Nowadays, traveling by plane probably feels like more of a hassle than a joy. A lengthy line for check-in, uncomfortable seating and poor food can all add up to a miserable journey, after all. But it wasn’t always like this. The 1950s and ’60s are often regarded as the “Golden Age of flying,” in fact, when departures were swift, legroom was plentiful and food and drink were exquisite. It was pretty much a different world – for better and worse.
Today, you’ll find a wealth of choice while booking flight tickets – from coach all the way through to first class. Back in the 1950s, though, there was initially only one class of travel when it came to airplanes. And these weren’t in the conditions now reserved for the cheap seats, either. Yes, at that time, everyone actually flew in relatively plush comfort.
Passengers weren’t stuffed into cramped seating, for instance; by contrast, seats went all the way back. Even sleeping in a specially made-up bed on long-haul flights wasn’t out of the ordinary. That’s a convenience you won’t find outside of first-class cabins nowadays.
If you were flying in the ’50s, you could also expect to enjoy plenty of alcohol en route to your destination. Drinks were free-flowing and, unbelievably, came gratis. No expense was spared, either: brandy and champagne were common in-flight staples. You may have even found a cocktail bar aboard the plane where you could socialize with other passengers.
That’s all a far cry from the exorbitant amount of money you can now spend on a flight for little more than a miniature bottle of booze and a mouthful of soda. But it wasn’t just the drinks that were superior back in the day; the food was, too. And if you’ve ever taken a long-haul flight that included a hot meal, you’ll be familiar with the kind of microwave-quality fare that most airlines now offer.
This was not the case on the first-class flights of the ’50s and ’60s, though. There, meals were extravagant affairs often consisting of lobster – or beef carved right there at your seat. Some airlines offered full three-course meals, while others served food on lavish buffet tables. You could certainly expect to eat well aboard a plane in the mid-20th century.
“The seats were comfort [and] the food was good,” William Stadiem, author of
Jet Set: The People, the Planes, the Glamour and the Romance in Aviation’s Glory Years, told The Sacramento Bee in 2014. “I mean, Pan Am was catered by Maxim’s of Paris. You had fois gras and smoked salmon along with caviar.”
And in keeping with the luxury nature of flying, even passengers’ dress sense was worlds apart from the average traveler’s attire today. You wouldn’t find anyone boarding a plane in sweatpants and a T-shirt back in the 1950s. The duration of the flight also made no difference to sartorial choices. Traveling by air was a big deal back then, meaning people dressed for the occasion.
Jackets, waistcoats and ties were the norm for male travelers, while women sported their finest dresses, high-heeled footwear and jewelry such as pearls. Fashion changes quickly, though, of course. And when new trends emerged in the ’60s, airline passengers adopted them. Yet while flowery scarves and ties may have become more common sights in that era, people still dressed smartly to fly.
In the 1950s and ’60s air stewardesses – not yet known as flight attendants – were also picked predominantly because of their looks. And prospective candidates had to abide by a strict set of aesthetic guidelines. Among the requirements were a feminine hairstyle, manicured hands and even a maximum weight of 135 pounds.
What’s more, air stewardesses had to be single with no marital history at all – meaning even divorcées and widows didn’t make the cut. And in the ’50s, the women’s uniforms consisted of body-sculpting outfits, hats and – on occasion – gloves. In the following decade, meanwhile, skirts rose well above the knee and became more colorful.
“Sex did sell in those years,” aviation enthusiast Cliff Muskiet told
The Sacramento Bee. “Short skirts are not practical at all on board because you have to bend and stretch all the time. So I really admire the stewardesses who wore these kinky-looking short uniforms.” Stadiem would also describe those women as “sexily stunning… avian goddesses.”
Despite the stringent employment requirements, however, most flights had plenty of air stewardesses. In fact, the ratio of attendants per passenger was much higher during the “Golden Age of flying” than it is today. As a result, then, passengers could generally expect someone to minister to their every need almost instantly.
