When luxury ruled the skies: Flying in the 1950s and ’60s

The check-in queue for Southwest Airlines at Terminal 1 at San Francisco International Airport snaked beyond the restrooms and the elevator leading to baggage claim, clear past the entrance to the Air Train, before making a dogleg that stretched almost to the corridor leading to the International Terminal.

Brutal. And it wasn’t moving much, either.

It kept getting longer, a conga line of disgruntlement and flier frustration replete with all manner of pained expressions and muttered complaints. People slumped forward in stuffed backpacks like Atlas trying to hold up the world, maintaining a death grip on the handles of their roll-away luggage. As time, and the line, stretched on, they sloughed off carry-ons and were reduced to nudging them along with their feet, as if prodding a recalcitrant pack burro down the trail.

By 10 a.m., the line had grown to where it reached one of SFO Museum’s latest exhibits, “Remain Over Night,” a memorabilia-laden ode to the early days of transcontinental air travel, circa early 1960s, when smartly dressed passengers were lavished with amenities and perks, dined in luxury and stretched out on sleeper beds. They were given travel bags with toothpaste and razors, combs and deodorant, aspirin and mouthwash, perhaps to mask all that free booze they consumed. Swaddled in blankets and shod in airline-embossed slippers, they were tucked in for the night by beehived stewardesses. Photos of the tucking-in are mounted on poster boards, for those who doubt its veracity.

Yet, no one in line paid this display the slightest attention, so stressed were they by the line’s lack of progress. A middle-age man in khaki cargo shorts, his wife in skirt and flip-flops and his daughter in Daisy Duke cutoffs, were not 10 feet away from a case exhibiting evening robes and sleep socks once offered from likes of Pan Am and TWA.

Air travel today is more ordeal than adventure. It’s little more than a chore one must endure to get from one place to another. And in these times of fees for everything from carry-on bags to packets of peanuts, when getting the whole can of soda instead of a mere plastic cup’s full is considered the apogee of amenities, expectations aren’t raised much beyond just getting to your destination close to on-time.

Think back, though: Once, there was an era in the annals of air travel when passengers were pampered, not prodded like cattle into a chute. They were fed full meals, no extra charge, plied with liquor, given pillows upon command, and, in the rarefied air of first class, could take a winding staircase upstairs to a dining room-cum-wet bar at which Hugh Hefner would feel at home.

This era, roughly from 1958 to 1978, saw airlines vying, almost begging, for your business, outfitting their planes with festive colors and their stewardesses (no “flight attendants” back then) in provocative uniforms, promising an “experience,” not just a trip. Passengers, too, dressed up. No cargo shorts and flip-flops; men wore suits, women dresses, sometimes accessorized with corsages.

It was a Golden Age of air travel, right?

Yes and no.

Yes, for certain, passengers were treated better both on the ground and in the air and didn’t have to endure the indignity of paying separately for every single thing save the overhead air nozzle. And, yes, clearly, airlines such as Pan Am and TWA made the dream of a European vacation a reality for many Americans who didn’t even know they wanted to take the so-called Grand Tour.

“Even in economy (class) – tourist class, I guess they called it – those seats would be like the best premium-economy or business class today,” said William Stadiem, author of the newly released book, “Jet Set: The People, the Planes, the Glamour and the Romance in Aviation’s Glory Years.” “The seats were comfort, the food was good. I mean, Pan Am was catered by Maxim’s of Paris. You had fois gras and smoked salmon along with caviar. Even in tourist class, it was great. You felt special. That’s why you dressed up to get on an airplane. It was a big deal.”

Even given that, many tend to forget the golden days often come with a tarnish we tend to gloss over. Remember hijackings? DC-10 crashes? 747 breakdowns? On-board smoking? High fares during the Arab oil embargo? Fewer timetable choices?

Some Golden Age, huh?

Brett Snyder, founder and author of the travel website, said we are in the halcyon days for flying. Certainly, he says, it’s cheaper. He came across a TWA flight schedule from June 1959, which listed a Los Angeles-to-New York fare of $168.40. In today’s dollars, that equals $1,225 – hardly a bargain. And, he notes, it took more than 12 hours to make the trip. “Once you put actual numbers out there and adjust them for inflation, it does stop to make people think a bit,” Snyder said. “Certainly on longer flights, the price was truly outrageous compared to what you get today.”

Lavish perks exist … if you’ve got the cash

But Snyder, 37, also qualifies his point that air travel is better today by saying he doesn’t necessarily mean that cattle-car Sacramento-to-Las Vegas slog; rather, he says the lavish perks and grandeur so celebrated in the past can be found on first-class and overseas flights.

“Anyone today can garner enough miles over time to fly in business or first class on an intercontinental flight without having to pay thousands of dollars,” he said. “And the flat beds you get today put any seat from the golden age to shame. Would it have been nice to have hand-carved prime rib over a silver cart? I mean, I guess. But I’d take that flat bed any day. In coach, I’m much happier today with in-seat video filled with entertainment or with Wi-Fi than I would have been back then.”

In a recent article in The New York Times business section, writer Joe Sharkey had one word for the thought that the old days were better for luxury travel: “Baloney.” Sharkey wrote that, for first-class or business-class travelers on a premium international airline, you still can get tucked in at night by a doting flight attendant, and you still can get fed very well. On Emirates Airlines, he reports, you can even get a private compartment with mattress and vanity table, mini-bar and flat-screen TV set. But there’s this: The fare is $32,840.

Stadiem, a lawyer and journalist who travels often overseas for work and pleasure, said he noticed the gaping maw of service between the “1 percent and the 99 percent” on a recent flight he took on British Airways from London to Los Angeles.

