Flying In Luxury: The Glamorous Past Of Air Travel

The idea of jumping on a plane sounds like a great idea until you think about the struggle that is the airport. Long lines, TSA checkpoints, and other various modern-day inconveniences are enough to drag down your spirits. However, this was not always the case! Explore a list of the golden years of aviation and the luxurious way we used to travel.

Stewardesses

Stewardesses, now referred to as flight attendants, are remembered as a hallmark of flying during the golden age of aviation. By the late 1950s, stewardesses had evolved into the glamor girls of flight. They were there as modern-day flight attendants to help passengers with both safety and service issues. However, stewardesses of the glamor days of flight were also there to add to the environment and experience of flying.

Stewardesses were supposed to be beautiful, accessible, and fashionable. They were also often encouraged to flirt with male passengers. Stewardesses were sometimes treated as though they were supposed to be a type of showgirl. Nowadays both men and women serve as flight attendants and their appearances are not nearly controlled as past years.

Sexism on Board

When stewardesses played the role of the showgirl, they were often ostracized by women who didn’t appreciate the flirtation or they were treated poorly by men for the same reason. The job didn’t pay much, and it was sometimes advertised as a way to meet and marry the type of men who were traveling around the world. Women were chosen for their looks, and only women that were considered “attractive” could get the job.

For example, an ad listed in the New York Times in 1966 for stewardesses for Eastern Airlines had the following requirements: “A high school graduate, single (widows and divorcees with no children considered), 20 years of age (girls 19 1/2 may apply for future consideration). 5’2″ but no more than 5’9″, weight 105 to 135 in proportion to height and have at least 20/40 vision without glasses.” Women were fired if they decided to enter into marriage. Women were also fired upon reaching the age of thirty-two.

Pan Am

From 2011 to 2012, ABC ran a show called Pan Am which focused on stewardesses in the 1960s on the Pan American airline. It starred Christina Ricci and Margot Robbie. Although the show was generally well received by critics, not enough viewership caused the show to be canceled after only one season.

The show was also somewhat criticized for not showing an accurate representation of life on a plane in the 1960s. One notable omission from the show was that none of the characters smoked, which is something that was extremely commonplace for the time period. However, The Wall Street Journal did run an article which noted former employees who claimed that portrayal was an accurate one.

Fashion in the Air

Fashion was quite a big deal for airline stewardesses, especially in the 1950s and ’60s. Some airlines even hired famous fashion designers to create special uniforms for flight attendants. For instance, in the late 1960s, famed designer Jean Louis was commissioned to create uniforms for the women of United airlines.

Braniff Airlines also hired a famous fashion designer – the legendary Emilio Pucci. Pucci created a plastic bubble helmet to protect women’s hair sprayed coifs while braving the wind on tarmacs. By the late ’60s and early ’70s, the “mod” fashion look was also an especially popular one for flight attendants.

Smoking on Planes

Smoking was legal on planes with some bans taking place in the 1980s and subsequently a full ban by the 1990s. Many people recall flying on a plane and exiting completely covered with and smelling like smoke. You would think smoking on a flight would be extremely dangerous, but then again it also used to be legal for people to smoke in hospitals near oxygen tanks.

Interestingly, Ralph Nader was among the first to call for a smoking ban. In 2015, officials also had to ban electronic cigarettes from flights and even carrying on board as the batteries have often been known to explode which is the last thing you would want to happen while flying.

Boozy Flights

Flights in the golden age of the airlines were considered a thing of luxury. For many people, taking part in drinking is part of the luxury lifestyle. Some planes were even equipped with fully stocked bars! American Airlines even had a piano bar so people could listen to live music while drinking their favorite cocktail or other alcoholic beverage.

Another thing: the alcohol was often free for passengers. While much of the luxury has changed for the everyday flier, drinking alcohol is still a common activity on board planes, although not a free one. It is definitely not recommended to drink too much as that will definitely get you booted from an airline (and a big hangover).

