(CNN) – Cocktail lounges, five-course meals, caviar served from ice sculptures and an endless flow of champagne: life on board planes was very different during the “golden age of travel”, the period from the 1950s to the 1970s. which is fondly remembered for its glitz and luxury.
It coincided with the dawn of the jet age, ushered in by aircraft such as the de Havilland Comet, the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8, which were used in the 1950s for the first scheduled transatlantic flights, before the introduction of the Queen of the Skies, the Boeing 747, in 1970. What was it really like to be there?
“Air travel at that time was something special,” says Graham M. Simons, aviation historian and author. “It was luxurious. It was smooth. It was quick.
“People dressed up for it. The staff literally wore haute couture uniforms. And there was a lot more space: the pitch between the seats – that’s the distance between the seats on the plane – was probably 36 to 40 inches. Now it’s down to 28, nor are they cramming more and more people on board.”
A Sunday roast was carved for first class passengers on a BOAC VC10 in 1964.
Airline: Style at 30,000 feet/Keith Lovegrove
With passenger numbers a fraction of today’s and fares too expensive for anyone but the wealthy, airlines weren’t worried about installing more seats, but more amenities.
“Airlines marketed their flights as luxury modes of transportation because in the early 1950s they were opposed to cruise ships,” adds Simons.
“So there were lounging areas and the option of four, five, even six courses. Olympic Airways had gold plated cutlery in the first class cabins.
“Some of the American airlines had fashion shows down the aisle to help passengers pass the time. At one stage there was talk of putting baby grand pianos on the plane to provide entertainment.’
The likes of Christian Dior, Chanel and Pierre Balmain work with Air France, Olympic Airways and Singapore Airlines respectively to design crew uniforms.
Being a flight attendant – or flight attendants, as they were called until the 1970s – was a dream job.
“The flight attendants looked like rock stars as they walked through the terminal carrying their bags, almost in slow motion,” says the designer and author of the book “Airline: Style at 30,000 Feet, Keith Lovegrove.” They were very stylish and everyone was or handsome, or handsome.”
Most passengers tried to follow suit.
Pan American World Airways is perhaps the airline most closely associated with 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 sounds funny now, but it was expected then,” adds Lovegrove, who started flying in the 1960s as a child with his family, often coming first in class as his father worked in the airline industry .
“When we flew on a jumbo jet, the first thing my brother and I would do was go up the spiral staircase to the upper deck and sit in the cocktail lounge.”
“This is the generation where you will smoke cigarettes on board and have free alcohol.
“I don’t want to trouble anyone, but as youngsters we were served a schooner of sherry before dinner, then champagne and then maybe a digestif, all under the drinking age.
“There was an incredible sense of freedom, despite the fact that you were stuck in that fuselage for several hours.”
According to Lovegrove, this relaxed attitude also extends to security.
“There was very little of that,” he says. “We once flew to the Middle East from the UK with a budgerigar, a pet bird that my mother took on board in a shoebox as hand luggage.
“She punched two holes in the top so the little bird could breathe. When the three-course meal was brought to us, she removed the lettuce garnish from the shrimp cocktail and placed it on top of the holes. The bird sucked it. wise, I don’t think you can get away with it today.”
A Pan Am flight attendant serves champagne in the first class cabin of a Boeing 747 aircraft.
Tim Graham/Getty Images
The airline most often associated with the golden age of travel is Pan Am, the first operator of the Boeing 707 and 747 and the industry leader in transoceanic routes at the time.
“My job at Pan Am was an adventure from the day I started,” says Joanne Policastro, a former flight attendant who worked for the airline from 1968 until its collapse in 1991.
“There was no comparison between flying Pan Am and any other airline. Everyone was staring at her.
“The food was amazing and the service was impeccable. We had ice swans in first class, from which we served caviar, and Maxim’s of Paris [a renowned French restaurant] catering our food.
Policastro remembers how passengers would come to the lounge in front of first class to “sit and talk” after dinner.
“Many times we sat there too, talking to our passengers. Today, passengers don’t even pay attention to who’s on the plane, but back then it was a much more social and polite experience,” said Policastro, who worked as a flight attendant for Delta before retiring in 2019.
Susie Smith, who has also been a Pan Am flight attendant since 1967, also recalls sharing moments with passengers in the lounge, including celebrities such as actors Vincent Price and Raquel Welch, anchor Walter Cronkite and Princess Grace of Monaco.
A luxurious world
Passengers are served a buffet aboard a Lockheed Super Constellation while flying with the former US airline Trans World Airlines (TWA) in 1955.
Mondadori via Getty Images
The Boeing 747’s upper deck lounge was eventually replaced by a dining room.
“We set the tables with tablecloths. It was great,” says Smith. “People couldn’t sit there for takeoff and landing, but they went up to eat dinner. After a while they also removed the dining room and put first-class seats there.”
First class service was worthy of a restaurant.
“We started with canapés, then came out with a cart of appetizers including beluga caviar and foie gras,” she explains. “Then we had a cart with a big salad bowl and we mixed it ourselves before serving it.
“Then there was always some kind of roast, like chateaubriand or lamb or roast beef, and it would come on the plane raw and we would cook it in the galley.
“We took him out on another cart and carved him out on the trail. But in addition to that, we had at least five other appetizers, a cheese and fruit cart, and a dessert cart. And we served Crystal champagne or Dom Perignon.”
Things were not too bad in the economy either.
“The food would come on the plane in aluminum pans and we would cook and arrange it all,” says Smith. “The trays were big and came with real glasses.
“If we had a breakfast flight, they’d put raw eggs on and we’d have to break them into a silver terrine and beat them and melt the butter and cook them with the sausage or whatever else we had.”
In addition to dressing to the nines, passengers also didn’t have much carry-on luggage.
“When I first started, there was no such thing as suitcase wheels,” adds Smith. “We always checked them in and then carried a big bag on board.
“There were no overhead bins either. The only things you could put in there were coats and hats. People only carried one piece of luggage that would fit under the seat.”
Not everything was perfect. Smoking was allowed on board, filling the cabins much to the dismay of flight attendants; it was gradually banned from 1980.
I fondly remember
A first-class Lockheed Constellation Slumberette, 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 US, for example, there were a total of 5,196 accidents in 1965 compared to 1,220 in 2019, and the fatality rate was 6.15 per 100,000 flight hours compared to 1.9 , according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Kidnappings were common: there were over 50 in 1969 alone. The prices were also much higher. According to Simons, a transatlantic flight ticket in the early 1960s cost about $600, which is about $5,800 in today’s money.
Nevertheless, nostalgia for the period abounds and Pan Am in particular is still fondly remembered as the pinnacle of the air travel experience.
The airline folded in 1991, when the golden age was long dead after deregulation paved the way for less glamorous but more affordable commercial aviation beginning in the 1980s.
It survives through organizations that bring together former employees of the company, such as World Wings, a philanthropic association of former Pan Am flight attendants, to which both Smith and Policastro belong.
“Pan Am was a cut above the rest. We always had very smart uniforms. They weren’t trying to portray us as sex objects. And the work was pretty hard, but we were treated like royalty,” says Smith.
“We had a great time every stay. We had so many adventures.”