The Golden Age of Air Travel in the 1950s Definitely Won't Fly Anymore

By David GallagherLast Updated Sep 16, 2020 1:38:20 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Weird History/YouTube

The golden age of air travel is often remembered fondly as a time of helpful stewardesses and sumptuous airline meals. However, it was also a time when people didn't need an ID to board a plane, and smoking onboard was perfectly normal. And until the Civil Rights movement began to bring about change, air travel remained mostly for white passengers, which is far from golden, indeed.

Modern air travel guidelines and practices may be a hassle, but they're designed to keep passengers safe. And as COVID-19 continues to reshape the world, it's likely that airlines will need to develop new ways of keeping travelers healthy and (relatively) happy. Still, we can hope that at least a few of these comforts might come back.

A Different Class of Legroom

One genuinely positive aspect of commercial flight during the 1950s and 1960s was the ample legroom when compared to today. In the early days of air travel, there wasn't a lot of demand for tickets, and airplanes were far smaller than they are today. A standard plan might hold an average of about 18 passengers

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Photo Courtesy: Australian National Maritime Museum/Flickr

Consequently, there was an awful lot of room to stretch out and relax. Many seats could recline into twin-sized sleepers without bothering the passengers in other rows! Some airplanes even had train-style seating that allowed large groups of passengers to sit together. While it’s possible that COVID-19 concerns might lead to more space between seats in the future, it might be best to believe it when you see it.

Snooze in Style

In addition to seats that could fully recline, many airlines had sleeping cabins that hung above the traditional seating. That's right: Instead of storing-away extra baggage in the overhead bins, people stored themselves!

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These small overhead cabins came with a privacy curtain though other amenities for sleepers were sparse. The mattresses were incredibly thin and uncomfortable, as were the complimentary pillows and blankets. Still, it was probably an immense relief for families traveling with children, as parents could send cranky tots up to their bunks.

Breaking Out the Fine China

It's no secret that airline food can be awful. The pre-packaged, overly salted meals that most airlines serve are a far cry from the fare in traditional kitchens. However, the airline dining experience wasn’t always as low-quality as passengers today have come to expect.

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Photo Courtesy: SAS Scandinavian Airlines/Wikimedia Commons

Decades ago, people ate from delicate dishes and drank from actual glass cups. Also, most airplanes had small electric ovens to heat premade gourmet meals for passengers. Today, extremely small in-flight kitchens and food storage areas mean most passengers' high altitude dining experiences simply aren’t what they used to be, and they’re not likely to return.

What’s on the Menu?

So what did people eat with their fine cutlery on plans back in the day? Standard menu options included grilled filet mignon, cheese platters, vintage wines, roasted turkey, and caviar.

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Regionally-themed meals were also popular. Flights to Japan might include a wide range of Japanese culinary delights, including chicken teriyaki, while trips to France might be accompanied by rich, French wines. Essentially, passengers got to experience a taste of their destination before arriving!

Minorities Weren’t Welcome, Which is Terrible

The first commercial flights were expensive, which limited the types of people who could afford to travel by air. Only the wealthiest people could initially afford the fare. But on top of that, open racism was much more commonplace since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn’t exist yet.

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Consequently, nearly all of the first airline passengers were white. The only people who weren’t in airports were baggage porters and (later) the occasional stewardess. Some airlines even tried to teach their agents to identify black voices and isolate black passengers on their own flights. Absolutely horrendous.

You Might Need a Chiropractor Afterward

Back in the black-and-white days of the 1950s, commercial airplanes didn't fly very high. That's because they didn’t use jet engines. Instead, these early passenger planes were powered by pistons, the same mechanism that powers gasoline engines.

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However, because these engines weren’t as powerful as modern ones, they had more difficulty moving through the air smoothly. Turbulence was a real problem, and passengers regularly came off planes with extreme back pain from bracing against all the shaking.

Things Got Messy

The problem of combining fine dining with extreme turbulence is the latter quickly makes the former into a real danger. Take this carving cart, for example. Sure, it looks fantastic, and the food quality is obviously exceptional. But the turbulence in planes back when this sort of service was provided meant that it was also potentially dangerous.

