By Melissa Jerome, Tunnels, Bridges & Terminals Staff
Rushing out the door wearing my sneakers and yoga pants, I grab my duffel bag and head out to catch a flight. Once on the plane, I pop in my headphones before taking a two-hour nap until I arrive at my destination. My plane lands on time, and there were no crying babies aboard. Win!
Flipping through the Port Authority’s archive photos recently, it’s impossible to ignore how air travel has changed over the years from what began as a downright glamorous experience with passengers dressed to the nines for the occasion.
During the “golden age” of air travel between the 1960’s and 70’s, women wore tailored dresses, hats, and gloves, while men were attired in suits and sported their best pair of loafers. Pilots and “air stewardesses”, as they were called, were more like movie stars than employees of the aviation industry. High-end designers with names such as Emilio Pucci and Jean Louis were hired to design fashionable uniforms for airline workers.
Airplane flights were not just about transportation, but focused also on providing a luxury in-flight experience. And for good reason: a ticket could set you back an entire month’s salary. A one-way flight in 1955 from Chicago to New York was $55, which is about $495 in today’s dollars. An exclusive new breed of wealthy travelers emerged that were known as the jet set.
During this highly-regulated era, airlines were not allowed to set their own prices. This federal rule forced airlines to compete for customers by means other than the price of a ticket, including attractive and well-dressed stewardesses offering superb flight accommodations.
For example, complimentary gourmet menu options on a United Airlines flight from New York to San Francisco in 1971 included Roast Long Island Duckling Montmorency and Broiled New York Cut Sirloin Steak with Bordelaise sauce. Cocktail options included Spanish Sherry, Old Fashioned, and United’s Very Dry Martini. The wine was poured and the meat carved right from the aisle next to your seat (which had tons of legroom, of course). That is the kind of dining experience I would dress for too. It wasn’t uncommon for planes to feature cocktail rooms with wet bars, and even piano bars.
The glitz and glamour of this era in air travel has been replaced by more efficient and reliable airplanes, increased airport safety and security, and more affordable flights. It wasn’t until the beginning of 1973 that the inspection of carry-on baggage and scanning all passengers became mandatory. Before that, passengers could board a plane just by showing a ticket…no ID necessary.
After deregulation occurred in 1978, and airlines could set their own prices, the industry changed forever. New airlines were created, smaller airlines expanded, and fare prices dropped. Still, I can’t help feeling nostalgic for an era that I never experienced. Maybe the next time you’re getting dressed for a flight, you’ll take a little inspiration from the fashionable travelers of yesteryear and trade in your hooded sweatshirt for a cable knit sweater.