The golden age of air travel
The golden age of air travel

What were they like - flying an airplane in the 1950s? Dangerous, smoky, drunk, boring, expensive and racist. Do you still think badly of today's airlines?

When we think of the golden age of air travel, the glorious 1950s and 1960s, Pan Am and the Concorde, when tickets were still expensive because there were no wide-body airliners, we imagine a chic and vibrant time with its comfort and taking care of your every need and whim. Then there were no inconveniences and troubles of modern flights, there were no cramped seats, inattentive flight attendants, long lines for body searches, and so on. We imagine airline brochures from yesteryear come to life.

But was it really that great and wonderful to fly 50 years ago? To find out, we posed a series of questions to Albright College professor of Pennsylvania and aviation history specialist Guillaume de Syon. Yes, flying in the 1950s and 1960s had many advantages and benefits, says de Sion. However, the reality is far from what you can imagine. In fact, once you find out what it was like to fly in the golden age of air travel, you will surely prefer a fast flight on today's low-cost liner.


Very expensive

The first important difference between the golden era and today is the significant difference in price.

In the 21st century, air travel is quite cheap, but in the 1950s you had to pay about 40% more for a plane ticket than today. And this minimum. For example, a TWA ticket from Chicago to Phoenix and back cost $ 138. Adjusted for inflation, that's $ 1,168. But that's not all, because the average wage in the United States today is higher than it was in the 1950s. Such a round trip ticket between Chicago and Phoenix now costs the average American a little over one percent of his annual income. And in the 1950s, a person paid up to 5% of his annual salary for the opportunity to fly from Chicago to Phoenix and back.

“Depending on the route, flying in those days was 4-5 times more expensive,” says de Saillon. “If you worked as a secretary, then even a short flight could take your monthly salary.”


Scary and dangerous

And what did you get when you paid five times more for your air ticket? Five times more likely to die compared to today's flights.

“Statistically, there were many more plane crashes and accidents during the golden age of air travel,” says de Sion.

Today, when you board a plane, you have a very good chance of reaching your destination safely. For every 100,000 hours planes spend in the air, there are only 1.33 accident deaths. In this regard, air transport is considered the safest today. But in 1952 the figure was 5.2 deaths per 100,000 flight hours. This is despite the fact that the number of passengers on American airlines has increased 42 times over the past 60 years. Most of the accidents occurred due to the imperfection of flight technology. “It was unsafe to sit in the fog, which caused many crashes. Often the planes collided in the air, says de Sion. "And the engines fell out of the cars so often that if the plane landed safely on the second engine, then it was not considered an accident."

But it wasn't just the possibility of an accident that was worrying. Imagine a typical flight incident when an airplane hits a turbulence and falls 150 meters down. Today, such an incident, firstly, may seem unusual, and secondly, it will simply scare passengers, but nothing more. But 60 years ago, when the ceilings in the cabin were lower, and the seat belts were not so perfect, you could break your neck during such an incident.

There were other factors that you may have suffered from. In the golden age of air travel, the first class was separated from the economic class by a glass partition. It looked beautiful, but during an accident or turbulence it could crash to smithereens and shower the passengers with a hail of debris. Even going to the toilet in the 1950s was deadly because the interior of the cabin was not designed with passenger safety in mind. If you slip, you could fall on the sharp edge of the chair or table. “In the 1950s, people were afraid to fly, and for good reason,” says de Sion.



When you are tired of looking out the window, the flight becomes very boring. For several hours you are forced to sit inside a monotonously humming metal pipe, staring at the back of the chair in front of you. However, today we take for granted the numerous entertainment and activities that distract from the monotony of flight. We have iPhones, iPads, video games. And even if you forgot your gadgets at home, you have the opportunity to watch a movie, listen to music or even play a video game on the screen in front of you. At least on long-haul flights, there is such entertainment.

In the golden era of flying on airplanes, there was no such entertainment. Cinema in flight began to be shown only in the mid-1960s. and since the only portable device for listening to music was the radio, until 1985 people had nowhere to plug their headphones into.

