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Nov 2014

Flying High: Then and Now


If you have been flying for the last ten years, was there a time that you stopped to think of the difference between flying then and flying now? Are there major changes? Are they for the better? What were the perks then compared to now. It would seem that commercial planes now are fitted with all the mod cons that were not available in the 1950′s.

First Jet Airliner
Passenger travel by jet airliner was introduced in the 1950s with the De Havilland Comet as the first jet airliner in the world. On May 2, 1952, it made its first scheduled flight from London to Johannesburg. Air travel has come a long way, in terms of aircraft, amenities and features, speed and frequency. Today, the record for the longest non-stop flight is held by Qantas Flight 7 from Sydney to Dallas on Boeing 747-400 (as of November 23, 2013). The flight takes 15 hours and 25 minutes, covering a distance of 8,578 miles. In second place is Delta’ flight from Johannesburg to Atlanta, which takes 16 hours and 55 minutes. The shortest flight takes only two minutes, served by Loganair of Scotland on flights from Westray to Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands. The flight covers a distance of 1.7 miles. There had been so many technical advancements in the airline industry over the years that it may be a bit difficult to make a comparison, but still, why don’t we try and see.

Economy Flight, 1960

When jet travel was introduced in the 1950′s, the airplane seats were comfortable and wide. There was ample leg room and people could stand around and socialize. Even the three-across seats were quite roomy. In the early days there was only one flight class: Ordinary, which was the equivalent of first class, before the Tourist class was introduced. There were airplanes then that had lounges for socializing and even little beds. Smoking was also allowed and PanAm had matches and lighters marked with their own brand.


Food then and now is a big issue, since flights can take up to several hours. However, in the past, passengers were even presented with a full course menu of available food items on board. Tables were still used until the late 1970s. Cheese plates and a selection of fruits were likewise available well into the 1980s. The meals were hot and delivered promptly. Tea, coffee and water were served in real china while silver trays were used for hor d’oeuvres. Salads were tossed in front of the passengers and cold bars were pushed close to the passenger seats and served by attendants. PanAm even had carving stations in the 1950′s.

Today most hot meals in the economy class are pre-ordered and pre-paid, although there is still a wide selection. Some still serve complimentary meals or snacks, depending on the length of the flight. Some airlines offer a complimentary bar service, with a soft drink or glass of wine. Others sell packaged food, snacks and an assortment of beverages on board. This is because the plane fare was lowered so the meals were taken off the price of the ticket. First and business class sections of major airlines get special treatment, with menus offering full course meals that have been prepared by well-known international chefs, but of course, the price of the meals are included in the ticket price.


In today’s planes, the seats are well padded and may come equipped with buttons to turn on the lights, volume the entertainment console and select available programs. Food trays are fitted on the back of the seats. Leg room has been minimized which makes it difficult for tall people to sit comfortably. Reclining the seats could also hamper the movement of the people behind you since the seats are installed closer together. In the past, there were only nine coach seats in each row, today, there are ten, reducing the width of the seat from 21 inches to 17 inches. Aisles and armrests also got slimmer, thus there is almost no room to move, which inconveniences coach passengers.

It is very different in business class and first class, wherein seats are bigger and roomier. There are a few seats at most, and in some cases seats are installed 2 by 2 or alone. Some airlines have seats that could be made to lie flat, thus giving the passenger the convenience of resting/sleeping on a bed.


In the 1950s, passengers had to book their flight through a travel agent. Reservations were managed manually. They used record books, reservation cards and manifests. Each reservation was written on a card and each card corresponded to a trip. These cards were organized by departure date and placed in tubs that were shared by various reservation agents. For reservations that come from outlying offices, these were usually sent via teletypewriter (teleprinter) or through phone calls. Reservations during that time were made 30 days in advance. When the first electronic reservation system was put in place, about two hours were needed to complete one reservation transaction, as most part of the reservation process were still done manually.

