Was Air Travel Really Better ‘Back Then’?

Airlines and travel companies used posters to promote the glamor of air travel. This view is of Machu Picchu in the Andes Mountains circa 1930. Image courtesy picryl.

Clicking through picryl, the huge online source for public-domain images, I stumbled upon a trove of old travel posters from the middle of last century. The decades between the 1920s and 1970s have been called the Golden Age of Air Travel. I certainly felt a sense of nostalgia from the posters I saw. It seems that in recent years the airlines have stuffed more and more people into planes while steadily eliminating the perks that once made travel so desirable. At first I wanted to go back to the glamorous era depicted in the posters. Now, after a little research, I’m not so sure. The more I learn about air travel back then, the more I realize my sense of the past has been skewed by glitzy advertising.

A Trans World Airlines poster from 1960. Image from Library of Congress.

The first thing I learned was that flying back then, before jets started replacing piston-engine planes in the 1950s, was a long, arduous affair. A prop-driven flight in the late 1940s from Sydney, Australia, to London, England, took five days, with several stops and overnight stays along the way. The same flight today takes about 23 hours, with a recent test flight covering the distance in a record 20 hours.

At over 11,000 miles (17,800 km), the flight from London to Sydney is the longest in the world. Image from picryl.

Flying cost a lot more back then, too, especially internationally. In the 1950s, only two of ten Americans had ever flown, expense being a key obstacle. A flight from Los Angeles to Boston in the 1940s cost more than $4500 in today’s dollars. You can make the same trip today for less than $200. Want to fly to Paris? In 2020, a direct flight from New York City costs $450. In 1955, tourists shelled out the equivalent of $2600.

A poster from around 1950, from publicdomainpictures.net.

Flights remained prohibitively expensive for most Americans into the late-1970s. A prime reason was tight federal oversight of routes and fares, which limited competition and locked in profits for the airlines. The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, based on lessons learned in unregulated California and Texas, ended strict government control of the industry. Airfares have dropped about 50% since.

Image by Jean Beaufort/publicdomainpictures.net.

Jets back then, like cars, were gas-guzzlers. Boeing released the 707 in the mid-1950s to replace piston-engine planes like the venerable Lockheed Constellation. Airlines rejected the 707 due to its high cost of operation. When test pilot Tex Johnston barrel-rolled the 80-ton plane during a test flight in 1955, orders started to roll in from buyers impressed with the plane’s handling. Despite becoming the first jet to gain mass appeal, the aircraft never shed its thirsty reputation. When the U.S. military launched the B-52 bomber in 1957, it employed similar engines to those on the 707. It burned fuel so quickly, it couldn’t make it to the Soviet Union and back. The Air Force solved that particular problem by developing another plane capable of refueling the B-52 in flight.

A Lockheed Constellation soars over New York City circa 1950. Airlines soon replaced piston-engine planes like the Constellation with jets like the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8. Image from picryl.
The Boeing 707. Image from publicdomainpictures.net.

Besides being inefficient, aircraft back then were dangerous. The de Havilland Comet was the first commercial jetliner when it launched with the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) in 1952. BOAC withdrew the jets in 1954 after design flaws caused three to crash. For the decade, the number of deaths worked out to 5.2 for every 100,000 hours of flight time (four times the total today). Safety didn’t improve the following decade, when an average of four passenger jets crashed every year. And if crashes weren’t enough, flyers braved nearly one hijacking a week throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s.

It might have been glamorous to fly BOAC, but not on a de Havilland Comet. Image from publicdomainpictures.net.

Prolonged flights, sky-high fares, poor fuel efficiency, and dangerous flying conditions all suggest that yesterday’s air travel was far worse than what we experience today. Sure, leg room is a bit crunched today and seats are narrow, but we have wifi and inflight entertainment options our parents and grandparents never imagined. And let’s not forget that cigarette smoke filled cabins until the federal government banned smoking on planes in 1990. Yes, some regulation is a good thing.

I leave you with a few more travel posters to enjoy. Thanks for reading and happy travel in new year!

Pan Am’s clippers flew in the 1930s and 1940s. Image from picryl.

Poster made by the Works Progress Administration in 1936 (renamed the Work Projects Administration after 1939). The WPA was part of Franklin Roosevelt’s Second New Deal to pull the American economy out of the Great Depression. Unemployed artists were put to work to create thousands of posters to publicize community activities, theatrical productions, and health and educational programs throughout the country. Over 900 WPA posters can be found at the Library of Congress website. Above image from picryl.

Works Cited

Bolluyt, Jess. “Here’s What It Was Really Like to Fly During the ‘Golden Age’ of Air Travel.” Showbiz Cheatsheet. 17 Apr 2018.

Brownlee, John. “What It Was Really Like to Fly During the Golden Age of Travel.” Fast Company. 12 May 2013.

CNT Editors. “A Pan Am Flight Attendant on the Golden Age of Air Travel: Travelogue Podcast.” Conde Nast Traveler. 6 May 2016.

Ellwood, Mark. “I Was a Flight Attendant During the Golden Age of Travel.” Conde Nast Traveler. 6 Jun 2019.

“The Era of Mass Air Travel Begins.” Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Glancey, Jonathan. “Boeing 707: The Aircraft That Changed the Way We Fly.” BBC. 19 Oct 2014.

Houston, Jack. “Why Air Travel is So Cheap.” Business Insider. 8 Nov 2019.

“List of Accidents and Incidents Involving Commercial Aircraft.” Wikipedia.

Llewellyn, Marc. “The Golden Age of Plane Travel: What Flying Was Like in the 1950s and 1960s Compared to Now.” Skyscanner. 3 May 2020.

Novak, Matt. “Air Travel Today is a Damn Bargain.” Gizmodo. 29 Jul 2013.

Quest, Richard and Barry Neild. “London to Sydney Flight Breaks World Record.” CNN. 16 Nov 2019.

Pitrelli, Monica Buchanan. “Photos Reveal How Much Flying Has Changed Since its ‘Golden Age.'” CNBC. 30 Nov 2020.

Sharkey, Joe. “Forget 1960, the Golden Age is Now.” The New York Times. 7 May 2014.

Shirka, Hayley. “World’s Longest Flight Takes Off: Non-Stop London to Sydney.” The National News. 14 Nov 2019.

Smith, Patrick. “There Was No ‘Golden Age’ of Air Travel.” The New York Times. 27 May 2017.

Strutner, Suzy. “This Is What Your Flight Used to Look like (and It’s Actually Crazy).” HuffPost. 6 Dec 2017.

Thompson, Derek. “How Airline Ticket Prices Fell 50 Percent in 30 Years (And Why Nobody Noticed).” The Atlantic. 28 Feb 2013.

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