Why the ’80s and ’90s Were the True Golden Age of Flying

It's no secret that long gone are the times when plane passengers dressed to the nines and ate freshly-carved beef roast served seat-side; when flight attendants (excuse us, stewardesses) were cute and perky, fulfilling what was considered an esteemed position. Surely, the glamour of the Golden Age of flying has tarnished to brass -- making for stark comparisons between the 1950s and '60s, and now.

But what about how flying life has changed from just a few decades ago? Our flying experience has been stripped down steadily over the last several decades, with amenities and privileges disappearing so fast it's hard to keep count. 

So while the "Mad Men" era may be historically remembered as the ultimate time to fly, the truth is that it was expensive, extremely unsafe, and pretty boring. We're here to argue that the Golden Age of flying was actually in the 1980s and 1990s; you know, after the glitz, glam, and serious safety issues, when air travel became safer and more accessible to the everyday consumer -- but before airlines started trying to charge people for using the bathroom

Hear us out and then let us know what you think (and remember) in the comments!


You could transfer tickets.

Photo by Melissa Cuppet via Flickr

Photo by Melissa Cuppet via Flickr

That’s right; back in the ’80s and ’90s, you could still transfer your airline tickets to someone else. Think about those old movies, where the lovesick “just-learned-what-he-wanted-was-in-front-of-him-the-whole-time” lead character chases down the girl and hands her two tickets to Paris. She says it’s too little too late, and he needs to find someone else to use his extra ticket. (Don’t worry, it all works out for him — at least back then.)

These days, it’s less romantic, with people taking to the internet to desperately find someone with the same exact name to take over a ticket so it doesn’t go to waste. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, you could also transfer tickets, but they were so expensive, often costing around 5 percent of a person’s yearly salary to take a single domestic flight, that people rarely thought about not being there for takeoff. 

Meals were served with metal silverware and real glasses.

Photo by Ernesto Andrade via Flickr

Photo by Ernesto Andrade via Flickr

Forget the all-in-one, plastic bag stuffed with your napkin, salt and pepper packets, plastic fork, plastic spoon, and plastic knife. Back in the new Golden Age of flying, you still got metal silverware and real glassware. In fact, many airlines still used salt and pepper shakers and cloth napkins. Oh, the life. These days, only those in business and first class are likely to get such luxe meal accoutrements. 

Cocktails were beautifully garnished.

Photo by Joshua Ganderson via Flickr

Photo by Joshua Ganderson via Flickr

Today’s in-flight cocktails can be pretty grim — just plastic cups with dried-out lime wedges. But back in the ’80s and ’90s, most airlines served up drinks with flare. Bloody Marys came with celery sticks, you could find a cherry floating happily alongside your ice cubes, and the wedges were squeezable. Compare this to a recent observation on a flight where a customer was served a “Bloody Mary” that was just vodka, regular tomato juice, and a pepper packet. 

Economy class came with free alcohol, even domestically.

Photo by Sam Howzit via Flickr

Photo by Sam Howzit via Flickr

Speaking of cocktails, during our favorite age of flying, it was still standard procedure for airlines to offer free booze to coach class throughout the flight — even on domestics. Nowadays, you’ll have to either fly international to get this perk (though some airlines don’t even offer this any longer) or pay to upgrade to a premium economy class seat. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, alcohol was also free, but passengers often drank to the limits, making for a host of sick passengers and not-so-pretty in-flight restrooms.

And you got wine with dinner.

Photo via Matt@PEK via Flickr

Photo via Matt@PEK via Flickr

We kind of covered this, but even while they slowly began to phase out the free booze, most airlines still served a free glass of wine (or beer) with each meal. Even better? It came served in a real wine glass that flight attendants put down next to your real silverware. 

Though it may just be a baby step, we’re happy to say that United announced it was “adding” free beer and wine for the economy class on international flights. 

Hot meals were available on all flights.

Photo by Sarah_Ackeran via Flickr

Photo by Sarah_Ackeran via Flickr

Speaking of having wine with dinner, you actually got dinner. A hot meal was a standard amenity on all domestic and international flights back in the ’80s and ’90s. 

Blankets and pillows were waiting for passengers on every seat.

Photo by TravelingOtter via Flickr

Photo by TravelingOtter via Flickr

While still available on some long-haul domestic flights and most international flights, we miss boarding our flight and seeing our own pillow and blanket waiting for us on our seat. It made the journey feel a little more personal and a lot more cozy to us, especially when they blasted the AC. Now, we’re left to ask for blankets (pillows were jettisoned a long time ago), which there never seems to be enough of on board. Some airlines even charge you for them.

You could still greet, or see someone off, at the gate.

Photo by Henry Burrows via Flickr

Photo by Henry Burrows via Flickr

Up until the early 2000s, it was common for people to walk their traveler companions to the gate, or greet someone at the gate as they were exiting the plane — and it’s one of the things we miss most about flying back then. Walking off the plane and seeing that special someone waiting for you was priceless, as was being able to be together for as long as possible before takeoff and then waving goodbye to them from the plane window as you slowly started to roll down the runway. 

The security lines were easy-breezy.

Photo by ECP via Flickr

Photo by ECP via Flickr

It’s recommended that you arrive at the airport somewhere between two to three hours before your flight, but just a couple decades ago, you could roll up without meeting massive, soul-crushing lines for baggage check and then security. Many people quickly checked in curbside as well, though this convenience also seems to have disappeared. Of course nowadays the extra safety precautions may be necessary, but the ’80s and ’90s were a more trusting (and arguably, safer) time that made traveling that much more enjoyable. 

There is one thing we don't miss, though…

Photo b Anastasia Massone via Flickr

Photo b Anastasia Massone via Flickr

Reminiscing about all of this brings a nostalgic tear to our eye, but there’s one thing that we don’t miss one bit: smoking on the plane. It may seem unbelievable, but in-flight smoking wasn’t fully banned from all flights in the U.S. until 2000. We can’t imagine being forced to sit in a closed cabin — either in the ’50s or the ’90s — for hours on end while people puffed away. No roast beef or endless freebies are worth that. 

Related Links: