What the ‘golden age’ of aviation really looked like

Editor’s Note – Monthly Ticket is a CNN Travel series that sheds light on some of the most fascinating topics in the world of travel. This August, we’re stepping back in time to revisit some of the greatest retro travel experiences.

(CNN) — Lounge cocktails, five-course meals, caviar served on ice sculptures and endless champagne: life on board planes was very different in the “golden age of travel”, the period from the 1950s to the 1970s in which we fondly remembered for its glamour. and luxury.

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

“Air travel in those days was something special,” says aviation historian and author Graham M. Simons. “It was luxurious. It was smooth. It was fast.

“People dressed up because of it. The staff literally wore high fashion uniforms. And there was a lot more space: the seat spacing – that’s the distance between the seats on the plane – was probably 36 to 40 inches. Now it’s 28 as they get more and more people on board.”

Golden age

The Sunday roast is carved out for first class passengers on a BOAC VC10 in 1964.

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 worried about fitting more seats, but more amenities.

“Airlines were marketing their flights as luxury transportation because by the early 1950s they were up against cruise liners,” Simons adds.

“So there were lounges, and the possibility of four, five, even six courses. Olympic Airways had gold-plated cutlery in the first class cabins.

“Some of the American airlines used to have fashion shows in the aisle, to help passengers pass the time. At one point there was talk of putting grand pianos on the plane for entertainment.”

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

Being an air hostess – or stewardess, as they were known until the 1970s – was a dream job.

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

Most passengers tried to follow suit.

relaxed attitude

Pan American World Airways is perhaps the airline most closely linked to the “golden age”.

Pan American World Airways is perhaps the airline most closely linked to the “golden age”.

Ivan Dmitri/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

“It was like going to a cocktail party. We had a shirt, tie and jacket, which seems ridiculous now, but it was expected back then,” adds Lovegrove, who started flying in the 1960s. 1960 when he was a child with his family, often first. class seats because his father worked in the airline industry.

“When we flew on the jumbo jet, the first thing my brother and I did was walk up the spiral staircase to the upper deck and sit in the cocktail bar.”

“It’s the generation where you smoked cigarettes on board and got free booze.

“I don’t want to get anyone in trouble, but at a young age we were served a schooner of sherry before our supper, then champagne and maybe a digestive after, all below drinking age.

“There was an incredible sense of freedom, despite being stuck in that fuselage for a few hours.”

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

“There were very few,” he says. “We once flew to the Middle East from the UK with a parakeet, a pet bird, which my mother packed in a shoebox as hand luggage.

“She drilled two holes in the top, so the little bird could breathe. When we were brought our three-course meal, she removed the lettuce garnish from the shrimp cocktail and placed it over the holes. L bird sucked it in. Safety-wise, I don’t think you can get away with this today.”

‘Impeccable 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 often associated with the golden age of travel is Pan Am, the first operator of Boeing 707s and 747s and the industry leader on transoceanic routes at the time.

“My work with Pan Am has been an adventure from the day I started,” says Joan Policastro, a former flight attendant who worked with 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 him.

“The food was spectacular and the service was impeccable. We had first class ice cream swans whose caviar we served, and Maxim’s de Paris [a renowned French restaurant] catering our food.

Policastro remembers how passengers would come to a lounge in front of first class “to sit and chat” after the meal was served.

“Often, that’s where we’d sit too, chatting with our passengers. Today, passengers don’t even pay attention to who’s on the plane, but back then it was a much more pleasant experience. social and polite,” says Policastro, who worked as a flight attendant at Delta before retiring in 2019.

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

luxurious world

Travelers are served a buffet aboard a Lockheed Super Constellation as they fly with the defunct American airline Trans World Airlines (TWA) in 1955.

Travelers are served a buffet aboard a Lockheed Super Constellation as they fly with the defunct American airline Trans World Airlines (TWA) in 1955.

Mondadori via Getty Images

The Boeing 747’s upstairs lounge was eventually replaced with a dining area.

“We set the tables with tablecloths. It was pretty fabulous,” Smith says. “People couldn’t sit there for take-off and landing, but came up for dinner. After a while, they also removed the dining area and put first-class seats there.”

The first class service was worthy of a restaurant.

“We started with canapes, then came out with a cart of appetizers, which included beluga caviar and foie gras,” she explains. “After that, we had a trolley with a big salad bowl and we mixed it ourselves before serving it.

“Then there was always some kind of roast, like a chateaubriand or rack of lamb or roast beef, and it would come raw on the plane and we would cook it in the kitchen.

“We took it out on another cart and sliced ​​it up the aisle. But on top of that we had at least five other appetizers, a cheese and fruit cart, and a dessert cart. And we served Crystal or Dom Pérignon champagne.”

Things weren’t too bad in the economy either.

“Food would come on the plane in foil pans and we would cook it and pan it out,” Smith says. “The trays were large and accompanied by real glasses.

“If we had a breakfast flight they would take raw eggs and we had to crack them in a silver bowl and whisk them, melt the butter and cook them with the sausage or whatever we had. “

Besides dressing to perfection, the passengers didn’t have much carry-on luggage.

“When I started, there were no wheels on a suitcase,” Smith adds. “We always checked them in and then took a tote bag on board.

“There were no luggage bins either. The only things you could put there were coats and hats. People only brought one piece of luggage, which could fit under the seat. .”

Everything was not perfect. Smoking was permitted on board, filling the cabins much to the dismay of flight attendants; it was gradually banned from the 1980s.

loving remembrance

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

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: in the United States, 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 versus 1.9, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. .

Hijackings were common: there were more than 50 in 1969 alone. The rates were also much higher. According to Simons, a transatlantic plane ticket in the early 1960s would cost around $600, or about $5,800 in today’s money.

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

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

He survives thanks to organizations that bring together former employees of the company, such as World Wings, a philanthropic association of former Pan Am flight attendants, to which Smith and Policastro belong.

“Pan Am was a big cut above the rest. We always had very fancy uniforms. They didn’t try to portray us as sex objects. kings,” Smith explains.

“We had a wonderful time at every stopover. We had so many adventures.”

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