Vintage photos reveal the glamour of the ‘golden age of air travel’
Oh how we love to travel, but loathe crowded airports and packed airplanes. But during the “golden age of air travel” in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, the process of traveling might’ve been nicer than the trip itself. The atmosphere on board flights was more like that of a party, and luxury was the norm. Take a flight back in time with these vintage photos that show us just what was missing before the TSA changed everything.
When was the last time you boarded a flight, walked down the aisle, and noted that everyone seemed to be smiling and happy? Today, you’re lucky if even the first-class passengers smile (unless you’re flying to Las Vegas, which seems to bring travelers the happy vibe. Not so much on flights leaving Vegas though).
Who wouldn’t be happy with a bottomless smorgasbord of food? The photo above just screams luxury — with incredible aisle room, and even a wraparound staircase to another level of the first class cabin. That’s probably a bad idea though, as a spiral staircase and an airplane go together about as good as turbulence and alcohol.
The ‘golden age of air travel’
The “golden age of air travel” was a time when flying was only available to the higher echelons of society, and now it serves as a happy reminder of what used to be. These flight attendants worked for Delta Airlines in the 1970s, and while they appear alluring, they’re sprawling out to display the fabulous amount room on their 747 jumbo jets.
Everything was designed to be visually stimulating, from paintings on the wall (actually attempted in France, until they kept falling during turbulence), spacious cabins with lounges, and beautiful young women in scanty clothing. And if that wasn’t enough, drinks on board used to be bottomless.
Yesterday’s luxuries are today’s crimes
Economy class tickets didn’t even exist until the 1950s, as air travel used to be reserved for only the wealthiest of travel enthusiasts. With all that money spent on a ticket, it’s no wonder people ate six-course meals served on silver, and drowned themselves in bottomless drinks, like these people in the first-class cabin of a 747.
With bottomless champagne and other cocktails, it was common for passengers to emerge from flights highly intoxicated. Today, if you were to pull off the same feet, you’d be a few hundred dollars poorer, and you could face a two-year prison sentence if you become too much of a nuisance.
Cocktail hour was every hour
Before you buckle in for our flight through time, we thought we’d start our journey with a visit to the drink cart. Alcohol use to be as free-flowing on airplanes as the jet stream, as airlines offered wine, champagne, and cocktails throughout the flight.
The blonde woman in the middle of this photo is so happy to see the drink cart she’s practically ready to have the flight attendants baby. She and the other passengers in this 1970 photo happen to be sitting in the first-class cabin of a Boeing jumbo jet. Prior to the 1950s, airlines used to offer unlimited alcohol to all passengers.
The ‘ease’ of travel used to be just so
Speaking of the Boeing 747 jumbo jet, this photograph was taken in 1968, which was the year the aircraft made its debut. The flight attendant below is speaking with a passenger, and as you can see both her and the passenger look very relaxed.
Back in the 1960s, air travel wasn’t the precarious adventure that it is today. Security screenings prior to boarding didn’t become commonplace until 1973, and prior to that, it was possible to buy a ticket and travel without ever having to present an ID. Loved ones were able to walk right up to the gate to give a kiss goodbye.
There used to be so much room
“Coffee anyone?” This flight attendant is able to say without elbowing one passenger in the face and spilling hot coffee on another. She’s got so much fricken’ room she’s standing next to her drink cart while in the aisle. Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen that! That’s what we thought.
The aisle is three-and-a-half feet wide, which allows for two lanes of traffic. This PanAm configuration had 58 first-class seats, 304 economy, and boasted “10% more hip room.” That sounds marvelous, and completely foreign, as some current 747 configurations seat up to 600 people. So much for your hip room (along with everyone else’s).
Allll the leg room
That’s Belgian-born fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg in May 1979, stretching out while on the tarmac of John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. She’s making working on a plane look like child’s play, and if you’ve ever tried to work on an airplane then you know you’re in for an elbow battle til the bitter end.
There are six seats in this picture and 50% of them are empty, which might prompt modern airlines to cancel the flight. But not only does she have an extra seat next to her to spill her papers into, but she seems to be able to, ahem, put her feet all the way up. Look at this picture on a plane, and tell yourself you’re not jealous.
Flight attendants use to put different things on their resumes
We know what you’re thinking: That’s not a model airplane behind that model! Okay, you weren’t thinking that, and that’s probably because of that showgirl and her scanty (dare we say ‘scandalous?’) uniform. This photo was taken in 1959 for Scandinavia’s SAS airlines, as flight attendant Birgitta Lindman inspects the showgirls’ skirt.
