I always cringe when I hear people talking about the so-called “golden age of travel.”
You know, back then when people used to “dress up” to travel. When flight attendants in go-go boots doted on passengers with cocktails, playing cards and wings for the kids. When family members would greet you at the airport gate with hugs as soon as you got off the plane.
Well, if you remember the good, you also have to remember the bad. And there was plenty of bad flying around in the good old days. Every flight was not like the nostalgic photo you see above. Back in the day, flying was bumpy, smelly, noisy, expensive and dangerous compared to now. Access to fares, seat maps and other crucial information we now take for granted was limited to travel agents and airline reservationists.
So while it’s common to complain about how terrible flying is these days, the opposite is true. As someone who jumped into the frequent traveling lifestyle in the 80s and 90s, I think that we are currently living in the golden age of air travel. If the current state of flying is so bad, why are we still doing it…and in record numbers as reported by the airlines and TSA? Why are low fare carriers like Spirit, with some of the tightest seats in the sky, reporting record loads and profits?
You may or may not agree with me (let me know in the comments below), but here are six reasons why I think so:
1. No smoking. It’s still hard to believe that any airline ever allowed smoking onboard. Not only was it dangerous and unhealthy, it stunk! But nonetheless, prior to the 1990’s, airlines allowed smoking onboard. Delta was the first to ban it on all flights, domestic and international, in 1994. When one person smoked on a plane, everyone smoked, even though there were so-called nonsmoking sections on board. There was nothing worse for a non-smoker than getting “stuck” in the smoking section when that was the only seat available. I remember what my clothes and hair smelled like after a long flight.
2. Safer, smoother flying. Back in the good old days, flying was a lot more dangerous than it is these days. According to an Expedia report, plane crashes and in-flight accidents, “were terrifyingly common in the 50’s and 60’s, with fatal accidents occurring about once every 200,000 flights. Where fatal accidents occurred around once every 200,000 flights during the 1950s, they now occur less than once every 2,000,000 flights. In fact, the worldwide safety record is now ten times better than it was back then.” Also, now that jets fly at higher altitudes and “over the weather,” there are fewer incidents of turbulence, which translates to less motion sickness and more pleasant flying. When was the last time you saw someone use an air sickness bag? New developments in sound and vibration isolation keep noise to a minimum, especially if you are seated in front of the engines. And new composite materials used on planes like 787 Dreamliners or the new A350s taking off on the world’s longest flight make it easier for airlines to control air pressure and humidity, which makes long haul flying easier on our bodies.
3. Better food. Despite what you hear about the tossing of Caesar salads and the carving of standing rib roasts in airplane aisles back in the golden days, airline food has almost always been the butt of jokes. When a hot meal was part of the airfare, inflight food in economy class was tepid and tasteless, giving birth to phrases like “mystery meat.” These days passengers can choose to buy fresher, more flavorful food at the airport or onboard. SFO offers some of the best carry-on food options anywhere, and I’m also a big fan of how airlines have perfected the in-flight cheeseburger- read all about that here.
4. Lower fares. Back in the day, air travel was reserved for a small, wealthy percentage of the population. But in the last 30 years, air travel has become democratized and within the reach a much larger swath of humanity. For example, in the US, the number of air passengers tripled between the 1970s and 2011. To accommodate all those flyers, airlines are now packing their planes at nearly 90% capacity– in the good old days, they were only about 70% full. So, yes, while planes are more crowded and we are paying more fees for things that used to be free, air travel is a much better bargain than it was in the 60’s or 70’s. Also, in the past, there were no options for travelers to “buy up” to roomier economy class seats- now, if you have to work, or are a tall or wide flyer, you have the option of paying a little bit more for a lot better experience.
5. Fabulous airports. Prior to the 1980s most airports felt institutional with low ceilings, poor lighting, uncomfortable seating and office-like first class lounges. I wrote about “wizened wieners” and “dried out triangles of pizza kept warm by light bulbs.” These days, airports hire celebrity architects to design and build light filled spaces with expansive views, gourmet dining and posh, private lounges. Have you visited the free outdoor butterfly garden at Singapore Changi Airport? Had an organic kale salad at San Francisco International? Kicked back with some champagne in United’s new Polaris lounges at SFO, Houston, Newark or Chicago? These are indeed the good old days when it comes to airport architecture and creature comforts. Even New York’s historically awful airports are in the midst of massive redevelopment that will eventually make them a much nicer entry to the US.
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6. Better technology. More comfort in business class. Back when we were happy reading inflight magazines and watching movies on pull-down screens at the front of the cabin, who would have dreamt that we could access hundreds of movies or television shows from our seatbacks or that we’d be able to watch TV or send and receive email from the sky? Sure the connection is not always the greatest, but it’s a miracle when it works. Business travelers used to relish the experience of sitting in a big lounge chair at the front of the plane, but few ever thought that that they would convert into fully into flat beds for sleeping. British Airways introduced lie-flat seats in 1999, and since then, they’ve become the norm.
So the next time you hear yourself or someone else complaining about how horrible it is to fly these days… ask, “Is it really so bad after all?”
Do you agree? Is flying better or worse than ever these days? If it’s so bad, why are we flying in record numbers? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.
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Chris McGinnis is the founder of TravelSkills.com. The author is solely responsible for the content above, and it is used here by permission. You can reach Chris at email@example.com or on Twitter @cjmcginnis.