Star Dust Airliner, 1946 (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Late 1940s–Early 1950s: Flying Comes of Age
The first generation of planes designed for serious commercial air travel—Constellations and DC6s for long hauls, Convairs and Martins for shorter trips—arrived on the scene in big numbers, along with a few Boeing Stratocruisers, the ultimate piston transports. Flights were all one class and quite comfortable—about equivalent to today's international premium economy—and most travelers dressed up to fly. It was all very middle class and genteel, with mostly business travelers along with a smattering of students and a few well-off or adventurous tourists. Even though airlines quickly captured the dominant position in long-haul business travel from railroads and steamships, overall traffic was still far enough below today's levels, which allowed for lots of personal service. And although we didn't know it then, we enjoyed blessed freedom from the increasingly intrusive security hassles that were to come.
But piston planes were noisy inside; some vibrated like you wouldn't believe. They bounced around in turbulence, and they were far less mechanically reliable—especially the Stratocruisers—than future jets. Navigation systems, landing aids, and weather-predictive abilities were pretty primitive. Winter conditions routinely forced lots of flights to be canceled. Airports were also primitive: no jetways, no baggage conveyors. Reservations systems were based on paper chits filled out by hand. To claim your baggage, you had to wait for a "skycap" to wheel out a cartload of bags, place them on a counter, and hand your bag to you individually when you pointed to it and presented a claim check and a tip.