Lindman was indeed a flight attendant, but a year prior to this photo she famously landed the cover of LIFE magazine. She beat out 53 applicants in the process, and then was selected to help with the skirt size of new uniforms. She probably figured this was too short a skirt, but many would disagree.
Billy Joel reclines
That’s Billy Joel taking a snooze aboard a flight between Austin and Dallas, Texas. He’s a rock star, so you might expect him to be tired, and since in this instance, he was on tour promoting his 52nd Street album, which was released in 1978.
Of course, we’re all envious of the fact that Joel is able to sleep during a flight, but did you know that the seats in front of us use to fold down like that?! Seats used to offer passengers at least 3-6 inches more legroom, and you could fold it down and recline if no one was sitting in front of you.
They don’t make ’em like they used to
This flight attendant looks light years away from the ones you’ve seen previously, and perhaps that’s because this photo was taken in 1947. At the time you could count on a flight attendant giving you constant attention, even before the call button was invented, and she would also recline your seat if you fell asleep.
Hopefully, she would also buckle you in if your seat belt wasn’t fastened. Today, seat belts are a requirement when seated, which is good, because in the old days a bad spot of turbulence could snap your neck. And since these planes flew at lower altitudes, a bumpy road was the road most traveled.
Look closer for this one
While this looks like a perfectly benign photo to the naked eye, a closer inspection reveals a couple telling facts about travel in the 1980s. This is economy class, but old luxuries are still around, like stewardesses in gloves, and plenty of room. So much room, that a nearly full flight has a completely empty overhead bin!
We don’t know if she’s cleaning it or stuffing it, but what’s far more disturbing is the fact that this plane is completely full, with the exception of every, single, middle seat. What’s that about?! Think about it: That seat was, is, and always will be so deplorable that even desperate travelers wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole!
Check in was not a hassle
Today, check in is usually accomplished via a mobile app, and if not that, then at a touch-screen kiosk. Most of us will visit numerous computer modules before we even get our ID ready for the TSA, and seeing an actual person will require a wait that may make you miss your flight.
In this case Alaska Airlines, always known for their motto, “Come fly the friendly skies,” also has friendly ground level staff. The staff to customer ratio is nearly equal, and not only do we love the outfits of the gentlemen behind the counter, we fully expect them to break out in song as soon as they learn it’s that little girls first flight.
The Pan Am Flying Clipper
This is Pan Am’s Flying Clipper, which was built by the Boeing Aerospace Corporation in the late 1930s. Adapted from the design of a bomber, the flying boat had an outstanding range, as it was able to fly all the way from San Francisco to Honolulu at a whopping 155 miles per hour (though it took 19 hours).
This particular clipper was named the “Bermuda Clipper,” and it has quite a story. It used to run the stories route from Baltimore to Bermuda, then was moved to Hong Kong in 1941. That was rather unfortunate because it just happened to be in the harbor when the Japanese attacked. It was sunk on Dec. 8, 1941, or the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Okay, so this photo is not representative of the kinds of services you could get on a commercial flight, but since Hugh Hefner chose a DC-9 for his private plane (called ‘The Big Bunny’), we couldn’t help but include it. This is air travel at it’s finest, as Hefner has all the modern electronics, and what looks like first-class service.
This is a bit large for a private plane, as the DC-9 was built to carry 80-135 passengers. In this case, Hefner brought along with him his girlfriend Barbi Benton, just six months after she landed the cover of Playboy in July 1969.
The Pan Am Clipper had one class — first-class
This is the cabin of the 80 or so passenger Pan Am Clipper. The Clipper was luxury all the way, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that it came cheap. The Clipper was designed for distance, and a ticket from England to New York cost $675, or in today’s money, nearly $12,000.
What that came with was separate dressing rooms for men and women and seats that were collapsible to create 36 beds. The clipper was unmatched in aerial luxury, as it also featured a dining area and lounge, complete with a six-course meal cooked by chefs borrowed from four-star hotels.
The old code … ‘dress’ code that is
“Remember what it was like before Southwest Airlines?” Asks one Southwest advertisement. “You didn’t have hostesses in hot pants. Remember?” Unfortunately, we don’t remember, but luckily, we still have vintage photos to show us that the old Southwest Airline uniform uses to require hot pants and kinky leather boots.
