What the ‘golden age’ of flying was really like

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Editor’s Note – Monthly ticket CNN Travel is a series that looks at some of the most interesting topics in the travel world. In August, we’re going back in time to revisit some of the best retro travel experiences.

(CNN) — Cocktail lounges, five-course meals, caviar served from ice sculptures and an endless flow of champagne: life on board airplanes was quite different during the “golden age of travel” from the 1950s to the 1970s, fondly remembered for its glamour. And luxury.

It coincided with the beginning of the jet age, ushered in by aircraft such as the de Havilland Comet, the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8, which were used for the first scheduled transatlantic services in the 1950s, before the introduction of the Queen. In The Skies, Boeing 747, 1970. So what was it really like to live there?

Aviation historian and author Graham M. “Air travel was something special back then,” says Simmons. “It was luxurious. It was easy. It was fast.

“People dressed up because of it. The staff literally wore haute couture uniforms. And there was a lot more space: the seat pitch — that is, the distance between the aircraft’s seats — was maybe 36 to 40 inches. Now that’s down. 28, as they draw more and more people on board.”

The Golden Age

In 1964 a Sunday roast was carved out for first class passengers on BOAC VC10.

In 1964 a Sunday roast was carved out for first class passengers on BOAC VC10.

Airline: Style at 30,000 feet/Keith Lovegrove

With passenger numbers only a fraction of what they are today and fares too expensive for anyone but the wealthy, airlines weren’t concerned with installing more seats, but more amenities.

“Airlines were marketing their flights as a luxury mode of transportation, as opposed to cruise liners in the early 1950s,” Simmons adds.

“So there were lounge areas, and the possibility of four, five, six-course meals. The Olympic Airways first-class cabin had gold-plated cutlery.

“Several American airlines held fashion shows under the wing to help passengers pass the time. At one point, there was talk of putting a baby grand piano on the aircraft to provide entertainment.”

Christian Dior, Chanel and Pierre Balmain were working with Air France, Olympic Airways and Singapore Airlines respectively to design the crew uniforms.

Being a flight attendant — or a stewardess, as they were called until the 1970s — was a dream job.

“The flight crew looked like rock stars as they walked through the terminal, carrying their bags, almost in slow motion,” says designer and author of the book “Airline: Style at 30,000 Feet, Keith Lovegrove.” They were very stylish. , and everyone was handsome or handsome.”

Most of the passengers tried to follow him.

A relaxed attitude

Pan American World Airways is perhaps the airline most closely associated with the 'Golden Age'.

Pan American World Airways is perhaps the airline most closely associated with the ‘Golden Age’.

Ivan Dimitri/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“It was like going to a cocktail party. We had a shirt and a tie and a jacket, which seems ridiculous now, but it was expected at the time,” adds Lovegrove, who started flying as a child with his family in the 1960s. did, often taking first place. The class seats as his father works in the airline industry.

“When we flew on a jumbo jet, my brother and I were the first to go up the spiral staircase to the upper deck and sit in the cocktail lounge.”

“This is the generation where you’ll be smoking cigarettes on board and you’ll get free alcohol.

“I don’t want to trouble anyone, but at a young age we were served a schooner of sherry before our dinner, then champagne and then perhaps a digestif, all under drinking age.

“Even though you were stuck in this fuselage for a few hours, there was an incredible feeling of freedom.”

According to Lovegrove, this relaxed attitude also extended to security.

“There was very little of it,” he says. “We once flew from the UK to the Middle East with a budgerigar, a pet bird, which my mother carried in a shoebox as hand luggage.

“She punched two holes in the top, so the little bird could breathe. When our three-course meal was brought to us, she took the lettuce garnish from the prawn cocktail and put it over the holes. The bird sucked it up. Safety-wise, I don’t think so. You can get rid of it today.”

‘Defective service’

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

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

Tim Graham/Getty Images

The airline most associated with the golden age of travel is Pan Am, the first operator of the Boeing 707 and 747 and the industry leader on transoceanic routes at the time.

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

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“There was no comparison between flying for Pan Am and any other airline. They all looked up to him.

“The food was fantastic and the service impeccable. We had ice swans in first class that we would serve caviar from and Parisian maxims. [a renowned French restaurant] Arranged our meals.

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Policastro recalls how passengers would come to the lounge in front of first class to “sit and chat” after meal service.

“Many times, we are also sitting there, chatting with our passengers. Today, passengers don’t even pay attention to who is on the plane, but back then, it was a more social and polite experience,” says Policastro. , who worked as a flight attendant with Delta before retiring in 2019.

Susie Smith, who was also a flight attendant with Pan Am in 1967, also recalls moments with passengers in the lounge, including celebrities such as actors Vincent Price and Raquel Welch, anchorman Walter Cronkite and Princess Grace of Monaco.

A world of luxury

A buffet is served to travelers on a Lockheed Super Constellation in 1955 while flying with the former American airline Trans World Airlines (TWA).

A buffet is served to travelers on a Lockheed Super Constellation in 1955 while flying with the former American airline Trans World Airlines (TWA).

Mondadori via Getty Images

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

“We set the table with tablecloths. It was so fabulous,” says Smith. “People couldn’t sit there for takeoff and landing, but went to have dinner. After a while, they removed the dining room as well, and they put first class seats in there.”

The first class service the restaurant deserved.

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

“Then there was always some kind of roast, like chateaubriand or rack of lamb or roast beef, and it came on the plane raw and we cooked it in the galley.

“We took it out to another cart and we carved it into the aisle. But in addition to that we had at least five other entrees, a cheese and fruit cart, and a dessert cart. And we served crystal or Dom Perignon champagne.”

Things were not too bad in the economy either.

“The food came in aluminum pans on the plane and we would cook it and dish it all up,” says Smith. “The tray was big and came with real glasses.

“If we had breakfast, they’d get on raw eggs and we’d crack them into a silver terrine, whip them, melt butter, and cook them with sausage or whatever else we had.”

On top of dressing to the nines, passengers didn’t even have much luggage.

“When I first started there was no such thing as wheels on a suitcase,” adds Smith. “We always checked them, and then we took a tote bag on board.

“There weren’t even any overhead bins. You could only put coats and hats in there. People only brought in one piece of luggage, which would fit under the seat.”

It wasn’t all perfect. Smoking was allowed on board, filling the cabin to the dismay of the flight attendants; It was gradually banned from the 1980s.

Remembered with love

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

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

Airline: Style at 30,000 feet/Keith Lovegrove

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

Safety was nowhere near as good as it is today: in the US, for example, there were 5,196 total accidents in 1965 compared to 1,220 in 2019, and the fatality rate was 6.15 per 100,000 flight hours compared to 1.9, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. .

Hijackings were common: more than 50 in 1969 alone. The rent was also very high. According to Simmons, a transatlantic flight ticket in the early 1960s would have cost about $600, which is about $5,800 in today’s money.

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

The airline shut down in 1991, when the golden age was long dead after deregulation and paved the way for less glamorous, but more accessible commercial aviation beginning in the 1980s.

It is sustained by organizations that unite former employees of the company, such as WorldWings, a philanthropic organization of former Pan Am flight attendants, to which both Smith and Policastro belong.

“Pan M was a cut above the rest. We always had very classy uniforms. They didn’t try to present us as sexual objects. And the work was very difficult, but we were treated like royalty,” says Smith. was,” says Smith.

“We had a wonderful time on every layover. We had so many adventures.”

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