When flying was classy—but really, really slow

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"You're about to make your first air trip? Well, it's high time. A few more years and there'll be scarcely a thrill left in it."

Thus, presciently, begins Popular Mechanics' June 1939 story about what it's like to take the United Airlines "sleeper" cross-country from New York to San Francisco—in only 15 hours. The piece manages to elicit both a painful nostalgia for a classy, Cary Grant-y world most of us never experienced, while, simultaneously, serving as a reminder that, in many ways, we've got it pretty good today (Grandpa's barca-lounger style plane seat, not withstanding).

Wait, we've got it good? Oh, yes. I mean, obviously, it's not all peaches and sunshine up in here. In 1939, for instance, checking in seems to have involved merely a reservation call and a cash transaction—and you only had to be there one hour ahead of time. But I, for one, am pretty happy that my last plane flight (Minneapolis to San Francisco) didn't involve paying more than $2000, publicly disclosing my weight to the gate agent (and everybody in line behind me), or dealing with a plane full of smokers. Also, the airlines seem to have been just as stingy with luggage back then as they are today. And the plane stopped in about four other cities between Chicago and San Francisco, like it was the freaking Megabus.

Here's the thing: I'm not trying to suggest that air travel today is the ideal. But when I first read this story, I caught myself falling for the equal fallacy of thinking that air travel of the past was. Basically, I looked at the pictures and almost got suckered in by 70-year-old United Airlines marketing—when, in reality, all I really want is a saner system for dealing with safety risks, a little more leg room and, maybe, a free sandwich. I wouldn't be willing to take that (admittedly comfy-looking) giant cushy plane seat if I had to take all the other realities of 1930s air travel with it. So here's what I got out of this story—Improving air travel doesn't mean a return to the past, it means shaping something new for the future.

(Original link via Tom Sullivan)

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  1. In general, air in aeroplanes was fresher when there was smoking/non-smoking sections because it was constantly being replaced with new canned air.

    Nowadays, the same air is constantly recirculated throughout the trip, although it is filtered. Far more likely to catch someone else’s cold than you would ever catch lung cancer.

    1. Cabin air is constantly being replaced by outside air (usually in the form of bleed air from one or more of the engines). It seems stale because it’s dry, air at high altitude being cold and therefore low in moisture content. It could be humidified, except that humidity is problematic for conventionally built airframes.

      The air in the back of a typical jet is almost certainly fresher than the air in your home or office, if freshness is measured by the rate at which it’s replaced by new outside air, or, for that matter, by microbe count.

    2. Anon:

      You say the air is canned and recirculated constantly in modern airliners – not true. Fresh air is constantly compressed and forced into the fuselage, and the fuselage vents air to the atmosphere. Shut off the engines/compressors and the plane will depressurize within a few minutes in most cases.

      You obviously never flew in the days of smoking flights, or are perhaps a frustrated smoker. Either way, sorry, that comment is full of hot, stale air.

  2. 15 hours? Man, I wish plane trips looked like 15 hours now. What with changing planes and security gates, the trip I was trying to plan for this month looked like I’d be traveling for about 18 hours just to go partway across the country.

    My back can’t handle that, so we aren’t going.

  3. I really hate to point this out, but you didn’t even have to be there an hour before. They would send a limousine for you about an hour before! All this for $157!

    Meals, Limo, recliners… Someone needs to create a throwback airline. Sure it’ll cost more (less seats), but you’d be likely to pay for a cab or parking at the airport anyway so the limousine cost is basically null. At least you’d get a nice ride after dealing with ‘security’.

    1. “I really hate to point this out, but you didn’t even have to be there an hour before. They would send a limousine for you about an hour before! All this for $157!”

      Yes, but $157 in 1939 is about the same as $2400 today. For what looks in the article to be a one-way ticket. You can get a one-way ticket from NY to SF these days for under $400 depending on how early you book it – which in comparable 1939 dollars is about $26.

      Sometimes it’s tough to get a grasp on just how much inflation has been an impact on things. There are the old Grampa Simpson jokes about candy bars costing a penny and penny candy costing a half-penny, but when you see that $400 today has the buying power of $26 back in the 40s, it’s kind of stunning.

