When flying was classy—but really, really slow


"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)