Those Good Old Days on the Airlines – They Weren’t So Good

I’d like to declare 2009 to be the year we stopped looking back to the airlines in the 1960s and 1970s with such fondness. I have some bad news for you: it wasn’t so good back then. Just like how I look back on college without a single negative memory (oh wait, I didn’t have any bad times in college)….well, perhaps my point is this: we have collectively decided to ignore the gigantic customer service advances over the past 10 years and act as if being stuffed in the coach cabin of a DC-10 in 1972 was somehow a wildly pleasant experience.

With that, I wanted to list the pros and cons of flying in an imaginary 1972 and flying today:

Good Things about Flying in 1972:

There was food on the plane.
You did not have to take off your shoes in security.
Flight attendants were arguably nicer to you than today
Delta flew 747s from Detroit to Atlanta (see here)
Seat pitch was closer to 34-36″ in coach
Psychadelic piano lounges upstairs on 747s

Bad Things about Flying in 1972

That same Delta ad mentions the easy 1-stop connection in Atlanta from Detroit to LA, because there were far fewer nonstops than there are today.
Food on the plane. Let’s stop kidding ourselves: people mocked airline food for the past 50 years.
Guess who was paying for those 747s to fly from Detroit to Atlanta: you were, in the form of much higher fares.
Those piano lounges were gone soon after they were introduced; plus, there were no discounted business class tickets anyway.
For whatever reason, if an airline today were to show a movie on a big screen in the middle of the cabin (as some still do), people complain. But if you ask about entertainment on a plane in 1972, people talk about how airlines used to show movies and how great that was (even though it was on a screen in the middle of the cabin.)

Good Things about Flying Today

Frequent flyer programs: Back in 1972, you could fly all you wanted and guess how many free trips you’d get. Correct, zero.
Reasonable business class tickets: You can fly in business class from the East Coast to Europe for about $1500 for much of the year. That’s not much more than tickets to Europe used to cost in coach.
Lie flat seats in business class: You can talk longingly about the great Pan Am first class seats, but they look like the armchair in your parents’ basement compared to top lie-flat first class suites today.
You can actually get an opportunity to fly in one of those amazing seats for free because of frequent flyer miles.
With Ryanair and Spirit Airlines you can fly 800 mile trips for $18.
On-demand, seatback entertainment. In coach. On your $99 flight to London.
Nonstop flights to Dakar that don’t involve Air Afrique.
34″ pitch on JetBlue for no additional cost.

Bad Things about Flying Today

No food at all.
$3 sodas
Rude fellow passengers who thing it’s OK to pull on your seat when they’re trying to get up while shoving all of their worldly possessions into overhead bins.
Shoe removal
Miserable seat pitch in coach (though let it be said that between upgrades, exit rows, Economy Plus, and JetBlue there are lots of ways to avoid the 31″ squeeze)

So, there we go. We can look fondly at the days with no free flights, high fares, terrible food, few nonstops and decent coach seating, or we can look fondly at the days of 100 on-demand movies, in-flight wi-fi, lie-flat beds, and nonstops to Ghana. Sure, it’s not perfect, but it’s so much better than it used to be I’m declaring a moratorium on the good old days.

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  1. you had no bad times in college?

    good times…

  2. Add smoking sections to those flights in 1972. They always seemed to start in the row immediately behind my nonsmoking row.

  3. And Southwest Airlines flight attendants in go-go boots and hot pants!

  4. FYI…Cranky Flier addresses as similar issue here:

    One bit of trivia from his column: A transcon flight in 1962 cost about $2,000 in today’s dollars.

  5. Jared,
    I agree, and argued similarly on my blog a little over a year ago

    Not to mention from the angle of equal opportunity for employees: typical requirements for stewardesses in the early decades of commercial airlines included that they be single women only, not divorced. Ages 21 to 26. Men can joke about preferring pretty young FAs, but come on…this was the dark ages for women and minorities.

    Linked in my blog post is an interesting article about the opening in 2007 of a new Smithsonian exhibit on the history of aviation that has some other great exmples of the good, the bad and the ugly.

  6. It’s all psychological. Flying today is clearly a BETTER VALUE than in 1972. But does receiving a better value bring happiness? Maybe, maybe not. For example, buying luxury goods is almost always a terrible value (incremental at best quality improvement, huge cost increase). But it makes a lot of people happy to own such things. They feel special. Very few people feel special when they fly these days.

    The human mind is a funny thing.

  7. IAHPHX – It’s an interesting point you bring up: flying used to be a luxury item. It’s not anymore. And I think the crux of this issue comes down to people having luxury expectations for a mass market (even budget) product. I’m not sure why it’s taken, oh, 25 years for people to get their arms around the fact that flying is a mass method of transportation, like the subway.

  8. In 1972 it was better and people were smarter: Western Airlines, and many others, would give you a bottle of Champagne if you correctly calculated the half way point between California and Hawaii. Some thought this was to get you and row neighbors juiced up before getting lei’d. But actually people would get out their pencils and use a little algebra. Fun for all.

    Today the full bottle would sadly be considered a weapon, far more than 3oz. and broken glass could be considered a deadly instrument.

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