The Nostalgic Appeal of Vintage Air Travel Photos

Flying today is a test of endurance. Which makes old-school images of air travel that much more fascinating to look at.

Air travel, now more than ever, is something to be endured rather than enjoyed. At the airport, you’re faced with lengthy security lines, chronic flight delays, and an array of bleak sandwiches that all, for some reason, cost $18.

Once you’re on board, things don’t necessarily get better. Even before this year’s spike in “air rage” incidents, unruly behavior in the air was on the rise, which experts attribute to the stress of flying. Even in cases where everybody on your flight does behave themselves, you’ll still be fighting for overhead bin space and cramming yourself into smaller seats than ever before.

But, it wasn’t always this way. During the 1950s, when commercial air travel first became mainstream, airlines promoted their flights as an experience in themselves—a luxurious, glamorous getaway akin to a fancy night out.

Passengers dressed up to the nines, and were treated to three-course meals on real china plates. They relaxed in wide, deep seats with a generous recline and ample legroom, drinking cocktails that most certainly didn’t incur an additional fee.

This era, often referred to as the Golden Age of aviation, feels a world apart from flight as we know it today.


The Early Days of Flying

Commercial air travel began to grow during the 1920s, following the world’s first scheduled passenger flight in 1914. But, the conditions weren’t optimal. The cabins were loud, cold, and completely unpressurized, and air travel typically still took longer than train travel.

By the 1930s, airlines figured out how to make flights faster and more fun, with pressurized cabins, comfy seats, and friendly flight attendants to make passengers feel at home.

After World War II, both the U.S. and Europe were left with a surplus of military crafts, which they repurposed as commercial airliners.

Thanks to the baby boom, airlines made an effort to market directly to mothers with young children. In 1946, United Airlines launched its “Nurseryliner” service with this exact demographic in mind.

In 1957, U.S. air passengers exceeded rail passengers for the first time, marking a tipping point for the industry. A year later, in October 1958, Britain’s de Havilland Comet became the first jetliner to cross the Atlantic.

Boeing’s 707 was larger and more economical, however, and overtook the Comet to become the go-to plane for transatlantic flights.

At the airport, security was comparable to what you’d see at a rail station today. Passengers could simply roll up twenty to thirty minutes before their departure, and head straight to the gate without even showing ID.


A Luxury Experience Fit for the Stars

It was during the 1950s that mass air travel truly began—but that doesn’t mean it was accessible to most people. The high cost of flying is part of what sustained its luxury reputation. A ticket from Chicago to Phoenix, for example, cost the equivalent of $1,168 in today’s dollars.

But, for those who could afford it, air travel was de rigueur, and unsurprisingly popular with stars like Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, and Audrey Hepburn.



Even passengers who weren’t A-listers were treated inside the cabin like they were. Airlines were in fierce competition to attract passengers, and tried to one-up each other by offering extravagant gourmet meals—think prime rib and lobster.

On some long-haul sleeper flights, passengers would have a bed made up for them after the dinner service.

There was even in-flight entertainment. On some airlines, particularly in the first class cabin, passengers could don headphones to watch an in-flight movie. And, of course, smoking on board was not only permitted, but expected.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the American government began imposing regulations on smoking in the cabin. And, it took until 2000 for smoking to be entirely banned on all flights to, from, or within the U.S.


A Better Era…For Some

The idea of being trapped in a smoke-filled metal tube at 40,000 feet might make you think twice about your nostalgia for vintage air travel.

So might the airlines’ treatment of their female “hostesses”, who were routinely expected to wear high heels, stay under 125 pounds, and be single and childfree in order to keep their jobs. The role has thankfully evolved over the years, and flight attendants today aren’t subjected to such strict rules.

Flying now is also far more accessible than it’s ever been. On average, a passenger in the 1950s might spend up to 5% of his annual salary on a flight, which would be highly unusual for most people today. The high cost made flying a delight, but also rendered it an elite experience out of reach for most.

So, next time you’re quietly losing the will to live in the TSA line, try to remind yourself that not everything was better in the good old days. But, man, do those vintage air travel photos look nice right about now.


A few more vintage oldies but goodies for you:

Cover image via Everett/​Shutterstock.

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