Long lines at security checkpoints, small plastic cups of soda, tiny bags of pretzels, overcrowded planes and fees for every piece of equipment all reflect the reality of 21st century commercial air travel. No wonder many travelers mourn the so-called "golden age" of air travel in the United States.
In the 1950s, airlines advertised commercial air travel as glamorous: flight attendants served full meals in real china, airline seats were large (and often empty) with plenty of legroom, and passengers were always well-dressed.
After the introduction of airplanes in the late 1950s, passengers could travel to the most remote places at speeds unimaginable a decade earlier. A plane flight from New York to London that could take 15 hours in the early 1950s could be completed in just seven hours in the early 1960s.
But nostalgia for airlines can be deceptive, and the 'golden age' is seldom as beautiful as it seems.
Until the introduction of jet aircraft in 1958, most of the country's commercial aircraft were propeller-driven, such as the DC-4. Most of these aircraft were unpressurized and could not fly at a maximum altitude of 10,000–12,000 feet in inclement weather. Delays were frequent, disruptions were the order of the day and airsickness bags were often required.
Some aircraft were roomy and cramped: the Boeing Stratocruiser, for example, had seating for 50 first class or 81 bus passengers, while the DC-3 had 21 passengers. It can fly up to 32,000 feet, allowing the Stratocruiser to fly over the most extreme weather conditions it encounters. But only 56 of these aircraft were in service.
Although the later DC-6s and DC-7s were under pressure, they still flew much lower than the jets that soon followed – 20,000 feet versus 30,000 feet – and often encountered turbulence. Piston engines were large, complex, and difficult to maintain, contributing to frequent delays.
The old adage “free time flies by” still applies to this time.
In the 1930s and 1940s almost everyone flew first class. Airlines in the 1950s and 1960s encouraged more people to travel by offering bus or tourist fares, but the savings were relative: cheaper than first class but still expensive. For example, in 1955 the so-called "bargain fare" from New York to Paris in 2023 would be just $3,200. Although the advent of airplanes drove prices down, the cost was still out of reach for most Americans. Perhaps the traveler was a white businessman traveling for his business, and the airlines of the 1960s – with attractive young flight attendants in miniskirts – continued to cater to frequent fliers.
During this time, the demographics of travelers began to change. More and more women, more young people and pensioners started stealing; However, air travel was financially unaffordable for most people.
If it was a golden age, it was for a few.
It is also forgotten that air travel was far more dangerous up until the 1960s than it is today. During the 1950s and 1960s, American Airlines had at least half a dozen accidents a year, most of which killed all on board. Today's people may lament the overcrowded planes and lack of equipment on board, but the number of fatalities per million miles flown has fallen dramatically since the late 1970s, especially compared to the 1960s. And at least in the 1970s, airports even had kiosks selling airline insurance.
And we can't forget the confusion. So many planes were hijacked in the mid-1960s that Take Me to Cuba became a hit with stand-up comics. In 1971, DB Cooper — the hijacker who jumped out of a Boeing 727 after extorting $200,000 — achieved folk hero status. But one reason American Airlines passengers (in general) are now tolerating security checks is that they want some sort of reassurance that their plane is safe.
And if the examples above don't take away from the glory of the "golden age" of air travel, remember: smoking on flights is legal and encouraged.
Janet Bednarik is a history professor at the University of Dayton.
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