The Golden Age of Air Travel

What was it like flying in an airplane in the 1950s? Dangerous, smoky, drunk, boring, expensive and racist. What, still think badly about today's airlines?

When we think of the golden era of air travel, of the glorious 1950s and 1960s, of Pan Am and Concorde when tickets were still expensive because there were no wide-body airliners, we think of luxury and bright time with its comfort and care for 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 personal searches, and so on. We imagine airline brochures of yesteryear come to life.

But was it really so cool and wonderful to fly 50 years ago? To find out, we asked Albright College of Pennsylvania instructor and aviation history specialist Guillaume de Syon a series of questions. Yes, there were many advantages and benefits to flying in the 1950s and 1960s, de Syon says. However, the reality is far from what you might imagine. In fact, once you get to know what it was like to fly in the golden age of air travel, you'll probably prefer a fast flight on today's low-cost airliner.

Very expensive

The first important difference between the golden era and today is a 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 an air 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 salary in the US today is higher than in the 1950s. Such a two-way ticket between Chicago and Phoenix now costs the average American one and a half percent of his annual income. And in the 1950s, a person for the opportunity to fly from Chicago to Phoenix and back paid up to 5% of his annual salary.

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

Scary and dangerous

And what did you get by paying 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 flight accidents during the golden age of air travel,” says de Syon.

Today, when you board a plane, you have a very good chance of flying safely to your destination. For every 100,000 hours an aircraft spends in the air, there are only 1.33 accidental deaths. In this regard, air transport is considered the safest today. But in 1952 the rate was 5.2 deaths per 100,000 flight hours. And this despite the fact that the number of passengers on American airlines over the past 60 years has increased 42 times. Most of the accidents occurred due to the imperfection of flight technology. “It was not safe to land in the fog, which caused a lot of crashes. It was not uncommon for planes to collide mid-air,” says de Syon. “And the engines fell out of the cars so often that if the plane landed safely on the second engine, then this was not considered an accident.”

But the possibility of an accident was not the only concern. Imagine a typical flight incident when a plane hits a turbulence lane 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 accident.

There were other factors that could have affected you. In the golden era of air travel, first class was separated from economy class by a glass partition. It looked beautiful, but during an accident or turbulence it could shatter and shower passengers with a hail of fragments. Even going to the toilet in the 1950s was deadly because the interior of the cabin was designed without passenger safety in mind. If you slip, you could fall on the sharp edge of a chair or table. “In the 1950s, people were afraid to fly, and for good reason,” says de Syon.


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 entertainments 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 set in front of you. At least there is such entertainment on long-haul flights.

In the golden age of air travel, there was no such entertainment. Movies in flights began to be shown only in the mid-1960s. and since the only portable device for listening to music was the radio, before 1985, there was simply nowhere to plug in your headphones.

What did people do in flight? They wrote postcards.

“In the 1950s, when you boarded an airplane, you were given postcards with views of the airliner or the food served on the flight,” says de Syon.

Then there was such a tradition that during the flight people wrote postcards to their friends, sharing their impressions of air travel. And when the postcards ended, idleness began. Passengers were given newspapers and magazines, and in addition, it was possible to read a book. Some airlines, such as Air France, experimented with hiring artists to paint pictures. Then these paintings were hung on the walls of the cabin for passengers to look at them. But you won't look at the picture for a long time.

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

Booze-filled ashtrays

Unless you're a heavy smoker, you're unlikely to enjoy the prospect of being locked up in a smoke-screened tin can for eight hours. But that's how people flew in the golden age. In flight, it was possible to smoke not only cigarettes; pipe and cigar smoking was also encouraged. People were forbidden to smoke only when the plane was on the ground, as airlines feared that cigarettes could ignite fuel vapors during refueling.

Cigarette smoke is already bad enough, but in the 1950s and 1960s, people on flights also drank, and a lot. Back then, while traveling, you could pump as much free booze into yourself as you could get into, and people usually just got drunk to have some fun. “Memoirs written during the golden era of air travel are full of hilarious tales of drunk passengers,” says de Syon. “People got drunk just to kill time.”

It is good that in those days drunkenness rarely led to a riot on board. There were far fewer passengers on the plane, and there were almost no such riots as we sometimes encounter today. But a drunk person will somehow 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 nasty side to flying that is embellished today. “I think it’s important to note that during the golden era, only white people flew,” says de Syon. It was an 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 for an African American was only $1,471 a year. The average white received twice as much. And since flying was a real luxury, few racial minorities could afford it.

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

Even if you, being a racial minority, could afford an air ticket, there was a good chance that you would not be allowed to fly on the same plane as white passengers.

“In the 1950s, some airlines trained their phone operators to recognize the voices of African Americans so they could get them on certain flights and not others,” says de Syon. — And only in the late 1960s and in the 1970s did the situation begin to change. Yes, it was the golden age of aviation, but it was also a very racist era.”


It cannot be said that flying in the golden era was an exclusively negative impression. There were many luxuries and amenities then, which we have not mentioned today.


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

And on board, a medium-sized passenger had plenty of room to stretch their legs, even in economy class. According to de Syon, the size of the business class today is very similar to the tourist class of those times. All services on board were free. And since there were far more flight attendants in relation to the number of passengers then than today, all your needs (except for obscene ones) were met almost instantly.

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

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

But despite all this, today there are few such people who would rather fly in the 1950s. At best, it was like a scene from the movie Catch Me If You Can. And at worst, flying into the golden age meant paying a lot of money to be locked up in a smoke-filled vomit-filled pipe, where the only distraction from the tiring boredom was the thought of a very likely death in a plane crash. This is how de Syon puts it: “The golden era of air travel was a time when few people could fly, but a little more wanted to fly.”

Source: John Brownlee Fast Company