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Ironically, the advent of jet engines and the subsequent decrease in turbulence made meals like these much safer to serve. Now, however, there’s neither the room nor the budget for this sort of decadent service.

Clear Skies, Smokey Cabin

Secondhand smoke is still a divisive issue, but most people know not to smoke in public areas — in fact, it’s often prohibited. However, smoking was once allowed almost everywhere, including airplanes. While this might not have been a massive issue for smokers, it certainly didn't make travel pleasant for those who didn't.

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In retrospect, it's easy to imagine that a good deal of motion sickness while in flight was the direct result of smoke inhalation. After all, planes were far slower in those days, and chain smokers could quickly kill a few packs of smokes while airborne.

Time to Spare

Today, it takes just under a full day to fly from Sydney, Australia to London, England, but in the 1950s, the same journey took about four days, and sometimes longer if there was rain. It wasn’t just international flights, either — domestic flights were just as lengthy.

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The weaker engines on planes of the time meant that not only could they not fly as fast, but they also had to fly lower in the atmosphere, where the air is thicker and there’s more resistance. As a result, it was often faster to drive to your location than to fly there, especially if you were traveling domestically.

Tiny Planes

Passenger planes weren't always the size they are today. In fact, it’s challenging to comprehend just how small commercial planes were in the mid 20th century. To get a better sense of the difference, let's compare sizes.

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A Boeing 747, one of the most widely-used commercial planes currently flying, is just over 250 feet long. In contrast, the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, one of the predecessors to the 747, topped-out at about 110 feet long. That means that the biggest and baddest commercial planes of the 1950s were less than half the size of modern jetliners.

Pricey Services

Sure, flight ticket prices spike periodically with holidays and natural disasters. However, most fares remain consistently affordable, ensuring that passengers from most socioeconomic backgrounds have the opportunity to travel. However, that was not the case during the golden age of air travel.

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A ticket to an international destination could wind-up costing about 5 percent of the average person's annual salary, and domestic trips weren't much better. The result was that flying was only available to the wealthiest and most daring consumers, with most being white businessmen.

Dressed for Success

Today, it’s not unusual to see other passengers wearing sweatpants and a ratty T-shirt for a flight. It makes sense; if you’re going to be stuck in cramped corners for hours, you might as well be comfortable, right? In the 1950s, however, the mentality of passengers was completely different.

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Photo Courtesy: SAS Scandinavian Airlines/Wikimedia Commons

While many planes had dress codes, flights were often seen by special events, so they showed up in their finest clothes. That’s why people in old photographs always look so glamorous. If you find yourself feeling nostalgic, however, just think of spending a flight in a bow tie or heels with other people sweating through hot blazers and dresses.

Cleared for the Runway

The only folks allowed on the airport tarmac today are baggage handlers, security personnel and mechanics. But, in the 1950s, everyone was welcome to hang around outside before boarding the plane. That's because most airports were single-story buildings with a few ticket counters and restrooms and not much else.

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If you wanted to see your loved one before they boarded, you simply walked onto the tarmac and waved at them as they walked up a transportable set of steps. While loitering certainly wasn't encouraged, there were no TSA security checkpoints anywhere. Try and pull something like this today, and Homeland Security is sure to want a word with you.

Stewardesses, Not Flight Attendants

While we may have flight attendants today, the travelers of the past had stewardesses. They may sound like the same thing, but in practice, there are some shocking differences. For starters, contemporary flight attendants can be of any gender, race or religion. Stewardesses, however, were always female, dressed somewhat suggestively and were carefully screened by their employers for looks, weight and behavior.

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Although flight attendants today have harsh standards of their own, they’re still nowhere near as limiting as what stewardesses faced. Still, it was an exciting opportunity to see the world and earn a little money at a time when both could be hard for women to do.

Beauty Standards

What were the requirements for women who wanted to be stewardesses? Only the most attractive, thinnest and most malleable young women were hired and trained for the position. They were expected to wear high heels, keep their hair and makeup looking immaculate and tend to all of their guest's needs. They were also encouraged to stay single to avoid getting pregnant.

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It is heartening to know that as times changed, so did conditions for this job position. Stewardesses and the people who dreamed of becoming them raised their voices and fought against unfair standards in their industry, and eventually, airlines changed how they did business.

