12 Surprising Facts About Early Air Travel

by Allison Ford

12 Surprising Facts About Early Air Travel

Let’s be honest, flying has never been glamorous. Looking back at the history of early aviation though, we’d take our in-flight pretzels and water any day over what it used to be like.


When you’re en route to your holiday destination, watching a surly TSA agent paw through your purse or silently cursing the screaming toddler who’s kicking your seat, you may find yourself fantasizing about the days of yore, when air travel was civilized and travelers wore their finest clothes, carried matching luggage, comported themselves respectably, and were treated with the utmost care and consideration.

Except that those “glory days” really weren’t what we imagine them to be. The olden days of air travel weren’t all champagne, caviar, and class—the technology was dirty, noisy, and sometimes primitive. Some facts about how things used to be could make even today’s most disgruntled passengers happily submit to having their junk touched.


1. In 1930, a writer for Good Housekeeping noted that although recent passenger flights she had taken were generally pleasurable, the sound of the plane’s engines was so loud that conversation was nearly impossible.


2. The first in-flight meals were simple boxed lunches that took little time to prepare and serve. However, since the flights were subject to significant turbulence, many people didn’t have much of an appetite, and ate only when the plane landed to refuel.


3. Until about 1942, airplane cabins were not pressurized, which meant passengers were at increased risk for altitude sickness, inner-ear problems, hypoxia, and even decompression sickness.


4. In the 1940s, a coast-to-coast flight took approximately fourteen hours, as did flights from the East Coast to western Europe. On any flight of more than a couple hours’ duration, the aircraft needed to stop intermittently for refueling.


5. After the stock market crash of 1929, airlines eliminated stewards from the cabin, leaving passenger care to the copilot. In the event of an emergency, he naturally focused his attention on the cockpit, and passengers were basically left to fend for themselves.


6. Before 1988, smoking was allowed on airplanes in the United States. Smoking “sections” had no dividers or barriers, allowing the smoke to penetrate virtually every area of the aircraft, including nonsmoking passengers’ clothing and luggage.


7. When TWA began serving liquor onboard in the 1950s, the rules were exactly the same as they are today: it was free for first-class customers, but everyone else was required to pay.


8. Prior to 1973, there was no security screening of passengers or cargo. Until 1967, an average of five plane hijackings per year occurred; in 1969, there were eighty-two such incidents.


9. In the early days of air travel, the cost was prohibitive for the vast majority of travelers. A survey conducted by an aviation historian revealed that 85 percent of air passengers in 1930 were either employees of major corporations or the wealthy elite, the only people who could afford the extremely high fares.


10. Before 1978, the government regulated airfares and schedules. According to the Air Transport Association, pre-deregulation fares were about 45 percent higher than they are now.


11. Until the development of air traffic control towers and radio signals, the only way an aircraft could avoid collision with another plane was by looking and hoping that the coast was clear.


12. Since early aircraft were smaller, the governmental body that oversaw the aviation industry ruled in 1938 that passengers were permitted only forty pounds of luggage for domestic flights, ten pounds fewer than today’s allowance.


Travel may not be what it used to be, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We’re beyond the days of free meals and free baggage checking, but at least we have safe planes that take us places quickly and efficiently, in relative comfort.