Air Travel Then and Now: How Flying Has Changed Over the Last 100 Years

Huge queues. Lengthy security checks. Baggage claim. Flying can be quite a stressful experience, especially when you’re trying to get from one place to another quickly. However, when commercial flight first began, it was quite different. An emphasis was placed on comfort, not safety, meals were served fresh and hot – no microwave in sight. A lot has changed over the past 100 years, so join us as we take a trip down memory lane to see how air travel has evolved.

No More Free Luxury

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When air travel for the masses was first rolled out, flying was considered a luxury reserved for the elite. Everything about flying on a plane was five star, with economy seating not being introduced until the 1950s.

Passengers could look forward to freshly cooked meals by a chef, free magazines, complimentary drinks, and flight attendants would even recline your seat for you if you nodded off. These days, you’re lucky if you have a foot of room in front of you unless you’re willing to pay through the nose for business class seats. Some of us go our whole lives without a taste of that.

More People Are Flying Now Than Ever Before

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As technology advanced, so did planes. It didn’t take long for flying to become one of the most common methods of getting from A to B, and soon people were ditching their cars to take domestic flights, too.

It’s difficult to imagine a world where flights weren’t packed full to the rafters and airports weren’t as busy as Grand Central Station, but a few decades ago air travel wasn’t anywhere near as crowded as it is today. Sometimes, only a handful of people would board a flight, with aisles upon aisles left entirely vacant. These days, flights are often over-booked.

Fares Became Cheaper

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When air travel was first introduced, you had to be rich to be able to afford it. The price of a ticket could’ve paid a month’s rent for most people, but these days ticket prices are much more affordable.

You can travel to some places for less than $50 thanks to the rise of budget carriers and economy class, where you’re simply paying for your seat and nothing else. The expansion of these airlines has made travelling accessible for everyone, from low-income families to students wanting to see the world before settling into a job. What was once an elite way to travel has become the new normal.

You Could Light Up On-Board

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Many years ago, smoking was still fashionable. The impact on our health hadn’t fully been discovered, especially in the ’50s, when some companies claimed smoking was actually good for you.

Walking onto a flight was like walking into a smokey bar. There were no rules on lighting up in-flight, but there were usually smoking and non-smoking sections – not that it made much difference. British Airways was the first to ban smoking during flights in 1990, with Virgin and United Airlines deciding to follow suit shortly after. By the late ’90s, smoking was banned entirely on flights across the board.

Too Much to Drink? No Problem!

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We all know the risk of drinking too much on a flight these days. Become too intoxicated and make a nuisance of yourself and you’ll be arrested as soon as you step off of the plane. Have a few too many in the airport bar beforehand and you won’t even be allowed to board.

Back in the olden days though, getting on a night flight was just like stepping onto a moving bar. The cocktails were free-flowing and passengers could sip wine and champagne to their heart’s content, rules be damned. Air hostesses were basically glorified bartenders in nice uniforms.

You Could Visit the Cockpit

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Flying used to be a much more relaxed affair, as you can probably tell. Some passengers were able to visit the cockpit and watch as the captain took off, even talking to him as he did his pre-flight checks. It’s only been in the last couple of decades that there has been a clamp down on passengers entering the cockpit.

After 9/11, security was heightened on all airlines to ensure that no one could easily access the cockpit. The doors are now largely closed to both the public and the cabin crew, who can’t get in without the captain’s consent.

Dinner Wasn’t Microwaved

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Dining on a flight used to be on par with restaurant quality food, with the meat carved by the side of the seats. British Airways and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines prided themselves on the dining experience they offered their passengers, but when the quantity of people flying increased, it was no longer viable.

Now, in-flight dining is less than perfect, with pre-packaged items that get heated in the microwave. Extravagant dishes are off the menu, replaced with low-cost food that can be served quickly. The menu is slightly better in First Class, but it still pales in comparison to how things used to be.

Interiors are Simple

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Kitsch pictures used to decorate the cabin walls, with vases of fresh flowers and white tablecloths. Flights used to look like you were walking into a dining room, or a fancy restaurant. Now, cabins are kept sleek and simple – mainly due to health and safety regulations.

Commercial airlines stick to their company colors and a less-is-more approach. With the list of restricted items ever-growing, there’s absolutely nothing decorative in the cabins at all – unless you count the safety instructions. It’s all for the greater good, but it certainly makes for a less aesthetically pleasing journey from A to B.

There Were More Home Comforts

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Passengers traveling today can expect a thin blanket and a small pillow if they’re lucky, but it wasn’t always the case. Airlines used to provide all the comforts of home, from thick luscious throws to plump pillows you could sink into.

They even had a stash of toys for children and an array of things to help keep them entertained. As the decades have passed, the items on offer have gone down to the bare minimum. Now, you’ve got to purchase your own magazines and roll up your coat if you want anything to avoid getting bored and cranky on your journey.

There Was More Space

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Comfort used to be seen as the top priority in air travel, but this has been shoved to the side to make fares cheaper. Hop on a flight now and you’ll be squashed in elbow-to-elbow with a bunch of people you don’t know.