Today it only takes several minutes to make a reservation and it could be done without going through a travel agent. It is easy to call the ticket reservation office of an airline, check flight availability and book the flight. Booking could also be done online, where several flights that are available for a destination are listed, including airfare and flight schedule. All the passenger needs to do is to make the choice and reserve the flight. Payment could be done online as well. For some airlines, pre-printed tickets are no longer necessary because they use electronic tickets (e-tickets).

Qantas A380 Airplane

Flying then was labelled luxurious because there were only one flight class and passenger service could be likened to staying in a first class hotel. But it was expensive. Today airfare prices have dropped drastically, therefore the fancy meals and other freebies and amenities were taken off. But in reality, that type of service was not taken away but rather moved to the first class and the business class, where passengers pay premium rates to get the best in-flight experience possible.

Several airlines right now provide or are in the process of providing WiFi service on selected aircraft during their flights. The service is still spotty and the speed is comparable to a snail’s pace. Another thing that detract tech-savvy passengers is the high price charged for the service. So far seven airlines offer free in-flight WiFi service: Nok Air, Hong Kong Airlines, Philippine Airlines, Air China, Turkish Airlines, Norwegian and JetBlue.


In-flight entertainment had been upped several notches. In the old days, children were given toys for free. There were also trinkets, pins, model planes and storybooks. An in-flight magazine was one of the major sources of entertainment before a few movies (without headsets) were introduced. Today, there is a selection of free movies to watch or pay the price to watch a current blockbuster. Airlines offer a selection of music in various genres, videos and video games, even flight maps. The back of the seats (in economy class) are installed with monitors. Other airlines also provide power sources for charging personal electronic devices of passengers.

Cocktails on Pan Am, 1958

During the Golden Age of Travel, there were not a lot of restrictions and alcohol was served for free. Today there are still several airlines that serve beer and wine even in coach on long-haul flights. In you prefer liquor, you have to shell out a few dollars. About ten airlines provide complimentary alcoholic drinks on their international long-haul flights, such as American Airlines, Delta, Virgin Atlantic Airways, Air France, British Airways, Air Canada, China Airlines, Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa.

United Airlines Stewardess, 1968

A purser for KLM, Cliff Muskiet, has been collecting airline crew uniforms through the years. According to him the uniforms during the 1940s and the 1950s were basically military style, consisting of dark coloured long skirts and tailored jackets and almost all airlines have the same basic design. A decade later, there was the idea that the stewardesses (now called flight crew/flight attendants) must be made to attract passengers and they were provided with hotpants and miniskirts. There was a burst of patterns and colours in that period. In the 1990′s, the flight crew’s uniforms were more like conservative business attires. Today, flight attendant uniforms are designed by fashion houses and some reflect the culture of the airline’s origin. Back then, airlines were strict about weight and height and stewardesses must possess beauty and charm. Today, flight attendants are employed more for the safety of passengers, so weight and age are no longer primary factors for selection.

Ixion Windowless Jet

Into the future
Aircraft technology continues to evolve and in the near future, we will be seeing windowless airplanes, which are more fuel-efficient with its streamlined construction. Today, when seated by the window, a passenger can look outside and enjoy the view far below. Airlines customarily dim the lights during evening flights as they pass over cities that are colourfully lit, such as Hong Kong. For the windowless plane, the proposed Ixion Windowless Jet, designed by Technicon Design, a design agency in France, the windows would be replaced by screens where footage of the panoramas outside would be displayed. When the outside setting is not beautiful, passengers could request to have it replaced by different forms of imagery, interfaces for video conferencing or a film footage. The proposed private jet, according to the designers would weigh considerably less because of the removal of the windows. There are still no plans to build the Ixion Windowless Jet but the same idea is being developed by Spike Aerospace of the United States. It will be a Mach 1.6-1.8 supersonic aircraft that they plan to launch around 2018. According to the designers, their windowless plane would be able to reach New York from London in under four hours.


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