Free Postcards

During the first decade of commercial air travel, you'd get a nifty little postcard every time you boarded a plane. While you couldn’t send the postcard while flying, the thought was that you would write down your in-flight experience on the postcard and then mail it once you'd reached your destination.

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There’s no doubt that this was a marketing ploy to get flyers to glamorize their travels to friends and family, but it also encouraged people to reflect on their travels and reach out to the people important to them. It might not be as nice as legroom, but this is another practice that could do with a comeback.

Security Was Virtually Non-Existent

The first airports didn't look or operate like modern airports. They were more like somewhat empty train stations made more for looks and temporary shelter than anything else. They typically had a handful of counters where people could purchase tickets, but they didn't have much else. Baggage carousels and duty-free shopping malls were yet to come.

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Photo Courtesy: United States Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Because so few people could afford (or were brave enough) to fly, airport security protocols were also lax. Passengers didn't need to show identification to board a plane, and baggage restrictions were sparse. Because of that ...

Plane Hijackings Came Into Style

While September 11th made many Americans take plane hijackings seriously for the first time, they were a problem long before that. If the ‘50s were the golden age of flying, the late ‘60s and ‘70s were the golden age of plane hijackings.

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Everyone from aggrieved nationalists to people trying to defect to or from communist states seemed to have a plan for hijacking a plane, and they were successful shockingly often. However, in those days, it was rare for anyone to actually die in one. Hijackers generally weren’t interested in killing people, and airlines had a policy of full compliance with hijacker demands. It wasn’t until the 1970s that people began to die more frequently, and even then, the hijackers themselves didn’t plan on dying.

Engines Falling Out of Planes

Flying has become significantly safer over time. Today, there are 1.33 deaths caused by airplane accidents for every 100,000 hours spent flying. Back in 1952, however, that number 5.2 deaths — almost four times higher. That number only becomes more impressive when you consider that American airlines now carry around 42 times the number of passengers that they did 60 years ago.

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So what caused these accidents back in the '50s? A lot of things. In-air collisions were much more common, while weather conditions like fog that don’t seem hazardous today claimed their share of lives. Planes in general were also less reliable, with engines sometimes even falling out of planes. However, as long as the plane safely landed without casualties, airlines didn’t count it as an accident.

Open Bar for Everyone

An open bar can be a dangerous thing. While drinking proved to be (and still is) a popular way to pass the time while up in the air, when combined with other aspects of mid-century air travel, such as the higher levels of extreme turbulence, it added to the general mayhem of early flight.

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There were also some pretty bizarre rules around alcohol consumption. Without specific regulations for flights, planes were bound by the laws of whatever state they were flying over. Flying over New Jersey, for instance? Drink up. The moment the plane went over Pennsylvania, however, drink service was temporarily suspended.

There Were Baggage Handlers to Carry Your Things ...

Because the standard baggage carousel had not yet been invented, most air travel passengers relied on baggage porters to load and unload their luggage. Baggage porters still exist, but they primarily work away from the public eye. During the golden age of commercial air travel, baggage porters had only a wheeled cart to help them move massive trunks and bags.

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Interestingly, baggage porters weren't employed by the airports, but the airlines. Consequently, porters were required to attend flights and help stewardesses with their in-flight duties.

… But That Wasn’t as Helpful as You Might Think

While there was the expectation of tipping baggage handlers, you might think that was a fair trade off for quickly moving your bags from place to place. The rush to get off the plane might not be so bad if you can count on someone getting your bags for you at the end.

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Although the smaller number of passengers did help with disembarking quickly, once off, the wait for your luggage could take a shockingly long time. A skycap would place each person’s luggage on the counter without the aid of a conveyor belt. However, you couldn’t just take your bag; instead, you had to wait for the skycap to come to you, at which point you would point to your bag and it would be brought to you. Suddenly, waiting at the carousel might not seem so bad.

Lounges — but Not the Ones You’d Think

To keep passengers from falling victim to cabin fever during a long flight, many commercial airplanes had lounges where travelers could meet and have a little fun. Of course, quite a lot of these good times were fueled by free alcoholic beverages.

