Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Airlines' golden age wasn't so golden.


If you think about air travel 50 years ago, you probably envision smartly dressed businessmen reclining in big, comfy seats and enjoying elaborate meals. Meanwhile, attractive young stewardesses fawn over their customers -- the legendary "coffee, tea or me" days. Those days weren't, however, as glamorous as you might imagine.

I have a copy of TWA's flight schedule from June 1, 1959. The first jets were being introduced into the fleet, but the vast majority of flights were still on propeller-driven aircraft. There's an ad in the timetable for TWA's low coast-to-coast "excursion fares." Los Angeles to New York was only $168.40 roundtrip, if you traveled Monday through Thursday in Sky Club Coach class. That bargain is roughly equivalent to $1,225 today, before tax.

These fares weren't valid on the fastest aircraft, so you had only two options, neither of which went nonstop. There was the 10:10 a.m. departure from Los Angeles that arrived in New York at 11:41 p.m. that night or the 7:55 p.m. departure that arrived at 10:56 a.m. the next day -- more than 12 hours in the air. This was on a Lockheed Constellation, which, while beautiful, bounced you around in the weather at about 20,000 feet, far below the 35,000 to 40,000 feet you'd cruise at today. Even when the weather was good, that trademark prop vibration left you feeling like you were sitting on a washing machine for hours after you landed.

So what exactly was so good about the old days? The service was excellent, and the meals in First Class were quite indulgent. But in Sky Club Coach, the timetable noted, "Box lunches must be purchased at airport before departure." As in most cases, memories get better with age. Today, you can fly across the country in less than half the time for less than a quarter of the inflation-adjusted price, and you can watch TV or surf the Web along the way.



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