Travel

From luxury dining to glamorous guests and acres of space, retro photos from the golden age of air travel

Posted by
Stylist Team
Published

It's hard to imagine a time when air travel was synonymous with glamour, indulgence and luxury.

Nowadays, we're more concerned with how cheaply we can fly for, as well as just how long we will have to spend wedged in a tiny economy seat amid leftover debris from our in-flight meal. 

But the pioneering years of commercial air travel were an opulent time indeed.

Passengers in fur and high heels supped champagne from crystal glasses as bee-hived air stewardesses handed out deluxe freebies, from cigars and deodorant to embossed evening robes.

Come evening time, guests could stretch out on full-size sleeper beds, where they were pampered in style with thick blankets, slippers and large, fluffy pillows. 

There was no need to worry about leg room; 1950s and 60s airliners such as Imperial Airways and Pan Am came with vast amounts of space. There was room enough to have space for spiral staircases, meals served on actual tables, bathrooms with urinals in, and mile-high bars serving exotic cocktails.

All in all, flying back then was a boozy, smokey and extravagant affair.

It was also slower, a good deal more expensive (an average economy ticket from New York to LA cost the equivalent of around £950 in today's money) and much less safe (pre-flight screening didn't exist back then, and air traffic control and in-flight technology has improved dramatically).

While we're likely much better off in today's world of contemporary air travel, here's eight things we miss from that golden age - based on vintage photos from the era.

1. The marvelous meals

Once upon a time, an in-flight meal meant bow-tied waiters serving a three-course feast on actual tables, with linen tablecloths and fresh flowers to boot. Forget cardboard and polystyrene trays - it was china and glass all the way...

Passengers enjoy a drink and a game of cards in the cabin of an Imperial Airways plane in 1936:

Dining service aboard the Pan American Martin Clipper aircraft, circa 1936:

Cabin service on board an intercontinental Boeing 707 during a flight with the West German airline Lufthansa, April 1967:

2. The leg room!

There was no such thing as reclining rows. No-one ever had to argue over space, because they had acres of it - guests could have easily performed cartwheels round the cabin if they fancied it. 

Relaxing in the main salon aboard the Pan American Martin Clipper aircraft, circa 1936:

The cabin of the all-new Boeing 707 Stratoliner. The first commercial flight was by Pan Am in 1958: 

A look at Boeing's new 747 aircraft, 1968:

3. The sumptuous sleeping space

Hard-as-wood pillows and drab blankets didn't cut it back in the day. Guests expected to stretch out fully, on bunker-style beds that had been made up in advance by the stewardesses. 

Sleeping berths on an Imperial Airways Flying Boat, most likely of the Short Empire class, 1936:

A woman snuggles up in her sleeping berth on an Imperial Airways aircraft, March 1937:

Even where passengers did sleep in their seats they did it in style, with plenty of room. Here, passengers prepare to take a nap on a Transocean Air lines Boeing 377 Stratocruiser in the mid 1950s. Transocean Air lines flew between 1946 and 1962 and was a pioneer discount airline - the retro equivalent of Ryanair or EasyJet: 

5. The on-board entertainment 

There was no such thing as tiny TV screens, so instead guests passed the time with plenty of wonderful food and booze - think of it as one, long in-flight party. The flight crew even threw in a bit of bunting on occasion, to really jazz things up and add a sense of occasion. 

23 December, 1946 - Air hostess Patricia Palley attends to passengers in the decorated cabin of a Pan-American air liner over the Atlantic:

21 April, 1952 - E Courtney, a member of the cabin crew, serving luncheon to a passenger on board the world's first jet airliner service. The Comet flight is bound for South Africa: 

1970 - first class passengers in a BOAC Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet are served lunch: 

7. The attention to detail

No detail was too small in the golden age of air travel. Design excellence was key, whether that was a spiral staircase or an intricately designed headboard. 

The Aft Cabin of an Imperial Airways Liner of the Heracles Class in the 1900s - with embellished woodwork and cushioned seating, it looks like something out of the Orient Express:

Cabins came with tables, even on budget airlines. This photo shows the inside of a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser from discount airline Transocean Air in the mid 1950s:

13 May, 1968 - A demonstration of the new Boeing 747 passenger plane, which was so large it included a spiral stairway between decks and carried up to 490 passengers in the most luxurious seats ever offered to air travellers:

8. The glamorous guests and crew

Last but not least, all this luxury and excess demanded VERY glamorous guests. Instead of lolling around in tracksuit bottoms, passengers dolled up to the nines to take to the skies - and the flight crew were equally well turned out. 

October 5, 1933 - singers from The New York Midnight Follies band alight from an Imperial Airways aeroplane at Croydon Airport:

Fashion designer Oleg Cassini and an in-flight model attend the Lufthansa Airlines Fashion Show in October 1967, at the Pierre Hotel in New York City:

Heathrow 1970 - crew from the first Boeing 747 to land at Heathrow, via a Pan Am flight with 361 passengers on-board: 

And just as a little reminder, this is what your average flight looks like today... happy travelling! 

Photos: Getty Images and Rex Features

Share this article

Author

Stylist Team