“First class is nice – I looked at it,” he said. “Huge and spacious. My business (class) is like a morgue – all the seats are in opposite directions, very unpleasant. Steerage (coach class) is horrible. It’s on two decks, much more crowded and the flight attendants tell me they feel the turbulence more in the back of the plane. Not a pleasant experience.”

What Stadiem points out in “Jet Set” was that, back in the 1960s and even through the 1970s and the advent of the mammoth 747s, the gulf between first class and “tourist” class was not so wide. He writes that the first 707 jets, introduced in 1958 but not used widely until the 1960s, offered almost a Disneyland-esque experience.

“The 707 was in every sense a futuristic spacecraft, Tomorrowland today,” he wrote. “The subdued lighting, the ventilation, the individual controls, the Eames-like modernist seats, the relative silence. … Every traveler was to be treated as an explorer.

“The stewardesses were sexily stunning, pure ‘Coffee, Tea or Me?’ avian goddesses, yet there was no hauteur, just a crisp, omni-competent cheeriness befitting your favorite school teacher.”

Some of that glamour is making a comeback today – not on actual flights but in celebrating the nostalgia surrounding that era. The retro-success of “Mad Men” begat the short-lived ABC series “Pan Am,” which led to an uptick in museum exhibits and books and blogs dedicated to the “Golden Age” of air travel. As Stadiem points out, part of what’s stoking interest is the frustration air travelers feel today with getting nickel-and-dimed by airlines trying to offset higher fuel costs by charging for things they used to give as a courtesy.

Reliving the days of slippers and full meals

In addition to Stadiem’s nonfiction homage to the “Jet Set,” SFO has gathered artifacts from the era for its “Remain Over Night” exhibit spanning eight glass cases in Terminal 1. (A permanent exhibit of airline lore is at SFO’s Aviation Museum in the International Terminal.) The slippers and toiletry bags, high-thread-count blankets and complimentary tote bags and photos of three-course meals present a stark contrast to today’s throw-some-peanuts-at-’em on-board vibe.

A KLM Royal Dutch Airlines purser, Cliff Muskiet, has collected 1,271 female flight attendant uniforms for 475 airlines, which he displays on his website,

Muskiet has a special affinity for flashy uniforms from the 1960s and ’70s, because “sex did sell in those years,” but “short skirts are not practical at all on board because you have to bend and stretch all the time. So I really admire the stewardesses who wore these kinky-looking short uniforms in the 1970s.” He laments the “boring” uniforms of today, saying, “Too many airlines are afraid to use color, especially in the United States, where all airline uniforms look alike.”

With airline fares and routes regulated by the government (deregulation came in 1978), Stadiem said, airlines had to cater to passenger whims to get their patronage, which led to all types of bells and whistles in the service.

But when President Jimmy Carter ushered in deregulation, “Everybody was trying to cut each other’s throats by cutting costs,” Stadiem said. “That planted the seeds for the cattle-car experience we have now. Even flying in the ’80s was a hell of a lot better than it is today. It’ll never go back to the way it was.”

Except, maybe, as something of a tourist attraction in itself. Self-proclaimed “aviation geek” Anthony Toth, a Los Angeles resident who works for an airline he prefers not to name, has built a replica of a Pan Am 747, circa 1971, outfitted it with painstaking care in pristine period interior, seats, spiral staircase, bar and dining carts and all. He used to keep the cabin in his house and occasionally rent it out to TV shows and for magazine ads. But he eventually moved it to a warehouse in the City of Industry and now has joined forces with the motion-picture studio Air Hollywood to offer “flights” for nostalgic fliers. Cost: $297, first class; $197, Clipper class. The first “flight,” Sept. 28, already is sold out.

“It’s great to relive what it was like,” Toth said. “That’s what my Pan Am experience is all about. Think about people born past the ’80s: They’ve never even flown in an aircraft with a winding staircase and awesome on-board attributes.

“I’ve hired Pan Am flight attendants who can still get into their uniforms and do the service in the traditional Pan Am style. I have an airline caterer out at LAX to carefully examine the menus and help me build the galley carts and the food items. I even have the same sound effects on airplanes, the old-style movies, with original headsets. You watch on big screen projected. I have old-style menus and amenity kits. The upper deck dining room for first-class travelers. We’ll carve the roast and plate the meal tableside. Old-style service. You’d be hard pressed not to think you aren’t flying on a vintage Pan Am 747.”

Though only 47, Toth remembers flying on a Pan Am 747 to Europe as a 5-year-old with his parents.

“It changed my life forever, to be honest with you. It paved my career as an adult. I fell in love with it right then. The moment you walked on the aircraft you knew exactly what airline you were on. The color scheme, the carpeted walls, the cabin décor, which was like a clipper ship. It resonated. You walked on the jet bridge and smelled the jet fumes mingling with the smell of coffee. You’d see the flight attendants standing by the staircase. The first-class cabins of 747s – each airline had them so well-branded, so well-outfitted. Every airline had their own look and feel on board. I wanted my own 747.”

Yet, even such a sentimentalist as Toth doesn’t want to see the return of higher prices and limited availability of the airlines of yore.

“A lot of people like to give the industry a bad rap because service has declined, but there are more choices today than ever,” he said. “In the ’70s, if I wanted to go from L.A. to New York, I basically had two flight choices. Fly Pan Am at 8 a.m. or TWA at 10 a.m. Look at where we are today, there are 25 choices, maybe. You don’t get those awesome branding elements. Now, it’s all about price and schedule, and those aren’t sexy things. But you can sure get to where you are going a lot faster.”

Think about that the next time you’re standing 50 people deep in a check-in line, grousing about all the hassles and fretting about missing your flight. These days, there’s always another one the airlines can squeeze you into – on standby.