Air Travel Then and Now: How Prices (and Experiences) Have Changed Since 1950

Believe it or not, there was a time when passengers – not commercial airlines – ruled the skies. Back then, “first class” actually meant something other than an extra three inches of leg room. For those who remember the Golden Era of sky travel, the modern state of airline travel can be truly depressing. Once elegant, filling, even gourmet meals became microwave disasters, and then were replaced by peanuts, which also eventually disappeared. Chairs are getting smaller, passengers are getting bigger, and tickets seem to keep getting more expensive. In many regards, commercial airline flights seem to be much less enjoyable for the average passenger than they were in the 1950s, and some of the changes have lead to flights on commercial airlines becoming patently unenjoyable.

When modern commercial air flight became a part of American culture, airline travel was truly luxury travel. People didn’t board the plane wearing pajama pants and a stained t-shirt; they wore their finest clothing and ensured they were well-groomed and ready to socialize. Because in-flight movies didn’t exist in the earliest days of commercial air travel, passengers would talk amongst themselves, possibly eating and drinking delicious offerings readily on hand from the flight attendant staff. They also wrote postcards or read books on the flights, something made quite difficult by cramped seating arrangements on modern airplanes. The insides of planes were designed for comfort and elegance, often by major names in design. These days, the interiors of airplanes are designed for efficiency and the ability to cram as many people as possible inside safely.

The Early Years of Prestige and Privilege

pan am retro

People were allowed to smoke on airplanes back in the 1950s, which may sound wonderful if you’re a smoker, or awful, if you’re not. Either way, it was generally permitted for passengers to smoke cigarettes, cigars, and even pipes on airplanes. That nicotine, first or second hand, was accompanied by copious amounts of free alcohol; all the alcohol a passenger cared to drink, in fact. There are many accounts of passengers on flights becoming so intoxicated they vomited during the flight, making it barely surprising that airlines have since adjusted their open wet bar policy to a pay-per-drink policy with strictly enforced sobriety limits. There were usually also gourmet foods available, sometimes even multiple courses. Those drinks and foods were handed out by mostly female flight crews. There were generally more on-flight staff during the Golden Age of flight, meaning you could get quick, polite service.


air france runway

Regarding the process of airport security, it was essentially nonexistent as we know it today. Passengers were allowed to board planes without being frisked, questioned, and examined through machines that let people see under your clothing. People were only expected to arrive a half hour before their flight, instead of several hours as is required today. Their luggage was handled with more care, and there were far fewer restrictions and costs associated with bringing luggage along on a flight. These days, if you want to bring checked luggage on a flight, you will very likely need to pay a premium for the privilege, and it may be a weight-based charge, meaning heavy suitcases can cost big bucks.

It was a lot easier to look forward to a trip on an airplane back in the 1950s. These days, the thought of getting on an airplane can give many people panic attacks. Gone are the days when the flight itself was part of your vacation, something to enjoy and relish as you traveled far above the earth. Instead, air flight seems like a gritty, unpleasant necessity and not a beautiful, enviable luxury. Many people dread getting onto an airplane. What if you’re trapped in a middle seat between two space hogs who monopolize the armrests? What if there’s a kid behind you who kicks your seat all flight? What if there’s a crying baby the next row forward? These days, flying is synonymous with bad moods and too much stress. In the 1950s, flying meant prestige and privilege – a far cry from the typical experiences of today.

Of course, back in the 1950s, plane tickets could cost as much as three times (or more) than tickets do today, with prices adjusted for inflation. In that regard, modern air travel’s lack of amenities seems to make sense. But should you really have to sacrifice all the joys and small pleasures of a trip simply to enjoy a more affordable fare? Even if you pay for first class or business class upgrades, what’s generally offered isn’t luxurious and is likely to require cash or a credit card payment, as foods and drinks may not be included in your ticket price.

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s … Your Own, Private, Small Aircraft

private pilot

One simple and truly enjoyable solution to the dilemma of modern air travel is to become a private pilot and bypass commercial flights altogether! Courses are quite reasonably priced, and once you have your private pilot’s license, you can either purchase, lease, or rent on demand a small aircraft for your travel needs! Imagine how impressed your family and friends will be, climbing into the passenger seats and watching you prepare for takeoff! Imagine the romance of flying with your loved one over a vast river, or the open desert, or the city where you fell in love. Of course, the reasons why obtaining a private pilot’s license solve a lot of your air travel issues aren’t limited to prestige and romance.

You get to bypass crowds in the airport and invasive security checkpoints, avoid debacles with lost or mishandled and damaged luggage, and leave those tiny, cramped seats in the dust. The seats in the cabin of a small aircraft are built for comfort and performance, not cramming as many people inside as possible. You won’t ever have to worry about getting an aisle seat again, either. Instead of a tiny fraction of a view through a window you could practically cover with your hand, you’ll have the vast openness of the land and sky in front of you.

The quality of refreshments, such as drinks, is decided by what you bring with you. You aren’t at the mercy of some cost-cutting corporation. You don’t have to deal with smells, loud babies, drunk passengers, or people joining the “mile high” club in the bathroom behind your seat. As far as cost goes, it’s very likely that even with the expense of purchasing or leasing a small plane, it will be far less costly to fly yourself than to take a commercial flight. You will have to pay for fuel, of course, as well as upkeep on the plane (if you own it), but these costs over a period of time with you flying regularly will be much lower than the same costs associated with commercial flights.

Freedom and Friendly Skies Again

cessna in sky

When you fly your own small aircraft, the only limit to your vacation possibilities are your imagination and, of course, the flying conditions on any given day. So long as it is safe to do so, you can fly yourself to any destination and even make a short flight out of town to stay at less expensive accommodations in smaller towns. Unlike with flying as a commercial airline passenger these days, flying as a pilot all but guarantees you true freedom during your flight as well as the potential for significantly increased comfort during your travels.