  4. Check-in was an hour ahead of flight time until roughly September 10, 2001. I showed up ten minutes ahead of time on several occasions without anyone being fussed about it.

  5. It’s all a matter of trade-offs really.

    Sure, air travel is cheaper and easier, but like fast food, cheap and convenient isn’t a mark of quality.

    The real sadness is how the customers today are treated like cattle and not human beings of any actual value. Between nickel and dime fees, cramped seating and the stage comedy that is airport security, flying is pretty dehumanizing.

    I travel by train whenever I can. Yeah, it takes longer but I arrive feeling like a person, not a pretzel.

    It’s going to be interesting to see how airlines evolve in the next decade or so, with climate regulation and rising fuel prices, air travel is going to get more and more expensive. Maybe we’ll see a return to this kind of high-end flying for all…who can afford it.

    1. You got this one right… Try flying in Germanwings… next they will charge you for using the toilet.

  6. My first flight was in 1953. The sound of the props was so loud it modulated any attempt at conversation. In the rear of some super constellations there was a semi circular lounge. The little aerosol air jet was only on the newest planes. On Eastern Airlines you got a rubber bladed fan in a cage for each row. Seating was two seats on each side of the aisle. No overhead luggage racks. I think it took over 6 hours to get from San Francisco to Dallas. The airports were a series of sheds strung together. Stairs were wheeled up to get on and off the plane.

  7. 1939 would bring you into the general era of zeppelin travel. Now, THERE was luxury! Berlin to Rio in ten days, with an odd mixture of lightness, crowding, and cruise-ship luxury. There’s nothing remotely like that experience today.

    Of interest is the fact that zeppelins traveled so close to the ocean’s surface, and were provided with so many pairs of bored eyeballs, that it wasn’t till the second generation of ocean-observation satellites that we had coverage of the ocean’s surface in that degree of detail. Much of what we know today about surface currents, marine mammal migration patterns, etc. were derived from zeppelin travel.

  8. Having flown in some older passenger aircraft, I’d much rather be in a modern airplane.

    Older airplanes are loud as hell inside. And wobble a lot like a boat. Not the best thing for those who get seasick easily.

  9. I have to give it to you Maggie. You state your ideas very well and they are a joy to read. Even the nit-pickers couldn’t fault you. Having said that, an 18 hour flight to Okinawa is pure hell without being able to light up. In 1992, we were still allowed to spark a stogie, but only in the back of the plane and only on the Federal Express 747 that started its service life in Saudi Arabia circa 1976. The Farsi signs were still up in 1992.

    Flying Space-A on a C5 Galaxy was a different story. All the seats face the rear because the military knows that positioning is more survivable in case of a non-powered landing. One also has leg room and a reclining seat that just does exactly that. The upper-deck passenger cabin isn’t heated, but they do give the passengers wool blankets and real pillows. When I flew from Oki to the states on a C5, I slept like a baby. That is not really possible when done commercial, either now or in our grandparent’s time. They had a lot of engine and prop noise back then.

    1. “All the seats face the rear because the military knows that positioning is more survivable in case of a non-powered landing.”

      Although as Mythbusters pointed out, backwards-facing seats increase your chances of getting impaled.

    2. “an 18 hour flight… is pure hell without being able to light up.”

      An 18 hour flight without being forced to breath someone else’s carcinogens? Heaven!

  10. I’ve flown in several DC-3’s which would have been modern in 1939. Slow, noisy – yes. But they felt safe and very capable. Even when the copilot muttered in Español “I’m never flying this airline again!”

    (Well, not really. It did not feel safe then.)

  11. Yikes– sorry to use this (excellent) post to comment on this, but jeez louise BoingBoing, did you change your format again without warning anyone?
    Och, my head, it spins!

  12. I’m going to be that guy and hijack these comments: I like the direction behind this design better than the previous redesign effort. I have little reason to rant this time around. High fives all around to the designer(s).

  13. All of this is well-reasoned. And yet– wouldn’t there have been a certain irretrievable thrill in the experience (due in part to a novelty lost to us now) that would have made the hardships part of the adventure? Consider, what were your choices for cross-country travel in ’39?
    Three to four days on a train? Cushy (in first class, at least) but slow.
    Your car, about ten years before the interstate highway system got under way? I hate to think.
    For all the discomfort, cost, and trouble of air travel then, I suspect the sheer speed of it (relative to the alternatives) made it worthwhile. You were a pioneer! There was no “romance” about it; that’s all in retrospect.