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While the disappearance of onboard lounges could be attributed to increased seating capacity, there’s also a more unpleasant reason: drunkenness. On top of being clumsy or rowdy, intoxicated passengers were more prone to throwing up. Combined with the turbulence and close quarters, things could get ugly fast.

How Many People Does It Take to Fly a Plane?

Every plane needs a pilot. And a copilot. And if it’s the 50s, a flight engineer (also known as an air mechanic), radio operator and navigator. While automation and budget-saving measures have seen first the radio operator and navigator and then the flight engineer removed from commercial flights, once upon a time, these positions were entirely necessary.

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The flight engineer managed some of the more complex systems on the plane and troubleshooted problems, while the navigator used a sextant to trace the location of the plane. (Remember, there was no GPS!) In addition to speaking with people on the ground, the radio operator kept the radio working and transmitted and received other information.

Plenty of Attention

Because businessmen were the primary audience for the first commercial airlines, airlines did everything they could to cater to the specific needs and wants of that group, including training attractive young women to become adept stewardesses. Because seats were scant, there was also a lot of attention to go around — almost one stewardess per passenger, depending on the flight.

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Consequently, these employed young women were encouraged to spend their time chatting with passengers. Lonesome business travelers were treated like royalty and given plenty of one-on-one time with their favorite stewardesses. While it was surely fun for passengers, it must have been exhausting for the stewardesses.

Fabric Was Everywhere

Some golden age airplanes had interiors that looked like community theatres: Every square inch of wall and floor space was plastered with fabric. Thick, heavy materials helped muffle the deafening roar of the piston engines, and they also helped to lessen injuries caused by sudden turbulence.

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Before manufacturers began outfitting their planes with cloth, accidents were common. Commercial aircraft were designed to be elegant rather than safe, with many interiors featuring sharp corners and glass dividers. When turbulence arrived, passengers could quickly find themselves in genuine physical danger. Thank goodness for fabric!

The Cabins Probably Didn't Smell Great

You might think that you have it bad just dealing with other people’s body odor on a flight, but for passengers in the 1950s, it was a lot worse. On top of the tobacco smoke and B.O., the air inside of a plane back then was a mix of food smells, alcohol fumes, perfume or cologne and vomit.

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It's difficult to imagine that anyone could breathe easily on one of these flights. If you weren't lighting up a cigarette or cigar, you were likely drowning your anxiety with alcohol. And when turbulence hit, motion sickness was quick to follow.

The Real Golden Age of Air Travel?

If the ‘50s weren’t all they were made out to be, was there ever really a golden age of air travel? You could make an argument for the 80s. While smoking and hijackings remained problems, you could still get a free meal onboard. On top of that, flights were often less than full, meaning the middle seat usually wasn’t taken. Even if it was, there was still more leg space than there is now. Add to that the smooth ride of jet engines, and the ‘80s don’t seem bad at all.

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However, some of the problems we have today are also the result of the ‘80s. Before then, luggage was always stored under the plane, but by the end of the decade, people wanted to carry their things with them — and that led to the crowded overhead compartments we have today.

What Goes Around Comes Around

If you’re longing for the age of smaller flights with more leg room, you’re in luck — if you can consider a global pandemic to be a fortunate event. Many airlines now only sell tickets for end and window seats, leaving plenty of room for feet and bags alike.

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However, extra space isn’t everything from the ‘50s that’s returned. Many airlines only offer five to 10 percent of their pre-pandemic flights, and with fewer passengers on each one. While you might think that ticket prices would fall as a result, in many cases, the opposite has happened. Because of revenue losses and the fact that few people are willing to risk their lives just for a cheaper flight, prices are fairly high, and they might stay that way for some time.

A New Era of Flight

Just as the ‘50s were an age of flight never to be seen again, so too is everything we used to know about flight. For instance, while we might look back on the golden age of air travel as a time of naive innocence due to the lack of metal detectors, society may come to have the same view on the 2010s and the absence of thermal scanners and no-touch thermometers to detect people running fevers.

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However, if the differences between the ‘50s and now show us anything, it’s that while some of these changes might be for the worse, others might be for the better. From smoke-free cabins to in-flight movies instead of postcards, a lot has changed for the better as well, and history suggests that will happen again, even if there are some growing pains — and cramped leg space — along the way.