Just a couple of decades ago things were quite different. There was plenty of leg room for you to stretch out and no overhead storage, giving you the impression of much more space. The seats also used to be wider, meaning that if you did have to sit next to someone you don’t know, then at least you weren’t invading their personal space.

Flights Used to be 12 Days Long

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We think a long-haul flight means 20 or so hours, don’t we? Although we might complain at being shoved into a metal can for almost a day, we really don’t have any idea how lucky we are.

In 1935, the first Qantas flight from the UK to Australia lasted 12 days, with multiple stops on the way. The airline offered free food and alcohol to help passengers stay comfortable, but it was still enough to drive you crazy. We might not get some of the same perks as years past, but at least we can say "See you tomorrow" and mean it, no matter where in the world we are.

Only One Movie Was Shown

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In this modern age, we’re spoiled by the selection of in-flight entertainment (even if we do have to pay for it sometimes). We usually have the choice between a few movies, but back in the day, only one movie was shown.

Attendants would put a projector screen at the front of the cabin and dim the lights so the rest of the plane could watch it, with passengers craning their necks over seats to get a decent view. Movies didn’t become common until the 1960s when Trans World Airlines showed the drama Love Possessed. Can you imagine a world without those little screens built into the seats?

Sleeping was Easier

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Catching some z’s on a flight isn’t easy, especially if you’re in economy. If you fly First Class to Dubai then you can get those sweet little pods that come equipped with everything, but it’ll cost you a fortune.

Back in the 1930s, planes were much more equipped for sleeping passengers. United’s Mainliner Sleeper planes offered 6.5-foot-long twin beds and separate changing rooms for men and women to prepare for their night’s sleep. It wasn’t just a case of putting on a sleep mask and getting some rest, but rather preparing for bed the same way you would at home.

Postcards Were Gifted to Every Passenger

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Getting on a plane now is so common that you’re not really given anything for free. If you’re lucky, you can get some headphones from an attendant so that you can watch a movie, but other than that, we’re on our own.

In the ’50s and ’60s, flying was still a relatively new thing, and expensive. If you were lucky enough to do it, you weren’t always sure if you would be able to do it again. Flight attendants handed each passenger a postcard that usually featured a picture of the plane or the food served, so people could take home a memento of their journey.

There Was a Dress Code

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Nowadays, most of us dress as comfortably as possible for a flight as we know we’re going to be sitting down for hours on end. A comfortable sweatshirt and jeans are pretty much essential unless you’re planning on conducting a business meeting stepping off a flight.

Back when air travel was still in its infancy, it was quite different. Women would dress up specifically to travel, wearing their finest dresses and high heels. Men would always wear a suit and tie as though they were going to the Ritz. Some airlines would turn passengers away if they were dressed too casually – after all, this was the ultimate way to travel.

Turbulence Was Awful

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Turbulence can still be pretty bad, depending on what the weather is like and where you’re traveling. Years ago, before technology had advanced, planes were powered by pistons and they weren’t able to reach the high altitudes they can today.

That meant that flights were often noisy, bumpy and pretty scary for the passengers on board – so it’s not hard to see why they were allowed to drink as much as they wanted, is it? Thankfully, turbulence is much less daunting today and usually over in a few moments, making us much more relaxed than those flying decades previously.

Flight Safety Regulations Weren’t as Strict

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Flying can often be a stressful process, with lots of information to take in. We have to go through an extensive security check before we get on board and are required to listen to the safety briefing before take off.

Back in the early part of the 21st century, security was so lax it was almost non-existent. Flight attendants were there to make sure passengers were comfortable and did not force them to put on their seatbelts. Children freely roamed the plane and there was no such thing as a clear aisle. It was close to chaos and worlds away from the regimented experience we know today.

Men Weren’t Allowed to Host

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In earlier times, the only flight attendants that you would see on a plane would be women. In fact, only women were allowed to apply. Many airlines were strict on things like weight, age and relationship status too.

It wasn’t until The Stewardesses for Women’s Rights group was formed in the early ’70s that established equality in the sector, but men still weren’t regularly employed to work in-flight until the ’80s. By 1988, the term “hostess” had been booted out for the much more neutral term “flight attendant.” While it’s still a female-dominated industry, men are actively encouraged to apply.

It’s Safer Now

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In the ’50s and ’60s, flying was still new. The commercial airplanes were still evolving, and technology wasn’t as advanced as it is today. During those years, there were approximately four major crashes annually.

On the flip side, as the years ticked by the risk became much less. You’ll often hear people saying that you have more of a chance dying in a road traffic accident than on a flight, and they’re not wrong. Accidents are so rare these days that if one occurs, it’s a tragedy. 2017 was reported as the safest year for air travel to date. That’s not bad, is it?

Passenger Screening was Non-Existant

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If you’re running to catch a flight, most airlines recommend that you allow at least two hours before your flight to get through the security checks. In some cases, you might sail through, while in others you can be caught in a lengthy line.

Before the ’70s, security was basically non-existent. While it certainly increased after that, it still wasn’t as strict as it is today until the 9/11 attacks forced the governments to look into their methods. Now, you can expect a full screening process before you board a flight. If you don’t want to do it, you won’t fly.