveniences and annoyances of modern travel: the cramped seats, the dismissive stewardesses, the long security lines, and so on. Instead, we think of a vintage airline brochure come to life.
But was it really so great to fly 50 years ago? To find out, we asked Guillaume de Syon, a professor at Pennsylvania’s Albright College and an expert on aviation history. Although there were many benefits of flying in the 1950s and 1960s, de Syon says, the reality was far different than you might expect. In fact, once you know what flying during the so-called Golden Age was really like, you might prefer a jaunt on easyJet.
The first major distinction between the Golden Age of Flying and flying today was that it was significantly more expensive.
In the 21st century, air travel is relatively cheap, but in the 1950s, you could expect to pay 40% or more for the same ticket you buy today. A ticket on TWA in 1955 from Chicago to Phoenix, for example, cost $138 round-trip. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $1,168. But that doesn’t tell the whole story, because the average salary in the United States is higher than it was in the 1950s. That round-trip ticket between Chicago and Phoenix would cost the average person today a little more than 1% of his yearly income to purchase. Comparatively, the average person in the 1950s would pay up to 5% of his yearly salary for a chance to fly.
“Varying on the route, it was four to five times as expensive to fly in the Golden Age,” de Syon says. “If you were a secretary, it might cost you a month’s salary to take even a short flight.”
SCARY AND DANGEROUS
So what did you get for paying five times as much for your plane ticket? A five times greater chance of being killed compared with jumping on a flight today.
“Statistically, there were a lot more plane crashes and flight accidents in the Golden Age of Flying,” de Syon says.
These days, when you board a plane, you have a very good chance of landing safely on the other side. In fact, for every 100,000 hours that planes are in the air, there are only 1.33 fatalities. That makes flying one of the safest way to travel now, but in 1952, that number was 5.2 deaths per 100,000 hours, and this despite the fact that the number of passengers flying on American carriers has increased 42 times in the last 60 years. Less sophisticated flying technology was mostly to blame. “It wasn’t safe to land in fog, so there were many crashes. Mid-air collisions were common,” explains de Syon. “Engines dropped out of planes so often that they weren’t even recorded as accidents if the other engine could land them safely.”
You didn’t just have to worry about crashing, though. Let’s imagine a typical flight incident, where an airplane hits a patch of turbulence and drops 500 hundred feet. Today, it would be unusual for such an incident to do more than give people a scare, but 60 years ago, due to lower cabin ceilings and inferior seat belt designs, that same incident could snap your neck.
There were other environmental factors that could hurt you too. In the Golden Age of Flying, there were glass dividers that separated first class from economy. These dividers looked nice, but could shatter and spray passengers during accidents or turbulence. Even walking to the bathroom in a 1950s-era aircraft could be fatal, as the plane interiors were not designed with safety in mind. Trip and you could find yourself landing on a sharp edge or jag of a chair or table. “In the 1950s, people were afraid to fly, and for good reason,” de Syon says.
Once you get tired of looking out the window, flying is inherently boring: you’re sealed in a droning metal tube for hours and expected to just sit there, staring at the back of the seat ahead of you, for hours. Yet today, we take for granted that we have access to a number of distractions from the monotonousness of travel. We have iPhones, iPads, Kindles, and Gameboys to distract us, and even if you forget your gadgets at home, you can watch a number of movies, or listen to music, or even play a video game on the screen in front of you, at least on most long-haul flights.
These distractions were not available in the Golden Age of Flying. In-flight movies did not become popular until the mid-1960s, and during a time when all portable music came over the radio, there wasn’t even the option to plug in a pair of headphones and listen to music during your flight until 1985.
So what did people do instead? They wrote postcards.
“Back in the 1950s, you were handed postcards when you boarded a flight, which might have a picture of the plane or the meal you were going to be served printed on it,” de Syon says.
The tradition at the time was that you would use your in-flight time to write people you knew on the ground, describing your flight. Once you ran out of postcards to write, there wasn’t much to do. Magazines and newspapers were provided to passengers, and you could also read a book. Some airlines, like Air France, experimented with commissioning artists to create paintings to hang on the cabin walls for passengers to look at, but this didn’t last long.
