Boomers Fly the Friendly Skies

While on vacation, Mister Boomer missed posting last week because Hurricane Irene disrupted air travel for a good portion of the East Coast. Over 11,000 flights were cancelled as several airports shut down altogether. As a result, Mister B’s vacation was extended days beyond the usual posting time. That got Mister B thinking, not of boomers and natural disasters, but about boomers and air travel.

Air travel became possible for civilians in the 1930s, but the prohibitive cost prevented middle class families from jumping on this modern form of transportation in any great numbers. It wasn’t until the introduction of reliable jet planes in the 1950s — boomer time — that airlines improved efficiency and profitability, especially on shorter-distance routes, to the point where flights became more affordable for the average family. Even still, air travel was considered adventurous. It wasn’t until 1958, when travel costs went down due to faster jet engines and airline efficiencies, that air travel first became more popular than ships for transatlantic crossings. More than one million passengers flew to Europe that year. By 1968, that number had grown to six million.

Many sources refer to flying in the 1950s and 60s as the Golden Age of Flying. Spacious seating areas, white-glove service, full meals — served on tablecloths with real silverware by beautiful, young “stewardesses” to attend to your in-flight comfort (long before “flight attendant” became politically correct) showed the airlines’ intent to emulate ship and train travel in the air.

Flying was an experience in and of itself. As such, people wore dress clothes when boarding a plane. Men wore suits and ties, while women donned dresses and jewelry. Even children were encouraged to wear their “Sunday best.” The idea was to allow daily functions to occur in the air as much as possible, with a luxe feel. That included smoking. Coming back home after World War II, the majority of American men smoked. Air travel had no restrictions on the activity until 1973 when the U.S. Congress passed legislation requiring all airlines to create non-smoking areas. Smoking was banned completely on flights less than six hours in 1990.

Some say there never really was a Golden Age of Flying. They point to the higher relative cost and slower travel times by today’s standards, meals that didn’t live up to the hype, and the inconvenience of sitting in a steel tube for several hours to get to your destination. By the time Mister Boomer took his first flight in 1971, air travel was changing: Airlines were buying larger planes that transported more people per flight. The spacious seating areas of the early days had given way to more seats installed per plane. They bought new aircraft like the DC-9, Boeing 707 and ultimately, the granddaddy of people movers at the time, the 747.

Many men still wore suits on board, but they were usually business men. People on regular vacation flights began embracing the more casual dress mode of the decade, tailored to their destination. In Mister B’s early experience, at that point air travel was moving more toward emulating bus service rather than that of a passenger ship.

One thing that has greatly improved the experience today, though, is the smoking ban. Mister B recalls those early flights — where the back half of the plane was earmarked for smokers — as nothing more than hurling through the air for a specified number of hours inside an enclosed ashtray. Second-hand smoke was a phrase that no one uttered. It made that first step off the plane all the more special as you could leave the stale air of the plane behind.

For the most part, plane travel got people to exotic destinations they did not have the time to get to by car, within a limited vacation schedule (like Hawaii, California or Dubuque). For that, it was an efficient method of travel. For Mister Boomer’s neighborhood, though, “See the USA in Your Chevrolet” was more common than flying the friendly skies.

What first memories of air travel do you recall, boomers?