What the ‘golden age’ of flying really was like

Editor’s Note – Monthly ticket is a series of articles by CNN Travel highlighting some of the most intriguing topics in the world of travel. In August, we’ll go back in time to revisit some of the best nostalgic travel experiences.

(CNN) – A cocktail lounge, a five-course meal, caviar served from ice sculptures and an endless stream of champagne: life on a plane was quite different in the “golden age of travel”, The period from the 1950s to the 1970s is remembered by everyone for its glitz and opulence.

It coincides with the dawn of the jet age, ushered in by aircraft such as the de Havilland Comet, Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8, used in the 1950s for scheduled transatlantic services. first show, before the Queen of Skies, the Boeing 747, in 1970. So what was it really like being there?

“Air travel at the time was something special,” says Graham M. Simons, an aviation historian and author. “It’s luxurious. It’s smooth. It’s fast.

“People dress well for it. The staff are literally wearing high-fashion uniforms. And there’s more space: the space between the seats – that’s the distance between the seats on the plane – probably is 36 to 40 inches. Now it’s down to 28, as they cram more and more people onto the train.”

golden era

The Sunday roast was built for first class passengers on board the BOAC VC10 in 1964.

The Sunday roast was built for first class passengers on board the BOAC VC10 in 1964.

Airmail: 30,000 Feet Style / Keith Lovegrove

With passenger numbers a fraction of today’s and fares too expensive for anyone but the wealthy, airlines are not worried about adding more seats, but more amenities. .

Simons adds: “Airlines marketed their flights as a luxury transport, because in the early 1950s they were up against the travel airlines.

“So there were seating areas, and potentially four, five, even six meals. Olympic Airways fitted gilded cutlery in its first class cabins.

“Several American airlines have run down the aisle fashion shows, to help pass the time. At one stage, people talked about putting children’s grand pianos on board. fly for fun.”

The likes of Christian Dior, Chanel and Pierre Balmain have worked with Air France, Olympic Airways and Singapore Airlines to design the crew uniforms.

Being a flight attendant – or a flight attendant, as they were called until the 1970s – is a dream job.

“Airline: Style at 30,000 Feet” designer and author Keith Lovegrove said: “Flight crews looked like rock stars as they walked through the terminal, carrying their bags, almost in flight. slow motion”. handsome or beautiful. “

Most passengers try to follow suit.

Comfortable attitude

Pan American World Airways is perhaps the airline most associated with the 'golden age'.

Pan American World Airways is perhaps the airline most associated with the ‘golden age’.

Ivan Dmitri / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

“It was like going to a cocktail party. We had shirts, ties and jackets, which sounds ridiculous now, but then was expected,” said Lovegrove, who started flying in the years. 1960 as a child with his family, added. The seat class was given by his father, who worked in the airline industry.

“When we flew in the jumbo jet, the first thing my brother and I did was go up the spiral staircase to the top deck and sit in the cocktail lounge.”

“This is the generation where you smoke on the train and you get free alcohol.

“I don’t want to trouble anyone, but when we were young we were served a glass of sherry before dinner, then champagne and then maybe digestive medicine, all to no avail. old enough to drink.

“There’s an incredible sense of freedom, despite the fact that you’ve been trapped in this fuselage for several hours.”

According to Lovegrove, this laid-back attitude also extends to security.

“There are very few of them,” he said. “We once flew to the Middle East from the UK with a pet bird, a pet bird, which my mother brought on board in a shoebox as hand luggage.

“She punched two holes in the top so the little bird could breathe. When we brought the three-course meal, she took the lettuce garnish on the shrimp cocktail and placed it in the holes. The bird took it in. An security-wise, I don’t think you can get away with that today.”

‘Perfect service’

A Pan Am flight attendant serves champagne in first class of a Boeing 747 jet.

A Pan Am flight attendant serves champagne in first class of a Boeing 747 jet.

Tim Graham / Getty Images

The airline most often associated with the golden age of travel is Pan Am, which operated the first Boeing 707 and 747 and was the industry leader in transatlantic routes at the time.

“My work with Pan Am was an adventure from the day I started,” said Joan Policastro, a former flight attendant who worked with the airline from 1968 until its dissolution in 1991.

