It’s the Fifties. You’re cruising over the Atlantic in your reclining, room-for-two seat wearing a twin set and pearls, and being served lobster thermidor on bone china by a designer-clad stewardess. Picking up your sterling silver cutlery, you look around at your equally glamorous fellow travellers drinking martinis and smoking against a backdrop of some of the world’s most collectible artwork.
As befits the experience, this was no last-minute booking, in fact you’ve been anticipating this journey for months, building up to it so it arrives with a sense of occasion. While on board, you’re given commemorative postcards on which to record your memories of the flight itself; and it’s such a big event, you do just that.
If you’re currently in the throes of summer holiday planning, shopping around with budget airlines, already devising a battle plan for customs, take a moment to marvel at the fact that it wasn’t always this way. While it may sound like a daydream today, this level of luxury was the norm during the Fifties and Sixties. Flying still had an aura of glamour and was experienced only by the rich and famous. This was the ‘Golden Age’ of aviation.
Come fly with me
Part of its allure came from the exclusivity of flying. “In the Fifties, flying was about class,” explains Professor Guillaume de Syon, expert in aviation history at Pennsylvania’s Albright College. “On average, it was four times as expensive to fly during the Golden Age as it is today. Until 1952, there was only one class you could fly, and the average ticket from New York to Paris cost £250 in 1956, which amounts to roughly £2,150 now – one way.”
What you got for your money was “essentially the most glamorous cocktail party in the sky”, explains Keith Lovegrove, author of Airline: Style At 30,000 Feet. “Travellers would dress for the occasion and mingle in on-board lounges, drinking and smoking to excess as they were served by air hostesses clad in Christian Dior, Emilio Pucci or Pierre Balmain.”
These mini lounges existed in both first and economy, says de Syon. “People tended to be from similar social backgrounds, with many of the men travelling for business, meaning they could make new connections on-board. There wasn’t much entertainment. You could read, eat and nap, but there were no movies until the late Fifties, so most people would drink, chat and smoke to pass the time.”
Food was positively decadent compared to the vacuum-packed trays today’s flyers endure. Richard Foss, author of Food In The Air And Space: The Surprising History Of Food And Drink In The Skies, explains: “Governments funnelled top-quality products to airlines as part of their marketing efforts to expose international passengers to them. For instance, passengers on Italy’s national airline, Alitalia, drank superb Italian wines, ate the best cheeses and meats, and the airline paid little or nothing for them.”
However, it was Scandinavian Airlines who truly excelled in terms of gastronomy. According to old menus, passengers could expect three-course fine dining featuring everything from crab cocktails to freshly carved roast beef, rustled up for you by the in-flight chef.
Foss explains: “Scandinavian Airlines had the finest food in the air. What was most impressive about mid-century air travel were the hugely varied menus. Choice is a long-lost luxury, but back then there were as many as 20 choices, including vegetarian meals and various special diets being catered for. Extravagant dishes like seafood platters, beef Wellington and caviar blinis were a common sight.”
However, the difference between mid-century and modern travel goes way beyond the in-flight experience. Turning up half an hour before take-off, passengers wouldn’t have worried about getting through security. The only checks involved placing your luggage on a sizeable scale to weigh it before strolling across the tarmac and onto your plane. “If you were flying internationally, customs would check you too,” adds de Syon, “but otherwise security was lax. Your loved one could accompany you all the way to boarding the stairs.”
As well as the airports, planes in the Fifties and Sixties would have been unrecognisable. The first thing you’d notice is the space – seats were far roomier than the ones we squeeze in to today (think business-class-size chairs for everyone), windows had proper curtains and some airlines, such as Air France, would hang small pieces of art, which had been specially commissioned for their carriers, from the walls. Together, these touches created the impression of an elegant sitting room in the sky.
But while in terms of service the Fifties and Sixties may have been the halcyon days of flying, there were still some glaring downsides – particularly the danger factor. According to de Syon, flying at the time was statistically five times more dangerous than it is today. Unsophisticated aviation technology, for example, would result in mid-air collisions. Engines were known to drop out of planes. Pilots drank in the cockpits.
What’s more, first and economy classes were often separated by a glass wall that was known to shatter if turbulence hit – just one more element of danger in an already risky mode of transport. Clearly flying back then was not for the faint-hearted.
This risk factor might have added to aviation’s glamour, but it does reassure modern travellers of one thing – even if you’re not as stylish, you’re much safer in the skies. Which we’re sure makes you feel better about squashing your La Prairie eye cream into a tiny freezer bag, right?
Yep, thought so.
Photography: Esperanza Moya/folio-id.com, Getty