Between the United Airlines fiasco and Chuck Schumer’s recent legislative crusade against shrinking airline seats, modern commercial air travel has attracted a lot of negative attention recently.
The “glamor” factor of commercial flight was once one of its great appeals to consumers.
And while flying may not be the most pleasant experience, especially now that many travelers will have to endure TSA’s new “enhanced” screening process, the actual commercial inflight experience has actually come a long way.
In fact, not only has flying commercially become more economically accessible to individuals of all socioeconomic backgrounds, it’s also now much safer than it used to be in the mid-century.
The “Golden Age” of Air Travel
Historians and sentimental baby boomers will often refer to the earlier days of commercial air travel as the “golden age” of aviation.
For many, it represents a time when flying wasn’t just the most convenient means getting somewhere, it was also a symbol of status and upward mobility.
The “glamor” factor of commercial flight was once one of its great appeals to consumers. For those who could afford the luxury of air travel, the flight itself was just as important as reaching their final destination.
Various airlines would compete for consumers by advertising gourmet inflight meals prepared by reputable chefs and offering premiere smoking lounges with top shelf cocktails. And, since many frequent flyers were successful businessmen, airlines used attractive flight attendants to further enhance the thrill of commercial aviation.
Wearing pajamas and other casual and comfortable clothing, as is customary in modern air travel, would have been completely unacceptable during the “golden age.” Highbrow men and women would don their Sunday best and children were sternly instructed to be on their best behavior.
And yet, while this fashionable and privileged experience was one of utmost excitement for early airline passengers, it also came with its fair share of risks.
Bells, Whistles, and a Possible Snapped Neck
While these earlier aircrafts were immaculately decorated and usually filled with the most glamorous people, there were some definite downsides: death being one of them.
Using the restroom during a flight is not something that comes with many risks when flying on planes today. However, during the mid-century, something as simple as getting up to use the lavatory could cost you your life.
Since the interior of early aircraft was designed for aesthetic pleasure and not safety, a sudden patch of turbulence could cause a passenger to trip or fall and hit the sharp edges of lounge tables or chairs. A passenger could lose an eye, or worse.
Aviation historian, Guillaume de Syon, a professor at Pennsylvania Albright College points out how history has obscured what this “golden age” of aviation was really like, when in reality, “in the 1950s, people were afraid to fly, and for good reason.”
Additionally, turbulence, which is a common occurrence on any flight, was enough to cause fatal injury due to the aircraft's inferior structure. Early airplanes had lower ceilings and poorly-made seatbelts. As a result, a drop in altitude due to turbulence was enough to easily snap a passenger’s neck.
In 1955, a round-trip ticket from Chicago to Phoenix would have cost around $1,300.
Since appearance was the primary consideration for these early aircraft, first class passengers were separated from others by glass partitions rather than curtains. While these were aesthetically pleasing to the eye, it was not unknown for the glass to shatter and severely harm passengers in severe turbulence or in accidents, which were also more common in those days.
Speaking of the early airliner’s inferior technology, de Syon says:
“It wasn’t safe to land in fog, so there were many crashes. Mid-air collisions were common
High Prices, Elites Only
While it is easy to get agitated at current flight costs, especially when trying to book a flight to a popular destination during peak travel times, the price of airline tickets today is significantly lower than compared to the mid-century.
The FAA controls even the tiniest details of commercial aviation.
In 1955, for a round-trip ticket from Chicago to Phoenix on the now defunct TWA airline, you could expect to pay somewhere around $138. Adjusted for inflation, this amounts to almost $1,300.
However, when accounting for the average mid-century salary, the cost to fly commercially was even higher. On average, a passenger flying during this time could expect to pay about five percent of their salary on round-trip ticket as opposed to the one percent Americans pay on average today.
Commenting on the outrageously high costs of mid-century travel de Syon states:
“Varying on the route, it was four to five times as expensive to fly in the Golden Age. If you were a secretary, it might cost you a month’s salary to take even a short flight.”
The Government Grounds Innovation
It may be hard to recognize how far commercial air travel has come when you are on a full flight sandwiched between a college basketball player and mother holding a screaming infant child, but like any commodity, commercial aviation still has considerable room to improve. And it could do so at a quicker pace if the government would stay out of the way.
However, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) controls even the tiniest details of commercial aviation.
From mandating how flight attendants demonstrate something as simple as fastening a seatbelt, to allowing passengers to keep their smartphones in airplane mode rather than completing powered-down during take-offs and landings, these regulations are all set by the federal government.
Additionally, recent efforts to create the “Uber” of air travel were stymied by the FAA, which claimed there was an occupational licensing conflict with the proposed business model, stopping the venture before it could get off the ground.
Like all great innovative ideas, Virgin America was born out of Richard Branson’s dissatisfaction with the basic commercial flying experience.
Wanting to give passengers a chic flight experience at a reasonable price, Virgin America stood out even among its more established competitors.
Upon boarding the plane, passengers enter a darkly-lit interior with neon pink lights guiding the path towards the end of the plane, an environment more reminiscent of a nightclub than a commercial airliner. The flight attendants are dressed in hipster attire and each passenger is offered free alcoholic beverages and inflight entertainment.
With this superior level of service, it is no surprise that Virgin America quickly became popular among consumers looking for a different inflight experience.
But when Branson took the company public in 2014, things became problematic.
Unfortunately, an odd federal regulation regarding foreigners owning shares in publicly traded entities forced Branson to sell his beloved airline to Alaska Airlines, a situation he described by saying:
"Because I'm not American, the US Department of Transportation stipulated I take some of my shares in Virgin America as non-voting shares, reducing my influence over any takeover, so there was sadly nothing I could do to stop it
While it is is unclear how the airline will change after the full acquisition of the company is completed in 2019, without Branson’s vision it is likely that the qualities that make Virgin America so desirable will cease to continue.
True, there is nothing particularly glamorous about modern commercial air travel. However, next time you find yourself on a plane, stuck in the middle seat next to a screaming child and an elderly gentleman who has fallen asleep on your shoulder, remember that things could be worse, and take comfort in knowing that at least a quick trip to use the airplane lavatory will—most likely—not cost you your life.