Commercial air travel has come a long way since the “Golden Age of Travel” — an era marked by glamour, gourmet food and dapper passengers.
While complaints about smaller seats and expensive tickets are rife today, a look into the history of commercial aviation shows that today’s customer experience may not be as bad as some believe.
While seats are undeniably smaller, aircraft safety, speed, ticket prices and inflight entertainment have improved — a fact to keep in mind while perusing photographs of commercial aircraft from the past.
The salon aboard a Pan Am Martin Clipper, circa 1936.
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When it comes to legroom, the “clippers” or flying boats first produced in the late 1920s were hard to rival, both then and now.
“The whole idea behind [flying boats] was passenger comfort,” said Dan K. Bubb, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
In 1928, Juan Trippe, the founder of Pan American Airways, used the Air Mail Act of 1925 to transport mail — and later passengers — to Central and South America. He relied on several types of flying boats throughout the 1930s, including the Sikorsky S-38, the Martin M-130 (which had a 16-seat dining lounge) and the Boeing 314 Clipper. The Boeing plane could fly for 4,000 miles at a speed of 183 miles per hour, Bubb said.
Passengers dine on a Pan Am Martin Clipper.
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In addition to having the fuel to travel long distances, flying boats were popular because they could land on water, thus eliminating the need for expensive runways. The design later fell out of favor as faster, pressurized planes were developed.
“This is a consistent theme throughout commercial aviation history,” said Bubb. “The military constantly was designing faster and larger planes, and the commercial aviation industry followed suit.”
The interior of the sole surviving Boeing 307 Stratoliner, as photographed in August of 2003.
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The Boeing 307 Stratoliner was the world’s first passenger airplane to be pressurized, meaning it could cruise at an altitude of 20,000 feet — higher than bad weather.
The aircraft, a derivative of the U.S. military’s Boeing B-17 bomber, entered commercial service in 1940. It fit 33 passengers, who were usually affluent or business professionals due to the cost to fly at the time, said Bubb.
The seats at left in the image above would have cost more because they offered more legroom, he said.
Rules and regulations
A passenger smokes on a Transocean Air Lines’ Boeing 377 Stratocruiser in the mid-1950s.
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Between 1947 to 1950, Boeing produced 56 Stratocruisers, which had sleeping bunks, dressing rooms and capacity for 100 passengers. The Stratocruiser was spacious and luxurious, but notorious for engine problems, Bubb said.
Passengers also had to inhale other people’s smoke on those flights, as they did for another 40 to 50 years. The U.S. government banned cigar and pipe smoking in 1977. After a series of restrictions based on flight duration, cigarette smoking was eventually banned on all U.S. flights in 2000.
Passengers being served in the observation area of a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser.
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Seats were roomier and sleeping berths were available, but Stratocruisers cruised at only 300 miles per hour — an astounding feat at the time, but a far cry from today’s passenger planes, which reach speeds of nearly twice that.
Stratocruisers had observation areas for passengers who bought more expensive seats. Passengers could relax in those areas or in their seats without seatbelts. Seat belts weren’t required until 1970, Bubb said.
Despite griping from many modern passengers, airplane seats have not steadily decreased in size through the decades, as evidenced in this photograph, circa 1929.
Passengers on board an Air Union passenger plane, a French airline established in 1923 which merged with four other airlines a decade later to form Air France.
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“With the advent of coach class, airlines tried to add as many seats as they could, which resulted in diminished seat width and pitch,” he said. “This especially became the case in the last two decades.”
Some historians believe the “Golden Age” began in the 1930s, Bubb said, but “others argue the ‘Golden Age’ of commercial air travel took place in the 1940s with pressurized, faster planes such as the Boeing 307 Stratoliner, the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, Lockheed Constellation and Douglas DC-6.”
“I am inclined to agree with the latter,” he said.
A first-class compartment of a commercial passenger plane in the 1950s.