“There’s no comparison between flying Pan Am and any other airline. They all look at that.

“Very nice food and impeccable service. We have first class ice swans we serve caviar and Maxim’s of Paris [a renowned French restaurant] serve our food.

Policastro recalls passengers going to a lounge at the front of first class to “sit and chat” after a meal was served.

“A lot of times, that’s where we also sit, chatting with our passengers,” says Policastro. “A lot of times, passengers don’t even notice who’s on the plane, but back then it was a much more polite and social experience”. worked as a flight attendant with Delta before retiring in 2019.

Suzy Smith, who was also a Pan Am flight attendant starting in 1967, also remembers sharing moments with passengers in the lounge, including celebrities like actors Vincent Price and Raquel Welch, staff members serving Walter Cronkite and Princess Grace of Monaco.

The world of luxury

Guests are served a buffet on board a Lockheed Super Constellation while flying with the former US carrier Trans World Airlines (TWA) in 1955.

Guests are served a buffet on board a Lockheed Super Constellation while flying with the former US carrier Trans World Airlines (TWA) in 1955.

Mondadori via Getty Images

The upstairs lounge on the Boeing 747 was eventually replaced with a dining room.

“We set the table with a tablecloth,” says Smith. It’s pretty awesome. “People can’t sit there for take-offs and landings, but go up for dinner. After a while, they also leave the dining room and put first-class seats up there.”

First class service worthy of a restaurant.

“We started with canapés, then we came out to a cart with appetizers, including beluga caviar and foie gras,” she explains. “Then we had a cart with a big bowl of salad and we mixed it ourselves before serving.

“Then there’s always some kind of roast, like a kebab or the rack of lamb or roast beef, and it’s brought on board raw and we cook it in the kitchen.

“We took it out on another trolley and we carved it in the aisle. But apart from that, we had at least five other appetizers, a cheese and fruit cart, and a coated cart. And we serve Crystal or Dom Perignon champagne.”

Things aren’t too bad economically either.

“Food is brought on board in aluminum pans and we cook and prepare all the food,” Smith said. “The trays are large and come with real glasses.

“If we had a breakfast flight, they’d get raw eggs and we’d have to crack them into a piece of silver terrine and whip them up, melt the butter, and cook them with hot dogs or whatever. that we’re eating.”

Besides dressing up, passengers also don’t have much luggage to bring.

Smith adds: “When I first started, there was no such thing as a wheel on a suitcase. “We always check in for them, and then we bring a tote bag on board.

“There’s also no overhead bin. The only things you can leave there are coats and hats. Everyone’s only bringing one piece of luggage, which will fit under the seat.”

All is not perfect. Smoking is allowed on board, filling the cabins to the dismay of flight attendants; It was gradually banned starting in the 1980s.


A first-class 'Slumberette' on the Lockheed Constellation, early 1950s.

A first-class ‘Slumberette’ on the Lockheed Constellation, early 1950s.

Airmail: 30,000 Feet Style / Keith Lovegrove

Many airlines have strict physical requirements for hiring flight attendants, who must maintain a slim figure or risk being fired.

Safety is nowhere near as good as it is today: in the US, for example, there were a total of 5,196 crashes in 1965 compared with 1,220 in 2019 and a fatality rate of 6.15 per 100,000 flight hours versus 1. ,9, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. .

Hijackings are common: in 1969 alone there were more than 50. Ticket prices are also much higher. According to Simons, a transatlantic plane ticket in the early 1960s would have cost about $600, which is about $5,800 today.

However, nostalgia for this period still lingers, and Pan Am in particular is still fondly remembered as the pinnacle of the air travel experience.

The airline took off in 1991, when its long-dead golden age after deregulation paved the way for a less flashy, but more accessible commercial airline industry that began in the 1990s. 1980.

It exists through organizations that unite the company’s former employees, such as World Wings, a charitable association of former Pan Am flight attendants, to which both Smith and Policastro belong.

Smith said: “Pan Am is a big hit compared to the rest. We always have very classy uniforms. They don’t try to see us as sex objects. And the work is quite hard, But we are treated like royalty.”

“We had a great time on each break. We had a lot of adventures.”

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