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August 21, 2019

Here’s What It Was Really Like (And It’s Actually Crazy) to Fly in the 1950s

Air travel has come a long way since the 1950s, this we know. But in the ’50s, flying was something different. It was something magical and marvelous. Air travel exploded into its Golden Age, and airplane trips weren’t just a means of getting to your vacation –– they were a vacation in themselves. Passengers dressed in their finest to fly. They lined up for group photos before boarding. Riding an airplane made them feel like a movie star because it pretty much took the salary of a movie star to do so.

But not everything was so rosy. If you took a flight in the 1950s...

1. Turbulence Could Snap Your Neck

Early commercial planes were powered with pistons, not jet engines. As a result, they were loud, vibrated fiercely, bumped like crazy in turbulence and were grounded often due to weather (things got smoother after the first commercial jet debuted in 1952). In the ’50s, pressurized airplane cabins were relatively new to the scene. And a non-stop flight? Not likely –– getting across the country could require multiple layovers.

2. You Had Insane Amounts of Legroom

Coach seats had three to six inches more legroom than they do today –– 1950s economy class looked more like business class does now. And first class was clearly about as spacious as a modern hotel room.

3. Your Flight Attendant Wore a Girdle and Had a Weight Limit

Flying was an over-the-top luxury experience, and leggy, chatty “hostesses” were part of the show. One stewardess recalls her airline’s rule that she wear high heels at all times –– only after takeoff could she switch to flatter shoes. Hair had to be short enough so as not to touch her collar. A flight attendant manual mandated that stewardesses be single, stay under 125 pounds, and maintain “high moral standards” during employment.

4. You Might Have Paid Up to 5% of Your Salary for a Ticket

In the ’50s, a flight from Chicago to Phoenix could cost $138 round-trip -- that’s $1,168 when adjusted for today’s inflation. A one-way to Rome would set you back more than $3,000 in today's dollars.

5. Lobster Counted as Airplane Food

With commercial plane travel a new market, airlines struggled to one-up each other by offering the fanciest meals. One vintage ad lists TWA’s “full meal” to be served in-flight: soup, meat, salad, vegetables and dessert. Real glassware and roast beef were typical sights.

6. Smoking Was Totally Acceptable... And for Much Longer Than You’d Think

During the 1950s, smoking (of cigarettes, pipes and cigars) was totally acceptable in the air, but strangely not in the terminal (they were afraid cigarettes might ignite the fuel fumes). “Confusion and resentment” ran rampant when a law prohibited smoking on short domestic flights decades later, in 1988. It wasn’t until 2000 that a law mandated all flights to and from the U.S. be smoke-free.

7. You Were Handed a Postcard as You Boarded

Flying was so utterly rare that passengers felt compelled to document every moment on postcards with pictures of the plane or in-flight meal, to show their less lucky loved ones what the newfangled experience was like.

8. You Drank (Lots) for Free

Alcohol was another popular form of in-flight entertainment: passengers were served as much free alcohol as they could drink, and it was not uncommon to come off a flight totally hammered.

Of course, the free boozing tapered off as air travel became less of a luxury industry and more of a commercial one. But in those early Golden Days, “people just poured themselves scotch after scotch”.

9. You Didn’t Show ID

Even as late as 1970, passengers made it onto planes without ID of any sort –– a quick look-over from security did the trick. Showing up at the airport 30 minutes before your flight was totally fine, and well-wishers could walk right up to your gate where you boarded via stairs, not jet bridge. Passenger screenings wouldn’t become mandatory until 1973.

10. Baggage Claim Was Even More Excruciating Than It is Now

In the early 1950s, you’d wait for a skycap to organize everyone’s luggage on a counter. One by one, passengers pointed to their suitcases, paid him a tip and collected their bags. Thank heavens for the first conveyor belts!

(via HuffPost Travel)


  1. If current ticket prices were on a par with what they used to be, you would still have legroom on airplanes. The absolute worst thing that the industry ever did was open itself up to the masses. Flying *should be* a luxury...regular folks like us should travel by train and ship. It should be noted that train and ship are two of the three major travel modes which commercial flying helped kill. The third is itself.
    Back then, when ticket prices were that high, airlines were raking it in financially. Now they are constantly struggling to remain financially viable. Yes, a lot of that has to do with other factors, fuel, security, etc., but if those things were factored into ticket prices along with the expected drop in ridership and the ensuing drop in overhead (less manpower, less planes, less fuel, insurance, etc.) They could return to financial profitability. Plus, with fewer planes in the air the benefits would extend well beyond just the immediate industry.

  2. "Showing up at the airport 30 minutes before your flight was totally fine, and well-wishers could walk right up to your gate where you boarded via stairs, not jet bridge. Passenger screenings wouldn’t become mandatory until 1973."

    In the US this was true up till 9/11. My wife and kids would sit at the gate with me before a flight, and I often showed up just as the boarding process started.

  3. Oh, I think it's just that before there were airlines, rail and ships had to provide for cheap mass travel. There was nothing else. We have indeed been remiss in not providing enough domestic rail. I'm not sure it will ever happen in the U.S. The property value of right of way and the infrastructure costs may just be too much to make it competitive with air in areas where there is no rail now. But it does begin to seem silly to drive through massive traffic and negotiate tedious security and boarding processes in order to get on a fast airplane. With rail, almost anywhere is a "railport."

    And if you want luxury international flying, you can still have it, at a price not unlike the regular luxury pictured here. I think that then, it was mostly just that few people were in the habit of flying. Circular effect. International travel was for the well off, and only the well off wanted to pay for it. Which comes first, desire to travel or cheap travel? I suspect they develop together.

    Do you do your bit by always flying at least Business Class? I can afford to pay for luxury flying, but I also like to put my money to better use by flying cheaply. I am not inclined to give up $400 round trip to Dublin or London for some theoretical and elitist ideal. And Americans are generally sadly ignorant of the rest of the world, but far less so since flying became cheap.

    Now, if we could break people of thinking they must only visit the same few places, many of which are now ruined by crowds, we would enjoy it more. So I do understand some benefits of pricing international travel out of the reach of the mob, but that's not realistic. We can only do our part to inform people of how to travel well.




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