All this luxury came at a price, though – much as anything close to it does today. But while you can usually find a flight that fits any budget now, it was a different story in the ’50s. For example, a return ticket to Phoenix from Chicago in 1955 cost $138, which works out at around $1,168 nowadays. And that doesn’t even take into account the present-day higher average salary.
However, those fees were once set by regulatory body the International Air Traffic Association (IATA). That meant airlines couldn’t compete with each other on price in the ’50s, as the IATA decided the fare for any particular route. The level of service operators offered, then, was all that was left to tell them apart from one another. And that’s exactly where they aimed to excel – hence the luxurious conditions.
Yet while first class was the only option on international and cross-Atlantic flights, U.S. airlines would ultimately introduce coach as an option on domestic services. The American companies then wanted to expand that option to flights overseas, but European airlines were hesitant. After all, cheaper tickets would likely have meant lower revenue.
Eventually, though, both sides reached an agreement after major airline Pan Am threatened to leave the IATA. And from May 1, 1952, operators could offer a lower fare – with the caveat of a reduced level of service. That trade-off meant protection for the airlines’ revenues – even with cheaper tickets – as they could fit more people on to a flight.
In the mid-20th century, meanwhile, most airlines were owned by governments that naturally had an interest in boosting visitor numbers by way of the new passenger fares. It made sense, then, that the cheaper section would go on to be referred to as “tourist class.” But although the prices for tourist class were around 30 percent cheaper than those for traditional first-class tickets, flying this way was still relatively expensive.
A holiday across the Atlantic would still have been out of reach for many families, in fact. But the number of passengers ballooned nonetheless, showing a clear demand for cheaper flights – even without the perks of first class. And tourist class was a considerable downgrade – not least because 50 percent more seats were crammed into the cabin. Food had to be paid for, too, and there was no alcohol whatsoever.
Restricting the service offered in tourist class, however, meant that flying in first class was still a real luxury. And yet for all its frills, many elements of first-class travel wouldn’t even meet today’s standards in coach. Yes, while modern passengers may not enjoy unlimited alcohol or caviar, there are still reasons not to look at the “Golden Age of flying” with envy.
In-flight entertainment options in the 21st century are virtually limitless, for example. On long-haul flights, most airlines offer a personal entertainment system for each passenger. And even on shorter trips, the wealth of gadgets at our fingertips means that we’re never short of something to distract us from the tedium of travel. But that wasn’t the case in the ’50s and ’60s.
In-flight movies didn’t really become commonplace until the ’60s; and even then, one film was screened to the entire plane on a single device. And if you didn’t like what was on offer, the alternative was thus a book or a newspaper. Many airlines also provided postcards for travelers to write to their friends and family, where they could describe their flight.
If boredom truly set in, though, you could always have another complimentary drink or light up a cigarette. But that in itself led to another problem: the air in a cabin was often thick with fumes. And enduring this in such a confined environment can’t have been pleasant for non-smokers aboard the plane.
One thing you could easily do on a first-class flight in the ’50s and ’60s, however, was sleep. Nowadays, the cramped conditions of standard passenger flights make it difficult to get any shut-eye at all. Back then, by contrast, the spacious nature of first class – coupled with the fact that flights were rarely full – meant travelers could spread out in the cabin.
Still, the lack of things to do was compounded by flights taking far longer than they do now. You could expect to spend a whopping four days traveling from Sydney to London, for instance. And you’d have multiple connections on the way in Darwin, Singapore, Cairo and other cities – as well as two full overnight stops.
That’s a stark contrast to what’s on offer today. On March 25, 2018, for instance, the first non-stop flight from Perth to London touched down at Heathrow after 17 hours in the air. And while that may sound like a long time to be on a plane, the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner used for the journey was specially designed for better air quality and reduced cabin noise.