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First-class seating has become significantly more comfortable over the years. Business class also affords a roomier ride, though it wasn’t popularized as a section of its own until the 1980s.
Passengers eat aboard a BEA Vickers Viking plane, circa 1958.
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Some airplanes had seats with tables, a feature more commonly associated with train travel today. Those were fairly common at the time, said Bubb, especially for affluent travelers.
A flight attendant serves drinks in the economy section of a Pan Am 747.
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Anyone who has ever tried to pass the beverage cart mid-flight knows there isn’t much space to gracefully pull off that maneuver.
The width of the aisle above, however, is similar to that of modern-day aircraft, a measurement which is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. The cart may be smaller, and the flight attendant most assuredly so — for reasons that are no longer permitted.
“Originally, airlines had height and weight restrictions for flight attendants,” said Bubb. “They could not be any taller than 5’4″ and weigh more than 100 pounds.”
Many airlines also required “stewardesses,” a term which has fallen out of favor, to be unmarried women because, as it was then argued, females were better able to care for the psychological needs of passengers.
After a series of discrimination lawsuits starting in the 1970s, those restrictions loosened before being dropped altogether.
Aisle space in the first-class section of a British Overseas Airways Corporation Boeing 747, circa 1970.
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Aisle space is generous in the first-class section of the Boeing 747, an aircraft which Bubb refers to as the manufacturer’s “hallmark achievement.”
Dubbed the “Queen of the Skies,” the jumbo jet has variants that are capable of seating 500 passengers and flying 600 miles per hour at altitudes of 40,000 feet, Bubb said.
“They were part of the jet revolution that shrunk the world through speed, space and time,” he said. “It is astounding how engineers could design a 900,000-pound object with engines, wings and a tail to get off the ground.”
The interior of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, circa 1970.
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Headroom also emerged as an important element for passenger comfort.
“Some passengers get claustrophobic on planes, so the more openness, the better,” said Bubb.
The Boeing 747 had plenty, but in terms of “luxury, prestige and speed, it simply could not compete” with the Concorde, said Bubb. The Concorde traveled at more than twice the maximum speed of the Boeing 747.
The Concorde was known for being luxurious, though not spacious.
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“The Concorde was an amazing supersonic transport plane that simply was ahead of its time,” said Bubb. “Being able to fly at a speed of 1,350 miles per hour and cruise at 60,000 feet was a monumental achievement for a commercial passenger flight.”
Passengers paid between $10,000 to $20,000 to fly on a Concorde, an aircraft that was horribly fuel-inefficient, said Bubb.
Though it could transport passengers from New York to London in 3.5 hours, Concordes stopped flying in 2003, due to high maintenance costs, waning demand and the high-profile crash of Air France Flight 4590 in 2000.
Food is served on a British Overseas Airways Corporation plane in 1960.
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Meals and dishware during the “Golden Age of Travel” could be extravagant, said Bubb.
Tuxedo-clad attendants wheeled food through first-class cabins on open-top pushcarts. Photographs show platters of food were served, as was meat sliced from carving stations.
A United Airlines flight attendant talks with a passenger in a simulated passenger compartment of a Douglas DC-10.
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Flight attendants and their uniforms have changed a lot through the years.
The first flight attendants were nurses, said Bubb.
“Because passengers had travel anxiety, nausea and other flight-related symptoms, airlines hired nurses to be flight attendants to help keep passengers at ease,” he said.
Southwest Airlines’ “stewardesses” in Texas, circa 1968.
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Their uniforms often changed to reflect the prevailing fashion of the time, and included go-go boots in the 1960s, striped pants in the 1970s and pastels and shoulder pads in the 1980s.
Today, uniforms are more conservative, said Bubb.
“The flight attendants’ uniforms … changed from a stylish, risqué appearance to a more conservative one,” he said. “The more conservative approach prompted passengers to look at and treat flight attendants with more respect.”
A KLM air hostess and pilot, circa 1935.
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Pilots uniforms, however, have largely stayed the same.