The Fall of Luxury In Airliners
To the modern traveler, flying can be a headache and a hassle. People from the mid 20th century would have never imagined having to arrive at the airport hours before their flight just to wait in security lines. Compared to today, air travel in the 1950-1980s was an adventure within itself. Planes would be stocked with delicacies such as lobster, various alcohols, fresh fruit and trinkets to take home to family members. Once considered a symbol of luxury and how wealthy people jet-setted in style, airline travel has lost its luster and become a burden for travelers in the 21st century.
Airliners in the Mid-1900s
In the mid-to latter half of the 20th century, a flight on a plane was a vacation within itself. As flying became a popular and safer way to travel, airliners added luxurious accommodations to their flights to attract customers. It was common for flight attendants to serve expensive meals, such as lobster, steak, and fresh salad, on fine china plates with silver utensils. On most commercial planes, there were bars with a large alcohol selection and plush couches. All planes had sleeping berths that could be lowered from the ceiling by a stewardess. Seats also had nearly double the amount of legroom that planes have now. Some planes, like the Boeing 747, had spiral staircases that led up to a first-class smoking lounge. The first-class lounge was furnished with expensive swivel chairs, tables, and couches. Men and women milled about the cabins, wearing their finest suits and pillbox hats, perhaps taking a puff on their “Kent” cigarettes or enjoying a Manhatten while they looked onto the horizon.
In the 1950s-1980s, airlines hired stewardesses based on their weight, looks, and height. Depending on the airline brand, flight attendants could be no more than 5 feet, 6 inches, and 128 pounds. Stewardesses' hair could not touch their shoulders and they had strict dress codes. These restrictions were part of an effort to create the image of “a perfect trip:” perfect flight attendants, fabulous amenities, and skilled pilots. Airliners used this image to compete amongst themselves and attract the most customers. Airlines like PanAm and TWA advertised on the radio, print media like Time and People magazines, and television. Advertisements continued to perpetuate the image that an airline trip was in and of itself a vacation in the sky for the wealthy, or those who wanted to live like royalty..
The Fall of Luxury in the Air
Despite being the mode for the wealthy to travel in style during the 1950s-1980s, airline travel lost its glamour towards the end of the 20th century due to economic pressures. In the 1950s, there were few airlines, namely TWA and PanAm, that were competing in the U.S. marketplace. However, as the 20th century drew to a close, there were nascent airline companies in every corner of country trying to take a little piece of the major airlines’ business. Budget airlines, such as Southwest, Frontier and JetBlue, were founded with the mission to open the skies to regular people. To compete, and attract a broader base of customers, airlines lowered the prices of fares. Lowering prices meant that airlines made fewer profits which in turn meant they could not invest in their airlines or amenities they once provided travelers. Whereas all airline seats in the 1950s had plenty of legroom and amenities, airlines began putting more seats on airlines in the late 20th century so that they could make more money on fares. In the golden days of air travel, seats could recline and turn into beds. Nowadays, passengers hardly have thirty inches for their legs. Many airliners also started to “overbook” their flights, meaning they sold more tickets than there were seats on the plane to ensure they were flying a full load of paying passengers. Airliners introduced “business-class” in 1979 in an attempt to provide some sort of stratification of fares and give travelers the space they were missing. Cost-cutting also impacted the food that passengers received during their flights. Once known for serving three to four-course meals, airlines in the late 20th century now served a bag of peanuts. Complimentary alcoholic beverages were replaced by soft drinks, with customers having to purchase alcohol separately. Kids who looked forward to receiving their “souvenir wings” when dad or mom returned home from a trip in the air were now emptyhanded. The thrill and luxury of flying in the sky was replaced with cramp spaces and inadequate food for weary travelers.
Not only were airliners faced with economic pressures at the end of the 20th century, but external forces such as terrorist attacks and other concerns also impacted air travel. Airlines, already struggling to survive, were impacted by the fear engendered by disastrous plane crashes. In 1988, Pan-Am Flight 103 was blown out of the sky in Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 passengers and crew on board as well as eleven innocent civilians on the ground. The belief was that Lybian nationals had blown up the plane in an overt act of terrorism. The disaster was the death knell of Pan Am, which folded shortly thereafter in 1991. On July 17, 1997, TWA Flight 800, which had just taken off from JFK Airport, exploded over the Atlantic Ocean killing everyone on board. Theories surfaced that a surface to air missile may have taken the plane down. TWA, the airline of Howard Hughes, had to file for bankruptcy three times before it was purchased by American Airlines thereafter. If the airline industry wasn’t already in turmoil, it was even more severely impacted by the September 11th terrorist attacks. In the weeks following these tragics events, the Transportation Safety Board grounded airlines until the U.S. government could determine whether additional terrorist attacks were being planned. People were afraid to fly and the airline industry was on the brink of extinction. In the wake of these terrorist attacks, the TSA put in place new restrictions for airline travel which only impacted travelers’ freedom more. Since September 11, 2001, passengers are not allowed to move out of their seats during take-off and landing, they cannot bring liquids into the airport, they are prohibited from bringing certain materials (like matches, scissors and pins) and there is usually a policeman or marshal in civilian clothes on flights. Cockpit doors are now locked to prevent a terrorist rushing the cockpit and overtaking the pilots and the planes. Airlines have yet to recover fully from the impact of the 9/11 attacks. But terrorist attacks have not been the only external force that has impacted the airline industry in the 21st century. The novel coronavirus has wreaked havoc on the industry, causing airline stock prices to tumble and passengers even more afraid of flying. For example, over 600 Southwest flight attendants were sickened with COVID-19 after flying international flights day in and day out. Although COVID-19 has affected all people and all industries, it has impacted the travel and airline industry particularly hard. Currently, the future of commercial flight is unknown. Will the airline industry be able to stage a comeback and recover? Will it need a government bailout like the financial industry and auto industry received in 2009? One thing is clear: traveling “the friendly skies” will never be the same.