Lengthy flight times weren’t the only major difference to the “kangaroo route” between the U.K. and Australia. Back in the ’50s, Aussie airline Qantas used Lockheed Constellation planes that were equipped with deafening propeller engines. At the end of that decade, though, Quantas introduced the Boeing 707 on its Sydney to San Francisco route.
The advent of that plane in 1959 arguably marked the beginning of the modern jet age, too, as prior to that commercial flights were often uncomfortable. Older airplanes didn’t have pressurized cabins, you see, and this limited each to a maximum altitude of around 12,000 feet. As such, if bad weather struck, a pilot couldn’t fly over it.
Delays were common then to boot, and when flights did leave on time you could expect major turbulence in the air. Then a handful of planes were pressurized, such as the Boeing Stratocruiser – which could carry 50 passengers in first class and had a cruising altitude of 32,000 feet. The models were few and far between, however, with only 56 ever flown.
What’s more, the “Golden Age of flying” certainly wasn’t so when it came to safety. Today, there are 1.33 deaths for every 100,000 hours of flight time; in 1952, on the other hand, the number of fatalities was a whopping 5.2 within the same time-frame. And that statistic is even more shocking when you consider the far smaller numbers of people traveling by plane back then.
According to aviation expert Guillaume de Syon, limited technology caused that high death rate. “It wasn’t safe to land in fog, so there were many crashes. Mid-air collisions were common,” the professor at Albright College in Pennsylvania told Fast Company in 2013. “Engines dropped out of planes so often that they weren’t even recorded as accidents if the other engine could land them safely.”
It wasn’t just catastrophic plane-related disasters that posed a threat, though. Owing to lower ceilings and weaker seat belts, severe turbulence could lead to a broken neck. And as if that wasn’t scary enough, the dividers marking the separation of first class from the rest of the plane were made of glass and prone to shattering. Sharp edges were scattered throughout the interior of planes, too.
So, the luxury of a first-class flight in the ’50s often came at a price higher than the ticket cost. Even so much as one wrong-footed stumble on the way to the bathroom could apparently spell doom. “In the 1950s people were afraid to fly – and for good reason,” de Syon has explained. “Statistically, there were a lot more plane crashes and flight accidents in the ‘Golden Age of flying.’”
And while flying first class afforded all kinds of benefits over the newly introduced tourist class, it still didn’t shield anyone from the noise. Yes, while these pictures may look serene, the cacophony coming from the plane was reportedly horrendous. In 2016 Quora user Tim Hinds gave his own memories of flying in the early ’60s.
“When we took off, I remember the tail would swerve back and forth until all three wheels were off the ground,” Hinds wrote. “It was noisy, and since [the cabin] wasn’t pressurized we had to stay below 10,000 feet. The radial engines were loud and left exhaust trails and oil over the wings.” He even described the early pressurized planes as being “noisy as hell.”
Airport security was also completely minimal some 60 years ago – although that made flying far more convenient. Yes, instead of arriving at the terminal three hours ahead of your flight, you could in fact rock up 30 minutes beforehand and still get on board. But, of course, increased security protocols exist today for a reason.
In the mid-20th century, you see, there were a spate of airborne hijackings, with a whopping 159 plane takeovers occurring between 1961 and 1972. An unbelievable 130 of those took place in just a four-year period. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for multiple events to happen on the same day, with assailants typically demanding cash or asylum in foreign countries.
And you may have noticed from these photographs that there was another far more unpleasant side to air travel in the ’50s and ’60s. “In the Golden Age of flying, only white people really flew,” de Syon told Fast Company. That was partly due to economics, as the average wage for an African-American male in 1950 was half that of his white counterpart. But it was also down to the airlines.
“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 said. “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.”
So, while flying first class in the ’50s and ’60s undoubtedly looks glamorous from these photos, the truth may have been somewhat different. And yet there are parts of the experience that many of us would be envious of today. The generous leg room, flowing alcohol and delicious food, for example, would all be welcomed with open arms – without the corresponding cost, of course.