  14. I dunno, I think air travel peaked around 30-35 years ago. It was still a customer service business, if free hot meals is any measure (and I think it’s a pretty good one). I think improving air travel definitely calls for a return to the past. Go back to the fork in the road and head down the path not taken.

  15. But I, for one, am pretty happy that my last plane flight (Minneapolis to San Francisco) didn’t involve […] publicly disclosing my weight to the gate agent (and everybody in line behind me)

    That became unnecessary when the airlines hired all of those unemployed “guess-your-weight” carnival hucksters. (If you’ve ever wondered why you were handed a small plush dog or a kewpie doll upon deplaning, it’s because the huckster was off by more than five pounds.)

  16. Oh, for crying out loud, another redesign? If something works, leave it alone.

    I really don’t like the way the heading looks much smaller than and to the left of the ad at the top of the page.

    Is the idea to make the content look less separate from the advertising in the hope that people might slip and click on the ads?

  17. But when will BB comments show comment replies directly below?

    It makes the threads more interesting when comments follow logically instead of consecutively.

  18. Stewardesses in the past had to be nurses, and could supply codeine, valium, to passengers that requested something to clam them.

    “I’ll have a gin and tonic..a codeine..and a valium….no ranch dressing”.

  19. Hey, I remember just walking into the airport
    and getting on the plane (pocket knife and all),
    eating tasty food on real plates with real
    silverware.

    Friends and family seeing one off and meeting
    them right at the gate!

    The door to the cockpit was often left open and
    the pilot and crew did not seem to mind folks taking a peek, young and old.

    Contrast that to the Orwellian experience
    of today where one has to provide a virtual strip tease in order to get on the plane, and it still seems not to prevent any of the bad guys from getting on.

    Given the choice of Orwellian safety and misery
    versus the old days and a chance of bomber, I’ll take the old way , thank you very much!!!

    These days fear is easier to sell than free ice cream, and way over priced.

    1. i remember having to dress for flying. and then the day the world changed was when more people started wearing jeans, then even sweats by the 90’s. that is when the flight attendants became surly, and kind of weird. i blame the sweatpants.

  20. Well, flying may not always be pleasant now, but at least they got rid of the zombie stewardesses (see page 821 of the popular mechanics thing). That’s a big improvement, I’d say..

  21. Even so… I have a thing for DC-3s.

    And the streamlined locomotives further down the page are pretty sweet too.

    Life isn’t all about going fast.

  22. Replying to all those above who off-topicly commented on (yet another) new re-design: Yes – it was not broke so they decided to fix it again.
    So come on BB – where’s the thread where we can all wallow in our despair/joy at yet another new look?

    Plus ca change…

  23. The thing is, flying used to have an air of luxury about it because it was a premium form of travel. And by that I mean that you paid considerably extra to shave hours off of the time that it would have taken by train. At some level, they only had the equivalent of business/first class and the charged and treated their passengers accordingly.

    For most travelers, their mode of transportation is simply a means to get somewhere, not an “experience.” Whatever method that the majority of people travel tends to become “cattle class,” for the simple reason that most people aren’t willing to pay more. Back when most people crossed the ocean in ships, most of the passengers traveled in steerage/third class. The people who are willing to pay extra for leg-room and more attentive cabin crew are up there in first class and they pay out the nose for it. The rest of us CHOOSE to pay less because we’re willing to be crammed like sardines to save money.

    Bringing the cost of air travel down to where it could compete with trains on a cost basis is largely due to two changes. The first was the jet engine. Faster aircraft are more productive, jets require much less maintenance, and jet fuel is cheaper. (although much more of it is required). The second is the deregulation of the airline industry. Back when the CAB had a cosy relation with the airlines, planes were emptier, but ticket prices were MUCH higher and airlines competed on the basis of ameneties because they weren’t allowed to compete on price.

  24. I haven’t been on a commercial aircraft in years, and I doubt I ever will get on one again. I absolutely refuse to support an industry that treats its customers the way commercial airlines do today.