In less than a half-century, airliners have gone from a luxurious means of travel to a burdensome, tedious and often dangerous model of travel. Passengers, once thrilled with the thought of an excursion in the sky, now complain about the lack of food, legroom and other amenities on planes. Faced with declining revenue, famous airlines like Pan Am and TWA are now extinct. Outside forces such as terrorist attacks have only compounded the disaster for the industry. At the dawn of the 21st century, it remains an open and unanswered question as to whether the airline industry can survive and re-invent itself for the next generation of travelers.
Smith, Patrick. Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need To Know About Air Travel. 1st ed.,
New York, Sourcebooks, 2013, pp. 89-113.
Patrick Smith is a pilot and author, and his book Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need To Know About Air Travel answers questions people have about air travel in general. It has sections on what it takes to become a pilot, famous air disasters, and facts about turbulence. The first chapter has facts about the history of Boeing, Airbus, and airliners that no longer exist, such as Pan Am and TWA. These chapters were captivating and provided facts about the golden age of air travel.
Bilstein, Roger E., et al. "History of Flight." Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica,
Inc., 3 Dec. 2018. Google, www.britannica.com/technology/history-of-flight. Accessed
21 Apr. 2020.
Bilstein’s article about the history of flight is very informative and provided many facts about planes in the mid-20th century. Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. owns Britannica.com and the website holds articles about everything imaginable. They cover all topics including Ancient Civilizations, World War Two, and Communism. This particular article covered the history of flight since the Wright Brothers. It provided facts about the beginning of airtravel and how they became less luxurious over time.
Ho, Reggie. "First-class air travel: is it still worth the money?" South China Morning Post, South
China Morning Post Publishers Ltd., 20 July 2018. Google, www.scmp.com/magazines
/style/travel-food/article/2107649/history-first-class-reveals-luxury-air-travel-tug-war. Accessed 21 Apr. 2020.
The South China Morning Post is a very obscure website, but it provided many facts about the current status of first-class. SCMP also covers a variety of topics and is mostly focused on the news on CORVID-19 during this time. Its "Style" section is filled with fashion advice, but it has a few articles about travel. Reggie Hos article about first class is very factual and interesting. It provides insight into first class in the golden age of air travel and now.
Muther, Christopher. " What happened to the glamour of air travel?" The Boston Globe, Boston
Globe Media Partners, LLC, 6 Sept. 2014. Google, www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/
travel/2014/09/06/what-happened-glamour-air-travel/D2tH33b60WzmIkKPmUQMBP/story.html. Accessed 16 Apr. 2020.
The Boston Globe is a popular newspaper that is available online and in paper form. Its online database is filled with articles, old and new, about all different topics. There are several articles about travel that Boston Globe’s authors have written, including Christopher Muther’s article about the glamour of air travel. It contains many details about how airplanes looked in the 1950s to 1980s. This was vital information for the first paragraphs of the essay.
Schmalbruch, Sarah. "THEN AND NOW: Photos that show how glamorous flying used to be."
Insider, Insider Inc., 4 Sept. 2019. Google, www.insider.com/vintage-retro-flying-airplan
e-travel-photos-2018-7. Accessed 21 Apr. 2020.
This collection of vintage photos are very interesting and provide insight into what flying was like in the 20th century. Owned by Insider Inc., Insider.com has plenty of interesting articles about many diverse topics. Sarah Schmalbruch’s article and photos provided indispensable knowledge about airliners in the Golden Age of air travel.
Whitmore, Geoff. "What's The Difference Between Business and First Class?" Forbes, Forbes
Media LLC, 21 Aug. 2018. Google, www.forbes.com/sites/geoffwhitmore/2018/08/21/
whats-the-difference-between-business-and-first-class/#6d33ed1d8d14. Accessed 20 Apr. 2020
This site, owned and operated by Forbes Media LLC, is a great source of a variety of articles. From travel to economics, Forbes has it all. For this essay, Geoff Whitmore’s article on business class provided important information about the fall of luxury. It included valuable information about business class being better than economy, but how it took over part of first class.
Yglesias, Matthew. "Why flying in America keeps getting more miserable, explained." Vox, Vox
Media, LLC, 12 Apr. 2017. Google, www.vox.com/new-money/2017/4/12/15247172/
why-airlines-are-terrible. Accessed 15 Apr. 2020.
Matthew Yglesias’s report on how American airliners are becoming worse provided vital information for this essay. Vox Media, LLC is the publisher of Vox, the site Yglesias wrote his article for. It has many interesting articles about an assortment of subjects.Their articles are easy to understand, yet provides a substantial amount of information in them.