Recent incidents involving forced removal of passengers from commercial flights have highlighted how far we have moved from the golden age of airline travel. I started flying in the 1950s and have experienced the significant changes in the airline business, not all for the benefit of travelers.
Flying home recently, on board a new Boeing 717 aircraft, I read an article (The History of Airline Classes and Cabins: The Travel Insider) about some of the changes in the airline industry over the years. The article commented on the birth of passenger carrying flights when there was only one class and one passenger enjoying the fresh air in an open cockpit. It brought back memories of my first flight in an old de Havilland Tiger Moth. I sat in the single passenger seat at the pointy end of the airplane with the pilot behind, both wearing leather helmets and goggles. There was no rear view mirror so I was forced to turn my head, sometimes after releasing the seat belt, to make sure the pilot was still there and hadn’t fallen out during a maneuver. We flew beneath the clouds and followed the roads and railroad tracks to navigate.
The Travel Insider informed me that in the 1920s the largest airline in the world was operated by the US Postal Service, carrying mail rather than passengers. The airline made more money from transporting mail across the US than from flying passengers and carried either 100lbs of mail or one passenger. Passengers were not important. The article said:
Sometimes government subsidies for carrying the mail were so substantial that airlines would send mail to themselves to boost their earnings. An airline could pay 9c to post a letter, and then be given 18c by the government to fly the letter from one airport to another.
In the 1930s the airlines recognized the need to carry passengers and provide some comforts to compete with ocean liners and trains. The speed of the journey was not enough so the old flying boats provided bunks in first class for long flights and on-board toilets. Cabin attendants were added and meals were served in the air or on the ground at each stop. The first commercial airline to introduce flight attendants was reported to be United Airlines in 1930. I think I flew with some of them in the 1960s.
Varney Airlines Mail Carrier (Now United Airlines)
(Photograph: The History of Airline Classes and Cabins: Travel Insider, 29 September 2016)
After World War II the airlines bought hundreds of ex-Military C-47 transports, converted them into passenger aircraft and operated them as the Douglas DC-3. The airplanes were cheap to buy and operate, and many are still flying in developing countries. The DC-3 was faster, had longer range and carried more passengers with greater comfort. They were noisy but reliable, robust and operated with only passengers and no mail.
The DC-3 was the first commercial airplane I flew on in the early 1950s, and in recent years I have flown on them again in Papua New Guinea and South Africa. The noise, smell and vibration of the engines, the rough take-off and landing, and the steep aisle to navigate when boarding and leaving the airplane were part of the experience. There were no overhead lockers and all baggage went into the hold.
The door to the cockpit was always open so you could see the pilot, co-pilot, navigator and the instrument panel. If you were interested you could stand or sit on a jump seat in the cockpit and talk to the crew. It felt like flying and it was safe even when navigating through deep valleys and around the high mountains in New Guinea. There was no seat assignment, cabin service, food or wine and a visit to the on-board toilet was something only for the brave and desperate.
In the 1950s and 1960s the airlines recognized the need to grow their market by offering lower fares for flights with more stops on the old routes previously used for delivering the mail. You could pay higher fares for the faster non-stop flights across the US and internationally. In the 1960s and 1970s my flights to London stopped at Singapore, Bangkok, New Delhi, Karachi, Bahrain, and Rome. Each stop was an adventure by itself and welcome because the so-called “direct” flight was more than 30 hours.
In 1955, TWA introduced a two-cabin configuration on its Super Constellations. Some called it the golden age of airline travel. But that all changed when the first commercial jet aircraft, the Boeing 707, was introduced with rows of seats all facing forward and narrow aisles. There were no lounges and bunks.
In the early 1960s, first class was downgraded to the level enjoyed by today’s business class passengers and coach class became even worse as the airlines tried to squeeze in more seats and passengers. At the end of the 1960s the Boeing 747 revolutionized air travel, doubling the number of passenger on each flight, especially in coach class.
The 747 became my favorite commercial airplane and I used it like a bus for traveling the world on business, usually sitting at the back end. It was quieter, more comfortable and came with better cabin service, food and drink. The flight deck and cabin crews enjoyed the increased space, and that was reflected in their attitude towards passengers. There was enough room for new cabin configurations and on the upper deck some airlines provided tables for business travelers to use their laptops, sit on lounges, stand at the piano bar or sleep in real beds in enclosed areas.
I recall a memorable flight on a Lufthansa 747, standing up at the piano bar with some new friends most of the way from Frankfurt to Singapore; and a night flight to Tokyo on Japan Airlines sleeping comfortably in a real bed with my own little cocktail cabinet. It was the only time I really slept on a flight and was able to work the same day I arrived in Tokyo. Sadly Lufthansa removed the piano bar and JAL replaced the beds with more seats.
The major improvement in airline travel over the years has been the inflight entertainment especially for first and business class travelers. It started with movies on a large screen, that showed the movie to the whole cabin, and then video cassette players were provided to first and business class passengers who had a choice of dozens of movies to view at their seat.
Unfortunately, in “cattle class” cabin service, friendly flight attendants, free magazines, food, drinks and entertainment have almost disappeared, replaced by user pays electronic entertainment systems, WiFi, inflight telephone service, snacks and bottles of water. We pay for check-in baggage and are greeted by impatient flight attendants and surly security guards.
Passengers are jammed into tight spaces and ignored unless they complain or the aircraft is overbooked when they are treated as sacks of mail. I would willingly pay more for my own space, fine food and wine, a comfortable bed or even to stand up at the piano bar.