Mile-High Racism

During the golden age of aviation, racism was also an issue. As down on the ground below, segregation and general racism were the law of the land, it was also the same in the air. People of color were typically only in service positions if at all – not including stewardesses, who were typically only white.

According to Guillame de Syon, a professor of aviation history, “If you saw a black person at an airport during the Golden Age of Flying, they were almost definitely a porter, not a passenger.” This is something that has changed tremendously although some might say fights are still being affected by racism and xenophobia particularly with Trump’s recent ban on immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries which has effected even green card holders. Many people have been outraged by the policy and protests are taking place at airports across the country.

Celebrity Flights

Otis Redding in front of his airplane. Photo courtesy Zelma Redding
Otis Redding in front of his airplane. Photo courtesy Zelma Redding

Celebrities were of course known for taking luxury flights and that has not changed except now they own them. For instance, Donald Trump owns a $100 million luxury jet, and more than likely the Air Force One doesn’t match up to the luxury he was previously accustomed.

Many musicians have also died in various airplane crashes including Otis Redding whose plane went down in 1967 due to bad weather, country singer Patsy Cline’s plane crashed in 1963, and of course the famous plane crash in 1959 that killed Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens due to a snow storm. Crashes of any kind are much more seldom in this day and age due to the better technology and safety systems we now have.

Design on Planes

Since the existence of planes, they have often been decorated with various symbols and decals. However, the ’60s and ’70s took it to a whole different level and planes were created into pieces of artwork. Various airlines actually had their airplanes decorated by various artists.

For example, artist Alexander Calder was commissioned by Braniff airlines to create a work of art that was applied to a plane in the early 1970s. Calder has said that he first had to try it on model airplanes to see if it work on an actual size jet. The paint had to be specially made to withstand all of the conditions of flying including speed and altitude.

Interior Design in Planes

The planes of yesteryear were very luxurious compared to today’s passenger planes (with the exception of luxury jets of course). Planes were often two decks, with economy seating on the bottom and first class on the top complete with a winding staircase.

They were outfitted with bars and lounges which included couches and swivel chairs to perch on while you sipped a martini or other beverage of your choice. Planes also often had cabins which were complete with beds to stretch out in, can you imagine boarding a plane today and having all the leg room you could ever want or need?

Cost of Flying

For the most part, in the old days, planes were only for the wealthy. Flying in the old days was much more expensive. Even taking inflation into account, flying today is about 50% cheaper per mile than the late 1970s. It was around this same time period, that airlines, as we know them today, began to arise.

There was no free alcohol handed out and the planes were designed to fit as many passengers as possible instead of offering comfort first and offering a ride in what was essentially a luxury vehicle in the sky. These days you still don’t get that extreme level of luxury unless you’re willing to shell out the big bucks, but general plane rides are relatively inexpensive.

Odds of Crashing

These days when you board an airplane, the likelihood of you getting into plane crash are very slim. Thankfully, plan technology and engineering is something has improved greatly over the years. However back in the ’50s and ’60s, crashes were far more common, there was basically a five times greater chance of being killed back then than there is now.

That wasn’t the only issue with safety on a flight. You also had to worry about turbulence. Now a rough patch of turbulence is quite scary, but in the 1950s, it could literally kill you – particularly due to lower ceilings and the seat belt designs were not the greatest. The divider between first class and economy used to be made of glass. Can you imagine that?

Onboard Entertainment

These days we have a ridiculous amount of entertainment at our fingertips at all times. With our smart phones alone, one has access to a tiny computer that you can communicate with, watch a movie, read a book, or listen to music. In the old days, this was not the case, especially for long flights. A popular pastime for passengers on flights before the mid-1960s was writing postcards.

Often, you were given a stack of postcards at the beginning of a flight and it became a sort of tradition to fill them out to mail to friends and loved ones. After the mid-’60s, the first inflight movies were introduced which also helped to pass the time.

