(CNN) — Cocktail lounges, five-course meals, caviar served from ice sculptures and an endless stream of champagne: life aboard aircraft was very different during the ‘golden age of travel’, the period from the 1950s to the 1970s fondly remembered for its glamor and luxury.
It coincided with the dawn of the jet era, 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 of the Skies, the Boeing 747, in 1970. So what was it really like to be there?
“Air travel was something special at the time,” said Graham M. Simons, aviation historian and author. “It was luxurious. It was smooth. It was fast.
“People were dressing up because of that. The staff were literally wearing haute couture uniforms. And there was a lot more space: the seat pitch — that’s the distance between the seats on the plane — was probably 36 to 40 inches. Now it’s up to 28. because they’re cramming more and more people on board.”
Table of Contents
Sunday Roast is cut in 1964 for first class passengers on a BOAC VC10.
Airline: Style at 30,000 Feet/Keith Lovegrove
With passenger numbers a fraction of what they are today and fares too expensive for all but the wealthy, airlines weren’t worried about installing more seats, but more amenities.
“The airlines marketed their flights as a luxury mode of transport because they competed with the cruise ships in the early 1950s,” Simons adds.
“So there were lounge areas and the option of four, five, even six-course meals. Olympic Airways had gold-plated cutlery in the premium cabins.
“Some US airlines had aisle fashion shows to help passengers pass the time. At one point, there was talk of putting baby wings on the plane to provide entertainment.”
People like Christian Dior, Chanel and Pierre Balmain collaborated with Air France, Olympic Airways and Singapore Airlines respectively to design crew uniforms.
Being a flight attendant — or flight attendant, as they were called until the 1970s — was a dream job.
“Flight crews looked like rock stars as they walked through the terminal with 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 either handsome or beautiful.”
Most passengers tried to follow suit.
Pan American World Airways is arguably the airline most closely associated with the ‘Golden Age’.
Ivan Dmitri/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images
“It was like going to a cocktail party. We had a shirt and tie and a jacket, which sounds ridiculous now, but was expected then,” adds Lovegrove, who started flying with his family in the 1960s and often the first became class seats as his father worked in the airline industry.
“When we flew the jumbo jet, the first thing my brother and I would do was go up the spiral staircase to the upper deck and sit in the cocktail lounge.”
“This is the generation where you smoke cigarettes on board and drink alcohol for free.
“I don’t want to get anyone into trouble, but at a young age we were served a schooner sherry for dinner, then champagne and then maybe a digestif, all under drinking age.
“There was an incredible sense of freedom, despite being trapped in this hull for a few hours.”
According to Lovegrove, this relaxed attitude also extended to safety.
“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 took in a shoebox as hand luggage.
“She punched two holes in the top so the bird could breathe. When we got our three-course meal, she took the shrimp cocktail batter and put it over the holes. The bird sucked it in. Security wise, I don’t think so you can get away with that today.”
A Pan Am flight attendant pours champagne in the first-class cabin of a Boeing 747 jet.
Tim Graham/Getty Images
The airline most often associated with the golden age of travel is Pan Am, the first operator of the Boeing 707 and 747 and the market leader on transoceanic routes at the time.
“My job at Pan Am has been an adventure from the day I started,” said Joan Policastro, a former flight attendant who worked for the airline from 1968 until its dissolution in 1991.
“There was no comparison between flying for Pan Am and any other airline. They all looked up to it.
“The food was spectacular and the service impeccable. We had first class ice swans that we served the caviar from, and Maxim’s from Paris [a renowned French restaurant] took care of our food.
Policastro recalls how passengers came to a first-class lounge after meal service “to sit and chat”.
“Often we would sit there chatting with our passengers. Today, passengers don’t even pay attention to who is on the plane, but back then it was a much more sociable and polite experience,” said Policastro, who worked as a flight attendant at Delta before joining Delta in 2019. retired.
Suzy Smith, who was also a flight attendant at Pan Am from 1967, also remembers sharing moments with passengers in the lounge, including celebrities such as actors Vincent Price and Raquel Welch, presenter Walter Cronkite and the Princess Grace of Monaco.
Travelers get a buffet aboard a Lockheed Super Constellation while flying in 1955 with the former US carrier Trans World Airlines (TWA).
Mondadori via Getty Images
The upstairs lounge of the Boeing 747 was eventually replaced by a dining room.
“We covered the tables with tablecloths. It was really fantastic,” says Smith. “People couldn’t take off and land there, but went upstairs to eat. After a while, they also got rid of the dining room and put first-class chairs there.”
The first class service was worthy of a restaurant.
“We started with canapés, then we came out with a trolley of snacks, including beluga caviar and foie gras,” she explains. “After that we had a cart with a large salad bowl and we mixed it ourselves before serving.
“Then there was always some kind of roast, like a chateaubriand or rack of lamb or roast beef, and it came raw on the plane and we cooked it in the galley.
“We got it on another cart and carved it in the aisle. But in addition, we had at least five other entrees, a cheese and fruit cart, and a dessert cart. And we served Crystal or Dom Perignon champagne.’
The economy was not bad either.
“Food came on the plane in aluminum pans and we cooked it and served it all,” Smith says. “The trays were large and came with real glasses.
“If we had a breakfast flight, they’d board raw eggs and we’d have to break them in a silver terrine and whip them up, melt the butter and cook them with the sausage or whatever we had.”
In addition to dressing down to the last detail, passengers also didn’t have a lot of carry-on luggage.
“When I first started, there was no such thing as wheels on a suitcase,” Smith adds. “We always checked them in and then we had a carrying bag on board.
“There were no overhead bins either. The only things you could hang there were coats and hats. People only brought one piece of luggage, which would fit under the seat.”
It wasn’t all perfect. Smoking was allowed on board, filling the cabins much to the dismay of the flight attendants; it was gradually banned from the 1980s.
Remembered with love
A first-class ‘Slumberette’ on a Lockheed Constellation, 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: For example, in the U.S. 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.
Hijacks were common: in 1969 alone there were more than 50. Rates were also much higher. According to Simons, a transatlantic plane ticket in the early 1960s would cost about $600, which is about $5,800 in today’s money.
Nevertheless, there is a lot of nostalgia for that period, and Pan Am in particular is still fondly remembered as the pinnacle of the flying experience.
The airline shut down in 1991, when the golden age was long gone after deregulation paved the way for a less glamorous, but more accessible commercial aviation from the 1980s.
It survives through organizations that unite ex-company employees, such as World Wings, a philanthropic association of former Pan Am flight attendants, which includes both Smith and Policastro.
“Pan Am was a cut above the rest. We always had very stylish uniforms. They didn’t try to present us as sexual objects. And the work was pretty hard, but we were treated like royalty,” Smith says.
“We’ve had a great time at every stopover. We’ve had so many adventures.”