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A Historical Snapshot of Air Travel

Frequent Flyer Air TravelRecently, I came across an article that gives a bit of a snapshot of what air travel was like back in the day. If you are a frequent flyer and anything like me, you might be quick to judge the somewhat disappointing and lackluster experiences we have when flying the “friendly” skies. But you may be surprised to learn that early air travel wasn’t as glamorous or enjoyable as we might imagine.

Here’s an excerpt of the article’s listed historical facts:

  • Comfort:
    • In 1930, a writer for Good Housekeeping noted that although recent passenger flights she had taken were generally pleasurable, the sound of the plane’s engines were so loud that conversation was nearly impossible.
    • Until about 1942, airplane cabins were not pressurized, which meant passengers were at increased risk for altitude sickness, inner-ear problems, hypoxia, and even decompression sickness.
    • Before 1988, smoking was allowed on airplanes in the United States. Smoking “sections” had no dividers or barriers, allowing the smoke to penetrate virtually every area of the aircraft, including nonsmoking passengers’ clothing and luggage.
  • Food and Beverage Service:
    • The first in-flight meals were simple boxed lunches that took little time to prepare and serve. However, since the flights were subject to significant turbulence, many people didn’t have much of an appetite, and ate only when the plane landed to refuel.
    • After the stock market crash of 1929, airlines eliminated stewards from the cabin, leaving passenger care to the copilot. In the event of an emergency, he naturally focused his attention on the cockpit, and passengers were basically left to fend for themselves.
    • When TWA began serving liquor on board in the 1950s, the rules were exactly the same as they are today: it was free for first-class customers, but everyone else was required to pay.
  • Time: In the 1940s, a coast-to-coast flight took approximately fourteen hours, as did flights from the East Coast to western Europe. On any flight of more than a couple hours’ duration, the aircraft needed to stop intermittently for refueling.
  • Safety:
    • Prior to 1973, there was no security screening of passengers or cargo. Until 1967, an average of five plane hijackings per year occurred; in 1969, there were eighty-two such incidents.
    • Until the development of air traffic control towers and radio signals, the only way an aircraft could avoid collision with another plane was by looking and hoping that the coast was clear.
  • Cost:

    • In the early days of air travel, the cost was prohibitive for the vast majority of travelers. A survey conducted by an aviation historian revealed that 85 percent of air passengers in 1930 were either employees of major corporations or the wealthy elite, the only people who could afford the extremely high fares.
    • Before 1978, the government regulated airfares and schedules. According to the Air Transport Association, pre-deregulation fares were about 45 percent higher than they are now.
  • Luggage: Since early aircraft were smaller, the governmental body that oversaw the aviation industry ruled in 1938 that passengers were permitted only forty pounds of luggage for domestic flights, ten pounds fewer than today’s allowance.

How long have you been a frequent flyer? Have you traveled during any of these eras to experience the difference?

Credits: Allison Ford at Divine Caroline

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