If you were lucky, the person sitting next to you might be a good conversationalist. Otherwise? You smoke and drank. Which brings us to our next point.
Unless you are a chain smoker, and the idea of being sealed up in an aquarium of secondhand smoke seems like a great way to spend eight hours, you’d likely find the experience of flying in the Golden Age of Flying pretty gross. You could smoke on flights and not just cigarettes: pipes and cigars were also encouraged. In fact, 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.
That’s bad enough, but there was also a lot of alcoholism at 30,000 feet back in the 1950s and 1960s. To fly back then was to be served as much free booze as you could drink, and people tended to just drink to keep themselves entertained. “Memoirs written during the Golden Age of Flying are filled with lively accounts of drunken passengers,” de Syon says. “People would just pour themselves scotch after scotch.” Getting hammered was just a way to past the time.
The good news is such drinking did not tend to get violent: because there were far fewer passengers, the crowding that contributes to the alcoholic air rage of today didn’t really exist. But that doesn’t mean that people didn’t pull out all the other stops on drunken behavior, such as stumbling down the aisle, molesting stewardesses, singing loudly, and—of course—profusely vomiting.
There’s another unpleasant side of flight in the 1950s and 1960s that tends to be glossed over. “I think it’s important to point out that in the Golden Age of Flying, only white people really flew,” says de Syon. It was a racist age, and this is reflected even at 30,000 feet.
Part of the reason why so few minorities flew was simply economic. In 1950, the median income for an African-American male was just $1,471 per year. The average white male was paid nearly twice as much, and since air travel was such a luxury, few minorities could afford it.
“If you saw a black person at an airport during the Golden Age of Flying, they were almost definitely a porter, not a passenger,” de Syon says.
Even if you could afford a ticket as a minority, though, there was a good chance you wouldn’t be allowed into the same planes as white passengers.
“In the 1950s, some airlines would train their phone operators to try to identify the voices of African-Americans, then put them on certain flights and not others,” de Syon says. “It wasn’t until the late 1960s and 1970s that things started changing. It may have been the Golden Age of Flying, but it was also a very racist age.”
None of this is to say that flying in the Golden Age of Flying was a totally negative experience. There were many real luxuries and comforts of flying that we have left behind today.
For one thing, airline security simply did not exist during the Golden Age of Flying. Compared to today, when airlines recommend getting to the airport three hours ahead of time to make sure you catch your flight, the recommendation of most Golden Age airlines seems positively quaint: you were guaranteed to make your flight even if you showed up just 30 minutes before.
Once onboard, the average passenger, even in economy, had plenty of legroom. In fact, business class today is spatially very similar to what economy used to be like, de Syon says. Once aboard, all service was complimentary. And because the stewardess-to-passenger ratio was so much higher back then than it is today, you could expect one to nearly instantly cater your every (non-salacious) need.
It should also be mentioned that the Golden Age of Flying was an era of sumptuous design, a time in which the flying experience—from the visual look of the cabin, to your stewardess’s uniform, right down to the silverware—was imagined by some of the world’s best designers.
Yet despite all of this, there are probably few who would really prefer to fly during the Golden Age of Flying. At best, it was like something out of Catch Me If You Can. At worst, flying during the Golden Age of Flying meant paying an exorbitant amount of money to lock yourself in a pneumatic tube full of smoke and vomit, where the only possible relief from the mind-numbing boredom of travel was the significantly greater prospect of your own death or dismemberment. Says de Syon: “The Golden Age of Flying was an age where very few of us could have flown, and when only slightly more of us would likely have wanted to.”
Slideshow Credits: 01 / Flickr user 1950s Unlimited; 02 / Flickr user Alsis35; 03 / 1950s Unlimited; 04 /Flickr user Megpi; 05 / Flickr user 1950sUnlimited; 06 / Flickr user 1950sUnlimited; 07 / Flickr user 1950s Unlimited; 08 / Flickr user JBCurio; 09 / Flickr user 1950sUnlimited;