Air travel wasn’t always so miserable … or so cheap

Meghan McCarty Carino Jun 4, 2024
Heard on:
Passengers sit in a model of an Air France Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet interior in 1966. AFP via Getty Images

Air travel wasn’t always so miserable … or so cheap

Meghan McCarty Carino Jun 4, 2024
Heard on:
Passengers sit in a model of an Air France Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet interior in 1966. AFP via Getty Images

There could be some relief coming for beleaguered air passengers: last month the Department of Transportation finalized several new rules requiring airlines to issue refunds for significant delays or cancellations. The companies must also disclose all those extra fees for things like checked baggage or extra leg room. And Congress has ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to take a closer look at whether shrinking seat sizes meet safety requirements. 

Passenger volumes hit new highs last year, but so did the number of complaints to federal regulators. Between the long lines, cramped quarters and extra fees, air travel has become a procession of indignities for many. 

But it wasn’t always that way.

Travel and aviation writer Benét Wilson remembers when flying was something special. As the child of an Air Force officer, she got to fly when traveling that way was out of reach for a lot of people.

In 1971, her family took Pan Am from New York to London where her dad was stationed.

“My mother had us in our Sunday best — we wore little hats, we had our purses and our white gloves,” she said. Her cousins, too, got dressed up to see the family off at the airport.

Wilson still has the Pan Am ticket her grandmother kept from her transatlantic flight to visit them the following year.

(Photo courtesy Benét Wilson)

“I saved it because it reminded me of a bygone era,” she said. The old-fashioned ticket jacket is marked up with notes about the trip in her grandmother’s handwriting. “I remember that the fare was $487, which was a lot of money back in 1972.”

That’s the equivalent of about $3,650 today, adjusted for inflation. But at that time, Pan Am was selling a luxury experience.

A Pan Am commercial from 1969, promoting the new Boeing 747 jet.

The 1950s to the 1970s are often regarded as flying’s “Golden Age”, according to Graham Simons — who’s written more than 30 books on aviation history.

“It was the era of gourmet and glamour,” said Simons. “You must have heard of the phrase ‘the jet set’? It was that whole concept that wrapped it up in aspirational dreams.”

There were roomy cabins, a cocktail lounge with a live pianist, uniforms off the fashion runway, and food “a damn sight better than it is today,” laughed Simons. “Meals served on bone china, using gold-plated cutlery — and I’m not talking just for the first class.”

A commercial for American Airlines’s “Piano bar” in the 1970s.

It was a level of service — even in coach — that would be unrecognizable today.

“They’ve got you trapped on this plane, it’s dinnertime, and you’re willing to sell me an overpriced sandwich which I wouldn’t have fed my dog,” said Curtis Bass, who recently retired from a career in human services that had him flying almost every month: something he rants about on his personal blog.

“I feel like if something can go wrong, it will with me,” said Bass.

Last fall, airline delays caused him to miss the departure of a cruise (the airline flew him to the first port of call, where he had to pay for his own accommodations for three nights), and cancellations once added a day and four extra layovers to a trip. He said that all the airlines offered him was more subpar sandwiches.

“I feel like I am being treated like an unwanted commodity,” he said.

So, how did air travel fall so far? In a word — deregulation, said Janet Bednarek, an aviation historian at the University of Dayton.

During the “Golden Age,” the government’s Civil Aeronautics Board regulated routes and prices.

“And they were set at a level to make sure that essentially even if airlines were flying at 50 or 60% capacity, they would make a profit. The idea was if you guaranteed airlines a profit, they would not feel like they had to skimp on anything in order to make that profit, including safety, which was a big thing,” said Bednarek.

After deregulation in 1978, airlines were free to set their own prices. “The idea was they would cater to more customers, more people would be able to fly, there will be more competition,” she said.

Thus, before deregulation, “airlines competed on the so-called soft product,” said travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt at Atmosphere Research Group — that was the piano bars, mini skirts and roast beef.

Since deregulation, he said, they have competed almost entirely on price, gradually spinning out every amenity as an extra, from checked baggage to sitting with your kids — “it became a product.”

But the shift was gradual, and hit kind of a sweet spot in the 1980s, according to Bednarek. “The fares went down faster than the service did,” she said. “But as the fares continued to drop, the service then also dropped along with it.”

The rise of online booking intensified competition for low prices said Harteveldt, and “airlines have learned that perhaps in spite of what people say in their marketing research studies, that people really do prefer to save money.”

Fares have dropped dramatically since deregulation, but the changes haven’t necessarily left consumers with better choices, according to Ganesh Sitaraman, a law professor at Vanderbilt University.

In his recent book, “Why Flying is Miserable: And How to Fix It,” Sitaraman argues consolidation in the industry has left consumers beholden to a few big airlines that set the terms.

“We have less competition now than we did under the regulated system,” he said, with the drive for profits leaving large swaths of the country underserved and overcharged.

Before deregulation, most flights were direct, according to historian Bednarek. Now the major airlines have carved up the map into a series of hubs and spokes, with each airline dominating in particular regions.

“If you’re coming out of the so called ‘flyover’ zone like I am, there’s very few places except into hubs that I can fly direct anymore,” said Bednarek, “and some of the connections are just bizarre.”

Sitaraman points out that since the pandemic, several medium-sized cities like Toledo, Ohio and Dubuque, Iowa have lost major airline service entirely.

And it’s not just passenger annoyances that have escalated — “the industry is in turbulence too. We can see it in the kind of boom and bust cycle that they’re in,” said Sitaraman.

When times are good, airlines rake in huge profits, he said, but when crisis hits, such as during the pandemic or after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the industry must often rely on taxpayer support.

“Maybe they should have some obligations and duties to the public too that are a little bit more than what they’ve been doing so far,” he said. “People think that any change has to mean going back to the ’70s. We can make lots of changes that would improve our system, without going back to that,” like mandating bigger seats or more predictable pricing.

Travel writer Benét Wilson is glad to have her memories of the “Golden Age,” but despite all the little humiliations of flying today, “I actually prefer the industry now because more people have access to air travel than ever before.”

Armed with snacks, a pillow and noise canceling headphones, she’s booked five flights for the next few months, including a transatlantic one. She paid just over $2,000 for all of them — a better deal than her grandmother got for one trip in 1972.

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