Bathrooms

Going to the restroom on a flight in this day and age is not exactly a fun activity. The bathrooms are usually very tiny and cramped even for those petite in stature. It’s even worse if you have children or are a larger individual. But back in the 1960s, the bathrooms were full size.

Airlines clearly catered more to creating a comfortable experience for people rather than cramming as many people as can safely fit on an airplane, as is the practice today. Can you imagine being able to go inside a full-sized bathroom on a modern flight? That’s one feature I think everyone would love to have back!

Dress Code

Since flying during the golden age of aviation was a luxury only afforded to the wealthy, many treated it kind of like a social event. And like any good social event, people had to ensure that they would dress the part. Many wore either formal attire or their Sunday best, so to speak.

As some have said, it was like dressing up as though one was going to visit the theater; men typically wore suits and women would wear dresses. At times, if you were dressed the part, you might even get lucky enough to get bumped up to first class if seats were empty.

Security

Even though hijackings occurred quite regularly during both the 1960s and the ’70s, security at airlines was definitely more laidback then what it is today. Of course, this has also increased dramatically in the past 16 years after the attacks on 9/11.

People remember not having to show ID in order to board the aircraft, having their families wait right at the gate to greet them, and some even recall once bringing a crossbow on board. What’s more, many remember pilots leaving the cockpit doors open the whole flight. Those who flew back in the golden do, however, remember using an X-ray machine which we still use today. Overall, security has drastically changed at airports in recent time.

Party on the Plane

As mentioned before, air travel could often get quite boring especially without all our modern electronic luxuries. In order to get through the boredom of a long flight, people would basically have a party on board. People would hang out in various lounges drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes.

They would sit on comfy leather couches, lounge in swivel chairs, and even be able to order their favorite alcoholic beverage from their favorite stewardess/waitress. In the ’70s, the Boeing 747, specifically, converted their upper deck into cocktail lounges. Can you imagine if you could get out of your seat and visit a bar while midflight today?

Food and Drink

A common complaint about flights of today are the options for food onboard. Even the phrase “airplane food” has entered the cultural lexicon to signify food that is on the poor end of the tasty scale. This wasn’t always the case; again with the lingering theme of luxury, airlines often served their best meals that would be considered fine dining.

This was apparently something they were even in competition against each other. Various airlines also offered multiple course meals with a variety of options. They also served your food on real glassware as opposed to their now plastic alternatives that are offered on flights. Oh yeah, and did we mention the drinks were free?

Service on Flights

Regarding flights during the golden years of aviation, many people always talk about the experience of service onboard a flight. First of all, there was typically more room as airlines accommodated comfort. Plus, the stewardesses were there to wait on your every whim including magnificent dining, free drinks, and not to mention the flirtation with beautiful women.

Nowadays instead of socializing on a flight, people are typically focused on their own things which typically revolves around their smart phone or another kind of device. While it would be remarkable to have some luxuries of the olden days, for the sake of safety we aren’t likely to see them again.

Baggage Claim

Nowadays baggage claim seems like a pain while you are standing there waiting for your baggage to roar by on the conveyor belt. Of course, there is also the often “lost baggage” that happens all too often to airline passengers everywhere. However, would you believe that in the golden days it was even worse?

Back then conveyor belts were not yet being used until the late ’50s or early 60s. You would have to stand and wait for a “skycap” (that’s airline-speak for a porter) to go and fetch your baggage as you pointed it out. Well, some things never change!

Onboard Smorgasbord

Unless you fly first class, you can expect to be given a small bag of pretzels and a couple sips of soda on your next flight. As discussed earlier, flights of yesteryear had serious in-flight accommodations when it came to food and drink.

Take for example this picture from a Scandinavian Airlines flight in 1969. In addition to the sizeable cocktails, these passengers are enjoying cured meats, cheese, butter and an entire loaf of freshly-baked bread! Let’s just hope there wasn’t any turbulence.