Was the Golden Age of flying as great as people say it was?
AIR TRAVEL has undoubtedly made the world a much smaller place. In less than a century, it has cut the time it takes to travel around the globe from weeks to mere hours.
Commercial aviation is a miraculous invention, and we thank the Wright Brothers every day for making the first successful controlled flight in North Carolina in 1903.
But flying has come a long way since the two brothers turned the idea that humans could soar higher than any bird from a futuristic dream into a reality.
Nowadays, onboard WiFi means flyers don’t have to disconnect from the world below just because they’re 30,000 feet in the sky.
We’ve also adopted a liking for onboard shopping and catching up on all the boxsets we couldn’t make time for back on earth.
We’ve become so used to having hundreds of in-flight entertainment choices; it’s easy to forget that back in the 1950s when commercial aviation took off, WiFi hadn’t been invented yet.
But back in the 50s, flying was something entirely different. A special occasion, something to get dressed up for, an exciting and unique experience, hence being known as the “Golden Age.”
Passengers would gather for group photos before boarding the plane, (not too unlike today).
Once on board, welcome drinks and nibbles would be served, even to those in
cattle economy class.
But then again, flying in the 50s and 60s did mean paying a premium price for the privilege.
In some cases, flyers would have to fork out up to 5 percent of their salary to embark on a transatlantic journey by air.
Yet flyers seemed happy to pay this price for a flight which, more often than not, resembled an endurance test rather than a smooth journey.
In the 50s, commercial aviation was in its infancy and most planes were piston-powered.
This created a mighty racket inside the cabin, and you can bet your bottom dollar Golden Age passengers felt every last bit of turbulence.
Nowadays, AI technology is used to stabilize aircraft traveling through turbulence. But back then the technology was limited, and suffering whiplash was an accepted possibility.
But then again, Golden Age aircraft offered three to six inches of extra legroom for every passenger. Anyone over four-feet tall will know a few inches makes all the difference.
Another antidote to enduring dangerous turbulence was the extravagant menus airlines offered.
Forget tiny plastic trays stuffed with unidentifiable, sodium-filled beige-ness; the Golden Age served up lobster, fruit baskets, roasts, fresh vegetables, cheese boards, and whole hams.
Most meals were served on china crockery and drinks were poured into glass tumblers and glasses.
Given the lack of in-flight entertainment in the Golden Age, a favorite pastime was drinking.
All food and drink were included in the price of the ticket, so passengers often got sloshed on a flight.
Tiny wine bottles weren’t a thing back then either, so passengers were served from decanters full of premium whiskey, sherry, gin, and all the other headache-inducing beverages.
There weren’t any smoking regulations either. So if you fancied a toke with your two fingers of whiskey, you could chuff away.
But while it’s true the Golden Age had a dining service even the late Anthony Bourdain would have enjoyed, it certainly made claiming your baggage difficult.
Baggage carousels weren’t introduced until the 70s, so before then, bags were delivered by hand by a skycap. Passengers would point to their luggage and produce a claim ticket and generous tip for the porter in order to get their bag.
Even if you weren’t alive in the 50s, vintage photos and anecdotes of made-to-order eggs instil a sense of nostalgia in all of us.
But glamorous images of made-up air stewardesses, as they were known then, only tell us half the story.
The difficult-to-maintain piston and propeller engines meant flights were often delayed or canceled due to bad weather, giving popularity to the phrase, “Time to spare, go by air.”
More worrying than being delayed, however, were the amount of plane crashes in the 50s and 60s.
According to The Conversation, during the Golden Age, US airlines experienced at least six plane crashes per year and airports were littered with travel insurance kiosks.
Hijackings also dented airline’s reputations throughout the late 20th century.
Even before the tragic events of 9/11, passengers were taking control of planes either for their own financial gain or to express their martyrdom.
Only after 2001 were strict regulations enforced, meaning passengers could no longer stroll into the cockpit whenever they fancied it.
There’s no doubt flyers in the 21st century have it better than those in the 50s.
Cheaper tickets, more flight routes, safer planes and a wide selection of in-flight entertainment almost certainly outweighs the reduced legroom.