Was Air Travel Better Then Than Now?

Back in the day, passenger experiences were very different

By Rick Wills

Published April 3, 2023

Read Time: 3 mins


Was air travel in the past really as glamorous as many people think? Depends on who you ask.

At first glance, flying decades ago looks like a special event—not the ordeal many consider it to be today. Air travel was expensive; most people didn’t do it regularly, if at all. There was little or no airport security. Flights often included lavish food. People even wore nice clothes: suits and ties for men, dresses or skirts for women.

“Dress was more formal, both for passengers and for airline employees,” said Bob Thompson, who has owned Ambassador Travel near Pittsburgh since 1972.

Thompson’s travel career started in 1965, when he worked as a reservation agent for Trans World Airways (TWA), an iconic airline that folded in 2001. TWA worked to project a sophisticated international image, Thompson said.

Jumbo jets from that era sometimes had piano bars and pubs. Bartenders stirred martinis and stewards carved steaks. Employees like Thompson were expected to look the part, even if they weren’t working.

“There were strict dress codes for airline employees, even if you were just traveling,” he said. Such dress codes lasted into the 1990s.

Faith Krause worked for USAir in Pittsburgh for decades. Over her career, she took advantage of discounted or free air travel for airline employees. Krause and her son, now in his early 40s, flew to events like the U.S. Open in New York. He had to wear long pants—no blue jeans—and a shirt with a collar, Krause said.

“That was part of the deal. You were representing the airline, even if you were just traveling,” said Krause, who retired several years ago.

She expressed some dismay at outfits some people now wear on airplanes—short shorts, muscle t-shirts and t-shirts with profanity.

“I guess I’m a little more conservative than that,” she said.

One aspect of air travel that still looks much the same: baggage claim. (Pittsburgh International Airport archives)

Noise and cigarette smoke

Air travel today is less expensive, safer, and faster than ever. That means planes are usually filled to capacity, and seats are smaller, with less legroom.

“It all adds to the stress of travel,” Thompson said.

So does the strict security implemented worldwide after the Sept. 11 attacks. Passengers did not have to undergo routine pat-downs or remove their shoes to get through a security line. They also probably did not have to arrive at the airport as early as today’s travelers do.

But not everything about aviation’s golden era is a happy memory.

Until 1990, cigarette smoking was common on airplanes, to the increasing displeasure of a majority of passengers.

“Most people, by the 1980s, wanted to be as far away from the smoking section as possible. Younger people today are shocked to learn that smoking was even allowed on planes,” Thompson said.

Another negative from the distant past: before the jet era started in the late 1950s, unpressurized planes were colder and far louder than today.

Pricey proposition

Flying was also expensive, prohibitively so at times.

“People drove much more, even long distances,” said Krause, who drove to Florida with a group of friends in the early 1970s.

In the 1930s, a coast-to-coast round trip cost about half the price of a car. It wasn’t until 1955 that more Americans traveled by air than by train. By 1957, airplanes had replaced ocean liners as the preferred way of traveling to Europe.

Still, the jet era did not benefit everyone. Airlines were not legally segregated, but in the South, airports often were, discouraging African Americans from flying. Until civil rights laws were passed in the 1960s, air travel was largely restricted by race.

By 1972, about half of all Americans had flown. Air travel became far less exclusive and cheaper by the 1980s, particularly after the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act lifted restrictions on government control of airline routing and pricing.

“Travel has opened up and become more affordable since the early days when flying was expensive,” Thompson said. “There probably are not too many people now who’ve never flown.”

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