Let’s face it: Compared to the “good old days” when Pan Am, TWA, and Eastern ruled the skies, commercial air travel today is far better.
Commercial air travel and I go back a long way. I’m told my first flight was on Eastern Airlines—once an icon of the industry—en route to Miami in a plane powered by four big propellers, aged at just 11 months (my arrival was not going to obstruct my father’s need to escape Boston’s harsh winters).
Since then, I’ve flown in a fixed-wing Douglas DC-3, DC-6 and 7, the Lockheed Constellation—the most graceful of propeller-powered planes—as well as on the Boeing 707 and the Concorde, the most graceful of those powered by jets.
And yes, those were during the “golden years” of air travel, long before airport security, and fees for choosing a seat, and checking a bag or boarding the plane in the “priority” line. And while I would pay a lot to take one last ride on a “Connie”, let’s face it: Compared to the “good old days” when Pan Am and TWA and Eastern ruled the skies, commercial air travel today is far better. To be specific, it is:
When I took my first transcontinental flight (in a TWA Boeing 707) my parents paid the inflation-adjusted equivalent of about 2000 USD round-trip. That was the only fare available in 1964, other than first-class and perhaps a “night” fare. We flew “Y” economy class. There were no discounts, no super savers, the fare was printed on the TWA schedule. It changed only maybe a couple of times a year. Flying was a luxury. Now, you can fly New York to LA for 129 USD each way on a good day.
New planes are much quieter than those old rumbling Constellations and noisy 707s. You’re flying in a much better product, although the seats are getting more cramped in economy, unless you opt for an “economy plus” or “economy comfort” seat.
There are power plugs and Wi-Fi all available from your seat, although some wish they weren’t. You can also check-in online and get flight notifications on your mobile device, without having to contact the airline directly.
In the olden days, entertainment took the form of flight attendants handing out playing cards with the airline’s logo stamped on them. While I do miss airline playing cards, I’d rather have seatback screens with hundreds of movies and TV shows.
Can you believe they used to allow smoking on airplanes? Nowadays, passengers on the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350 benefit from higher cabin humidity and a lower cabin pressure—the interior is pressurized at 6000 feet rather than the typical l 8000 feet—so you’ll feel better and sleep better on longer trips.
You can book your own travel online and take control of your travel plans. You can easily check airlines and fares to get the best price either on your smartphone or computer with the need to go back and forth with a travel agent, although I do love travel agents, don’t get me wrong. And you can carry on your own bags. Before the 60s, there were just hat racks above the seats, so you had no choice but to check your bags. We’d just bring on a copy of Life or The Saturday Evening Post, a coat, medicine, and other essentials in one of those airline-logo flight bags, which I still love to collect on eBay. Sure, now there are checked bag fees, but at least you have the choice of bringing your bag on board or checking it.
You can fly to so many more places today, often with just one stop or one connection, compared to back in the 40s and 50s where the “kangaroo route” from London to Sydney was a grueling four-day journey. And, there are more nonstop flights every day, some 18-hours or longer, such as Singapore Airlines’ nonstop to Singapore from LA and Newark.
Love them or hate them, in the earlier decades of flying, there was no such thing as a frequent flyer program. Airlines gave things away, seemingly for “free”, such as those playing cards and meals, which were rolled into the price of your higher airfare, but they didn’t give away free flights. Now they do.
True, there were some things that were better in the “golden years” of air travel. The economy class seats were plusher. People often dressed up in their Sunday best. “Air rage” wasn’t a thing. You could greet people and see them off at the gate and there were no security lines at the airport. But today, despite the cramped seats and annoying fees, commercial air travel is a much better product than it ever was, even a few years ago. I’ll still be collecting those airline flight bags and other airline memorabilia, but that’s as far as my air travel nostalgia goes.