    It is *much* more pleasant to hop into a high-performance auto and drive from hither to yon — or even take a train — than it is to be crammed into a seat apparently designed by a one-armed, 4-foot tall engineer, after being x-rayed, made to remove your shoes and dispose of your shampoo, forced to wait for hours in line, having your wallet mined like a last-gasp gold strike, fed peanuts (if that), seated next to a screaming baby, all the while worrying if some poor bastard with the same name as you has managed to get on our out-of-control government’s “no-fly” list, leaving you stranded at your next connection.

    Luckily, I’m in a position where I can make the choice to do my flying on four wheels. For those who can’t… well, you have my sympathy. I know it’s perfectly OK these days to pay for a masochistic experience, but there’s no safe word with the airlines — and if it isn’t consensual all the way, I’m not playing, bitch.

    1. Not to go too far off topic, but what kind of high performance auto do you have? I’m a gear head and always looking for road trip worthy vehicle suggestions.

  25. “A few more years and there’ll be scarcely a thrill left in it.”

    You got that right. I would rather take a bus than fly. The whacked security inspections and the airlines’ chicken-poo policies (PAY for my checked luggage??) and the cramming of hundreds of people into a space that is comfortable for half that many… Unfortunately, air travel is a necessary evil.

    Hey, HERE’s an idea: an airline becomes upscale. Tickets cost, say, %50 more, but you get to sit in seats with room, and your baggage is free. Fly Delta cheaper if you want, but get the cattle treatment. I’d pony up the extra in a heartbeat.

    1. “Hey, HERE’s an idea: an airline becomes upscale. Tickets cost, say, %50 more, but you get to sit in seats with room, and your baggage is free. Fly Delta cheaper if you want, but get the cattle treatment. I’d pony up the extra in a heartbeat.”

      Some have tried, but the reality is that in the end, almost everyone goes with the cheap fares. That’s part of why costs move out of tickets and into specific fees- when everyone sorts the orbitz results by price, who comes sup on top?

      You want a bigger seat? Fly first or business class. Bigger seats reduce plane capacity and increase costs a lot faster than it would seem at first glance.

  26. “dealing with a plane full of smokers”

    To be fair, in 1939, you probably would have been one of those smokers, and thus wouldn’t have to “deal with them”.

  27. In Robert Byron’s 1933 book “First Russia, then Tibet” (which is what it says; a short travel piece about Russia slapped together with a slightly longer piece about his travels in Tibet), the middle of the book is taken up with a description of his trip from the UK to India by flying boat. The trip takes several days, but the idea of lounging in wicker armchairs, watching the landscape unfold (not very far) below, and landing at sundown each evening to be greeted by a representative of the British consul in wherever you happened to be and driven off for a leisurely meal sounds rather relaxing. Although the constant propeller noise might be less so.

    If someone invents a passenger transport blimp that could reproduce that experience (minus propeller noise), I might be tempted to try it.

  28. It is not a “free” sandwich if you are paying for the flight, Maggie. It is the sandwich you paid for, and are owed. Yeah, it will be crap airline food, but you did buy it.

  29. I think Southwest is the best domestic carrier now. The big things they do right are no baggage charges, no charge for ticket changes, and they have humans answer their phones. It’s kind of sad, because it’s not like they’ve improved their service over the years, it’s just that every other airline is in a mad dash to the bottom.

  30. There was a lot of flying between 1939 and now. I think we had it better when I flew in the 70s through 90s.

  31. I think it would be great to ride one of those old planes cross country. It sounds great to fly only a few thousand feet above the ground, crossing the landscape of towns, farms, lakes, rivers, etc. The ultimate sightseeing trip, & you can do it while getting where you want to go! I also think it would be cool to sleep in a lower berth in a Pullman ala Bogey & Bacall, or sit outside on the open back platform of a passenger train as it winds through the mountains. Travel used to be about enjoying the trip, and the airlines & railroads at least tried to make the experience enjoyable. Now, flying is for people who hate travelling, who just want to be where they are going & expect to at best endure the trip. Ironic that now that the airlines have us in thier care for such a more brief period of time, that they just figure it doesn’t pay to make our stay with them more pleasent.

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