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Flying the friendly skies has never been more accessible or affordable than it is today. But we all know it can come with some poor experiences, from navigating new Covid restrictions and cramped seats to inconsiderate passengers and every amenity becoming a paid add-on: Sometimes the most exhausting part of your trip is just getting there! So it can be tempting to look back to the 1950s, a time widely considered to be the Golden Age of air travel, and pine over glass stemware, gourmet meals, cocktail bars, and spacious seating areas. But we’re here to convince you that flying today is actually better than it was during the Golden Age, and here’s why.
Smoking is prohibited
You hear it on the overhead announcement each time the flight attendants go through their speech, but isn’t it even hard to imagine lighting up a cigarette on a plane? That wasn’t the case in the beginning, when passengers were free to puff away. With stale air filling the cabin throughout the journey, you can only imagine how congested everyone must have felt once they were on ground. Thanks to title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, chapter I, subchapter C, part 25, subpart D, section 25.854, paragraph g (whew!)—it’s mandated that no American flights allow ciggies. This started in the late 1980s, and was mandated by 1990. Fun fact: There are still ashtrays inside lavatories. Why? Because if some fool decides to light up, flight attendants need a safe place to extinguish it.
Dress is casual
The next time you’re waiting at your gate for takeoff, glance around to see what the folks around you are wearing. More often than not, it’s athleisure wear like leggings with a tunic, jeans and a T-shirt, or even just-rolled-out-of-bed pajamas (especially when catching a redeye). These days most people prioritize comfort above all else. This is a nice perk as hopping the pond in the wee hours of the morning can be tiring. When flights were still newly accessible, they served lavish meals and required certain dress codes—including dresses and suits. Flying was truly an experience and a place “to be seen” until 1978, when the Airline Deregulation Act was signed into law. Because flights had to make changes to remain competitive, fancy dining and free alcohol was quickly suspended, eventually leading to a more casual mode of travel.
Think about the longest flight you’ve ever been on. Whether it was seven hours or 17, can you imagine not having any sort of device to keep yourself occupied? And if you aren’t among the rare few who can catch Zzz’s at a 90-degree angle, being wide awake and mighty bored for hours upon hours sounds pretty terrifying. In the 1950s, it was common for flight attendants to pass around postcards for passengers to fill out to keep them occupied. The first movie on a flight was shown in 1962; regular in-flight entertainment didn’t really take off—no pun intended—until the 1980s and even then, everyone watched the same thing, which was most likely a second-run movie!
There are budget-friendly options
As you can imagine, the cost to operate a plane in the Golden Age was much more expensive than it is today. Advancements in technology have created a much more budget-mindful experience for passengers, allowing more people to see the world and its wonders. Here’s a way to think about it: In 1955, a one-way flight from Los Angeles to Kansas City would cost the equivalent of $575 in today’s dollars, and would take two hours longer than it does today.
Flights are easier to book
Ever wonder how people booked flights before the dawn of online travel agencies like Travelocity? To put it lightly, it was a process. The customer journey would begin by calling a travel agency, who would go over your trip and dates with you. Then, they’d consult the Official Airline Guide, which was the only place to find the scheduled flights for the next three months. In fact, you couldn’t book beyond these dates—so forget about booking a summer vacation in the depths of winter. Once they figured out the best route, they’d have to call each airline individually and request seats. If available, they would need to consult air tariff books and calculate airfare, invoice joint fare agreements, verify and book. In a few weeks, the travel agent would receive the physical tickets before giving them to you, and you’d pay their fee. Whew!
Airplanes are better designed for turbulence…
Anxious flyers have white knuckles and sweaty foreheads when even the slightest bump interrupts an otherwise smooth ride. They would have been nervous-nellies every mile of the way during the Golden Age, when turbulence was not only dangerous, but potentially fatal. Previously, first class was separated from economy via super-chic glass divides that would sometimes shatter. And if you fell on them, it could kill you. Yikes!
…and they’re safer
Today, for every 100,000 hours that planes are in flight, there are only an estimated 1.33 fatalities. However, in 1955, that number was 5.2. Most of the improvements are thanks to flying technology that gives pilots an extra layer of security and assistance during poor weather conditions. Before these changes, it was fairly common for flights to crash into each other in the sky or for pilots to avoid landing in fog out of fear.
There are less drunken shenanigans
True, if you’re taking a Thursday afternoon flight to Miami or Las Vegas, you’re destined to be surrounded by bachelors and bachelorettes, but it’s definitely not as annoying as it once was to be around drunken passengers. Why? Two words: free booze. In the 1950s and ’60s, alcohol was complimentary, and people didn’t quite understand how altitude heightened the impact of drinking. This caused all sorts of scenes—from in-flight brawls to sexual harassment and more. These days, a flight attendant has every right to cut you off—no questions asked. Cheers to that!
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