It’s hard to imagine in today’s environment that flight attendants would be so heavily scrutinized based on their looks. But because Southwest Airline’s motto was “Sex sells seats,” hostesses were selected based on the beauty of their legs and face. To add to the sexiness, they served drinks like “Love Potion” and “Passion Punch.”
Flight attendants use to be judged based on their ability to do “the worm” dance move. Okay, that’s not true at all, but you have to wonder what exactly this has to do with her job. Well here it is: Hughes Airwest, a former airline company, was the first airline to have all their flight attendants certified physically fit by the YMCA.
One flight attendant manual said that women had to be less than 125 pounds, single, and “maintain high moral standards.” Another said that stewardesses had to wear high heels at all times. Fortunately, no manual ever said a woman had to be able to perform “the worm.”
Dress code for passengers
While we’ve seen plenty of evidence that the “sex sells seats” motto was mostly a product of the 1960s and the sexual revolution that followed, here we have evidence that it existed even in 1945. The young lady in the middle is a flight attendant, and obviously, she’s easy to spot because she’s not as dressed up as the passengers around her.
Prior to the 1960s, airlines often had a strict dress code for passengers, and believe it or not, if they were too underdressed they might be turned away from their flight. Everything was made to look glamorous, luxurious, and elements of design went farther than just decorations.
Boeing’s 707 premiered in 1958, and while it wasn’t the first passenger jetliner, it was the first successful one of its type. This photo was taken in 1958 in the lounge of this 200-plus passenger liner. Planes used to be a lot more like trains, complete with cabins and lounges, and no one constantly yelling at you: “Get back in your seat!”
In the early 1970s, lounges were so prevalent that American Airlines had a piano bar in the back of its 747s. Pan Am’s lounge, which is shown above, was advertised to be “vibration-free,” which is complete nonsense, but maybe they’re thinking that if enough cocktails are consumed you won’t mind the turbulence.
Speaking of in-flight entertainment, you really can’t do better than fun people gathering around booze, and a Thomas electric organ being played by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones. These lucky folks are flying aboard “The Starship,” which was Led Zeppelin’s private Boeing 720 jetliner replete with musical instruments, all the booze under the sun, and even a color TV.
“The Starship” was in the service of Led Zeppelin during their North American tour in mid-1973, which was in the same era as the popular in-flight piano bar. This particular lounge was raised up a notch, with rock star musicians, and even an agitated cockatoo on the woman’s shoulder in the background.
Ah yes, this looks like “the life.” Life aboard a 747 used to be so much more relaxed and roomy. Just look at the seats and how they’re laid out, with only eight seats across the entire width of the plane. Today there’s 12, with six in the middle and three on each end.
If you’ve ever been in the center of all that, you were certainly wishing bottomless drinks would make a comeback. Another thing that’s gone backward is the flight attendant to passenger ratio. Today you’re lucky if you get one flight attendant per 50 passengers. Drink, please?
In-flight entertainment was a lot different
If there’s one advantage today’s air travel has its in-flight entertainment. These two gentlemen look as though they’ve found the perfect game to pass the time, and there were a few other methods to enjoy the flight. We already covered drinking, which people sometimes engaged in just to pass the time.
Other methods of passing the time included an old tradition of writing postcards. Postcards of the plane, destination, or even the in-flight meal would be distributed after takeoff. Outside of that your choices were read a book, read a magazine, or read a newspaper. And if you couldn’t read, then, well, you probably couldn’t afford a ticket anyway.
As fast as a speeding bullet
By the length of these women’s skirts, you can be confident that they were not working for Southwest Airlines. These ladies are standing in front of the joint French-and-British-designed Concorde, which was so fast that it was able to cut the travel time between New York and London in half.
The Concorde came into service in 1976, which means the one in this photograph is likely a model. When it did fly it was able to fly in excess of Mach 2, or twice the speed of sound. For this reason, it was only allowed to fly over oceans, lest the earth’s population be subjected to broken windows, and car alarms going off constantly.
Now, this looks like comfortable accommodations, and while her sleeping cubby looks a little cramped, when was the last time you went full horizontal on a flight? It looks as though she’s even wearing her own pajamas, and who wouldn’t love a cup of coffee and a smile right when you wake up?
Questions aside, this photo was taken in 1941 aboard a Western Airlines flight. Sleeping accommodations were actually far more essential back in the day, with flights that could take the better part of a day. Not only that, but some routes might take over two weeks to complete, with at least one stop every day.
Interior design began early
Sometimes when traveling on a flight it’s nice to introduce yourself to your stranger neighbor and have a conversation. Other times, you put your headphones in, and quietly repeat to yourself, “please don’t talk to me.” Well, if only there was a bar or lounge to separate the chatters from the anti-social.