What did people do in flight? They wrote postcards.

“In the 1950s, when you got on a plane, you were given postcards with views of the airliner or the kind of food served in flight,” says de Saillon.

Then there was such a tradition that in flight people wrote postcards to their friends, sharing their impressions of the air travel. And when the cards ran out, idleness began. Newspapers and magazines were handed out to passengers, and in addition, a book could be read. Some airlines, like Air France, have experimented with hiring artists to paint the paintings. Then these pictures were hung on the walls of the cabin for the passengers to look at them. But you won't look at the picture for a long time.

With a fortunate coincidence, your neighbor could be a good conversationalist. And if not? Then smoke and drink. And here we come to the next point.

Booze-flooded ashtrays

Unless you're a heavy smoker, you might not like the prospect of being locked up for eight hours in a smoke-screen tin can. But this is how people flew in the golden age. During the flight, it was possible to smoke not only cigarettes; pipes and cigars were also encouraged. People were forbidden to smoke only when the plane was on the ground, as airlines feared that cigarettes could ignite fuel vapors while refueling.

Cigarette smoke is bad enough, but in the 1950s and 1960s, people on the flights also drank, and a lot. Then, during the trip, you could pump in yourself as much free booze as you could fit in, and people usually just got drunk in order to somehow have fun. “A memoir from the golden age of air travel is full of hilarious tales of drunken passengers,” says de Sion. "People got drunk just to pass the time."

It is good that in those days drunkenness rarely led to a riot on board. There were much fewer passengers on the plane, and such brawlers, which we sometimes encounter today, almost did not exist. But the drunk person still somehow, let him prove himself: people fell in the aisles, pestered the flight attendants, sang loudly and - of course! - they vomited profusely.


Extreme racism

In the 1950s and 1960s, there was another unpleasant side of flying, which today is embellished in every possible way.“I think it's important to note that only white people flew during the golden age,” says de Sion. This was the era of racism, and it was fully reflected at an altitude of 10,000 meters.

The main reason was purely economic. In the 1950s, the median income of an African American was only $ 1,471 a year. The average white man got twice as much. And since air travel was a real luxury, few racial minorities could afford it.

If you saw a black man at an airport in the golden age of air travel, it must have been a porter, not a passenger, says de Sion.

Even if you, being a racial minority, could afford a plane ticket, there was a great chance that you would not be allowed to fly in the same plane with white passengers.

“In the 1950s, some airlines trained their operators on their phones to recognize African American voices so that they could board certain flights and not others,” says de Sion. - It was only in the late 1960s and 1970s that the situation began to change. Yes, it was the golden age of aviation, but it was also a very racist era."



This is not to say that an exclusively negative impression was formed from flying in the golden era. There were many luxuries and conveniences then, which we did not mention today.

For example, in those days, there was simply no security system on the airlines. Compared to today, when companies recommend arriving at the airport three hours before departure, in the golden age the requirements were very unusual and attractive: you were guaranteed boarding even if you showed up at check-in half an hour before departure.

And on board, the average passenger had plenty of room to stretch their legs, even in economy class. According to de Sion, the size of the business class today is very similar to the tourist class of those times. All services on board were free of charge. And since there were much more flight attendants in relation to the number of passengers then than today, all your needs (with the exception of obscene ones) were met almost instantly.

It should also be noted that during the golden age of air travel, the interior of the aircraft was simply luxurious. Then the best designers in the world were engaged in the design of the salons, the uniform of the stewardesses and even the silverware.


Pilot Basil L. Rowe with 35,000 flight hours during his career with Pan American World Airways

Despite all this, there are few people today who would rather fly in the 1950s. At its best, it was like a scene from Catch Me If You Can. And at worst, flying into the golden age meant paying a lot of money to be locked in a pipe full of smoke and vomit, where the only distraction for exhausting boredom could be the thought of a very likely death in a plane crash. Here is how de Sion says about it: "The golden age of air travel was a time when few could fly, but wanted to fly a little more."

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