6 Golden Ages of Air Travel

Air Hostesses, 1950 (Photo: Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on September 29, 2013. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, Ed Perkins.

(Photo: Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images)

A colleague emailed me a while back about a possible interview with a reporter looking for background on the golden age of air travel, which the reporter pegged as the 1950s and '60s. I was a good choice for the interview because I actually flew during that period. Although the interview never happened, the subject piqued my interest enough to gather some thoughts. My basic conclusion is that I can't identify a single golden age; instead, I think air travel passed through six golden ages.


1932–1941: Flying Palaces

The first golden age started when new seaplane and airship giants began flying across the Atlantic and the Pacific and to South America. Interiors featured individual passenger chairs, separate dining areas, lounges, and, in some configurations, individual cabins and full-size beds, all with lots of personal service. The airships were far bigger than the largest contemporary land-based planes because they did not need long paved runways. The Graf Zeppelin and larger Hindenburg provided similarly elegant airship service from Germany to South America starting in 1932 and to the U.S. starting in 1936, ending in early 1937 with the Lakehurst disaster. Airships and flying boats disappeared almost immediately after World War II as soon as the much faster and more economical land-transport DC4s and Constellations became available.

Fares were extremely high—higher than Concorde fares, adjusted for inflation—and the clientele was limited to the very wealthy and government VIPs. The flights were slow and unreliable, and many early trans-ocean flights operated by day only and landed at intermediate points (Newfoundland, Ireland, or the Pacific Islands) for overnight stops.

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