There was an eccentric woody Allen film “Midnight in Paris” a few years ago centered around the idea that we always believe things were better in a past time. La Belle Époque spanning from 1870-1914 was the feature time period of the film illustrating the theoretical best time in the history of art, wine and cultural renaissance; and the envy of those born directly after it. Of course those born directly after it happened to live in a time which the next generation believed to be the best time in history. You get the point. People love to wax poetic about the glory days of airlines too. They’re wrong and they’re right. Here’s a photographic history of traveling commercial. Are they glory days behind us?

a group of people posing for a photo

Economy Through Time…

Knowing where you started is a great reference for any future achievement. Here’s a photo of one of the first passenger cabins from the 1920’s…. pretty basic though the cabin steward is well dressed and the liquor on the back left shelf looks very nice. Martini time all the time?

a man standing in a row of chairs

By the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s as commercial air travel blossomed the economy cabin began to look like a refined train car. Nice seats, lots of overhead space, aisles that anyone could walk through and what appears to be ample legroom. Even economy passengers seemed to receive fine china!

a group of people sitting in an airplane

a group of people sitting in an airplane

Nice suits guys. The meals, minus the fine china however do seem to be pretty similar to todays long haul offerings. Perhaps the ingredients were better sourced.

a group of people sitting in a plane eating food

To my eye things seem to peak and plateau in the seventies pictured below. Everyone looks very sharp, the seats look like a premium economy product today and the overhead bin space makes the cabin look far more spacious than those of today. As a side note, the photo below is of a Boeing 707 which John Travolta owns and flies to this day! Cool overhead lights too.

a group of people sitting in an airplane

As the industry plateau’d it also opened for change. Unlike most of the refined outfits worn by airline cabin crew throughout these time periods, Southwest decided to splash onto the scene by dressing their cabin crew like go go girls. If only their seats were as hip as their crew members…

a woman standing on a plane

The eighties. Jesus. Clothes were ridiculous and whoever designed these puke inspired seat colors was on drugs, like everyone else. Is anyone else beginning to think that economy actually hasn’t gotten much worse in the last thirty years? I do. At least we have personal entertainment in most economy cabins these days! This looks like literal sh*t.

a person sitting in an airplane

First Class Is Very Interesting…

By 1955 the “glory days” were beginning to swing and as planes could take heavier loads, they started to load nicer furniture all around the plane. These folks could just as easily be in a living room as a jet airliner. Cool world map wallpaper too!

a group of people sitting in a plane

a group of people sitting in an airplane eating

Innovation…The photo below was from a British Airways flight in 1950. What the f*ck have the airlines been doing for the last sixty five years! Better, no. The same? for the most part YES! If this was the standard for travel in 1950 I am hard pressed to understand the rate of progress…

a man and woman sitting in an airplane

The pattern i’m beginning to notice is that if you take away the well dressed people and beverage carts with what must have been fantastic champagne, the seats in the 1960’s and 1970’s were more in line with a domestic current first class or an international premium economy. It looks nice but it’s not nearly as nice as today’s flat beds. Glory days? In some ways yes, others no. They did have one advantage….

a group of people on an airplane

Ah yes, the advantage. Unlike a pleasure only reserved for Gulf royalty these days, most planes had lounges. Yes, I did mean to write that the planes had lounges, not just the airports. Here are some badass pictures from the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s showing the first class on board lounges where you could hop up from your recliner seat, stretch out and play some cards. I can also almost smell the cocaine from the right side of the photo below… 

a group of people sitting in a plane

Don’t these people below look jolly?

a group of people sitting in chairs in a plane

Would you like your martini shaken or stirred? Shaken obviously. 

a woman serving food in an airplane

I do love the guy in the photo above passed out to the right. In what looks like a very similar cabin, PanAm recently did a retro event on an old airplane to simulate the old experience complete with dining. Though the models kind of ruin it the colors are warm and fuzzy and vintage(y). 

people sitting at tables in an airplane

My takeaway is that for about thirty years from 1950 to 1980 commercial travel was most likely better across the board. My other takeaway of course is that it’s actually improved over the last couple decades since the sh*t sandwich of the eighties. We just have heightened expectations, more opportunity to complain and are stuck with more cheeky fees. Sure you won’t find too many lounges on commercial airplanes any longer, nor will you find fine china in economy but other than legroom, especially in the worst economy seats in the world, you will find an overall better passenger experience. 

Thanks to reader Sean Kelly for Tweeting me the inspiration for this post…

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Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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