This photo was taken just after the conclusion of WWII, which is when passenger flights really took off. Here you can see the beginnings of some experimental design in the aircraft, as you just don’t see couches, mirrors (glass in a vibrating airplane?!), and even shades on the windows.
The Bed-Sit Girl
Scenes like this happen every now and again, and before planes started traveling at 30,000+ feet, they use to be commonplace. The notable exception is the lady succumbing to the force of gravity. Fortunately, she is The Bed-Sit Girl, which was a British sitcom that was the I Love Lucy of air travel.
The series ran for a brief time in the early 1960s, but what’s notable is that this was in line with when air travel started to become more popular. As more routes were added, and more efficient planes entered service, the price of tickets began to make it more affordable.
Fun for just a few
Now, this looks like a fun scene. The crew of this Pan American flight has decorated the passenger cabin in an effort to welcome passengers to Britain. It looks like a very fun scene and would be something cool to see nowadays, but there is something missing from the photo below, and all the other photos too…
The fact of the matter is, the Golden Age of air travel was mostly available to white people. White men’s income was on average double that of African Americans. It’s even been reported that phone operators were trained to identify African American voices, in order to put them on specific flights.
Early flight looked a lot different
The Golden Age of air travel really began in the 1940s, and if you flew in the 1930s it certainly would not have been comfortable. Passenger airplanes in the 1930s weren’t even sound or weatherproofed, as it wasn’t until 1938 that the first pressurized cabin was even introduced.
The first passenger planes didn’t even have stewardesses, and as you can see it’s not like there was a lot of room for them. But all the technological innovation brought from WWII created a flying boom in the late 1940s, as Heathrow Airport was completed in 1946, and transatlantic flight became a daily occurrence.
Flying in the 1930s
This photograph was taken in 1935 in a flight between London and Paris, and as you can see the in-flight accommodations are very refined. It appears as though this waiter (ahem) flight attendant, is going over the specials for the happy couple in the booth. If you look closely, you can almost hear his French accent.
Hopefully, everything there weighs about a hundred pounds, as vibrations will certainly send their meal flying. Can you imagine flying for hours at an altitude of 3,000 feet? You’re basically flying in the clouds, where turbulence is at it’s worst. As for time-saving, the plane only flew about 100mph, making it slower than a train.
In-flight games used to be a thing
While “the golden age of air travel” is definitely associated with the time period after WWII, there was a “mini golden age” following the WWI’s end as well. The folks you see below are traveling aboard and Imperial Airways plane aptly titled to enable British citizens to travel to the far corners of the British Empire.
This photograph was taken in 1936 when airplanes were in direct competition with German zeppelins. Piano lounges weren’t a thing in airplanes until the 1970s, but the Hindenburg had one in 1936. So most passengers read, or played games, as flight attendants always had a deck of cards handy.
The first in-flight movie?
This photo was taken in the 1930s, and United Airlines used it as an advertisement. The reason is that these happy folks are watching what United claimed to be the first in-flight movie. That’s a hard sell for us, considering you can see people standing outside the window.
Unless those people had wings United’s claim was undeniably false. The first in-flight movie actually took place in 1921 and featured a film called Howdy Chicago. Obviously, in-flight movies stuck around and were so popular that in the late 1940s the British Brabazon featured a 37-seat cinema.
These comfortable folks are aboard the Boeing Stratocruiser, which was a behemoth of an airplane but only accommodated just over 100 people. The Statocruiser was a plane that benefited from WWII innovation, in that it was a converted transport plane that had two levels: The main cabin, and a lounge for 14 people.
Despite having a terrible safety record, Boeing advertised the Stratocruiser as “just like the magic carpet.” That might be true, as it could almost fly in the, well, stratosphere. On top of that, every seat in the house had the ability to recline just like you see above, adding comfort we can only dream of.
Well, the photo below is a good representation of what flight has become: crowded, and full of uptight passengers. It’s hard to blame people for their bad attitudes these days, as travelers face weight restrictions on bags, long security lines, and little room for baggage on the flight.
Then your crammed in the plane like sardines, and you’ve probably felt like actress Helen Hayes above, who had this freak out in the 1980 parody movie Airplane! Well, at least there’s no limit on how much alcohol you can consume before your flight (well, sort of), as you may need many drinks to avoid having a freak-out, then a few more to deal with the ones who are freaking out.