/ Travel & Leisure

Air travel: past vs present

Air travel

When it comes to flying these days, does anyone really anticipate or enjoy the flight anymore? Are the glory days of air travel well and truly over?

When you’re crammed into cattle class with your knees in your nostrils, clutching your £5 sandwich in one hand and fending off scratchcard sellers with the other, the golden age of flying seems a distant dream.

Yet it really wasn’t all that long ago…

Flying high

Cast your minds, if you can, to 1957, when the first edition of Which? magazine was published, and flying was a glamorous indulgence for the fortunate few.

BOAC passengers

Passengers breezed through the airport 30 minutes before take-off and settled into spacious seating, ready to sample fine cuisine – certainly no ‘gluten free’ single banana and sachet of salt meal served up for these passengers.

On the first transatlantic jet crossing in 1958 – a British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) flight – attentive cabin crew waited on around 80 passengers.

Passengers were indulged with madeira, coffee and cocktails, a ‘luncheon with superb wines’, followed by an afternoon tea of scones, jam and cream, and finally champagne and canapés.

Fast forward to today and things are a bit different… some of you will be well acquainted with the long security queues, cramped planes, sniffy staff and questionable food.

And forget free anything. Of course, we recently had the news that British Airways (BA), is swapping free food and drink on short-haul flights for paid-for M&S sandwiches, and ditching flowers from first class.

The de-frilling certainly won’t stop there. BA plans to squeeze even more seats into its short-haul planes. And as the no-frills model spreads from short-haul to long-haul travel, you can expect to start paying extra for seat selection, checked-in luggage and even food on transatlantic flights (low-cost carrier Norwegian already charges for these).

Past vs present

Now to remove the rose-tinted sunglasses. Not everything was golden in the 50s – planes were bumpy, smoky, and pretty dangerous by comparison with today. Plus there was no compensation for flight delays or cancellations.

Air travel wasn’t cheap either. Back in the 50s, tickets cost a fortune – several months wages for the average worker – and were primarily a privilege of the wealthy. Modern mass travel is at least more affordable, even if airlines have ditched the free champagne and canapés.

Flying in the 50s was also pretty boring. Passengers entertained themselves by smoking, drinking and writing postcards handed out by flight attendants. Today’s long-haul flights usually include a full package of in-flight entertainment.

What do you think? Are airlines inflicting calculated misery on us poor passengers so we end up forking out for extras that make an unpleasant experience more bearable? Or does the drastic drop in prices, coupled with safer planes and better entertainment make up for the cramped conditions and lacklustre food?


For the catalogue of horrendous reasons you’ve detailed, we no longer fly. Train’s slower but far superior and I’d sooner paddle a canoe to the US than fly.

My passport expired soon after I retired. I’ve done enough foreign travel when I was working and now enjoy exploring places closer to home. It’s more environmentally friendly to take holidays in the UK and its a good opportunity to meet up with friends.

I haven’t flown for many years -chance would be a fine thing – but on the rare occasions I have been able to escape to Europe I have chosen the tunnel and found the experience excellent (when volcanoes don’t stop travel). (Two nights in a Brussels hotel without the option.) Flying has two major faults. Standing in queues at airports and the uncertainty of the way airport officials will react and throw up unexpected barriers – both physical and paper based. The second is space on the plane. Lufthansa was just about O.K. though tilting seats would have been anti-social to those behind. Cattle class is demeaning. This isn’t a transport service when people are denied space to move and to take reasonable luggage with them. It is even worse when one can not even sit comfortably. There ought to be some health and safety legislation in place to stop over-crowded planes. If the cost of flying increases as a result, then we have to accept that less passengers in any plane costs more to fly. At least the end result would be less frazzle at the end of any journey. However, it seems we are prepared to put up with modern flying, so we only have ourselves to blame if we are “put upon” to keep costs down.

” Flying in the 50s was also pretty boring. Passengers entertained themselves by smoking, drinking and writing postcards handed out by flight attendants”

It is a shame nobody had invented books, or the art of conversation. Incidentally for those planes in the 1950’s – that flew at lower levels than today – there was the chance of seeing scenery at a reasonable distance. My f-i-l has vivid recollections from flying down to Nairobi.

I did not fly until 1966 preceded by my brother who was flown in 1956 to Barts from Singapore. He took mother with him.

For me travel by ship or boat is still a very civilised experience – but not if you have to fly to get on-board.

It would be good if Which? Checked their facts prior to publication, flowers have been back in First since 01May.

No, I don’t enjoy flying any more, it feels like I’m being herded like cattle. I first flew in 1969, then flew a lot in the 70s and it was great then. No crowds at the airport, no security until the mid 70s, plenty of legroom and as kids we were invited into the cockpit by the captain. It felt like a special experience but it doesn’t any more. I’ve been on a flight recently and I’m hoping it will be my last, I’ve travelled a lot abroad and now I want to explore parts of Britain and France by car that I haven’t been to before, and visit Ireland which will be a first. People always say that the weather’s rubbish in Britain but I’ve had great weather on domestic holidays; maybe I was lucky, but I go away to experience the area, not to fry to a crisp in the sun and get drunk.

I’ve just remembered – I still have the in-flight magazine from my first flight, autographed by all the flight deck and cabin crew. You would never get that today!

Ian says:
20 May 2017

Golden age, my foot. Talking about the good old days means nothing to me or my generation. Air fares were way beyond what ordinary people could afford. Even a short trip over to Dublin in ’96 was still priced at £400 and BA’s fares were matched by Aer Lingus. Train and boat was the only option.

I can’t believe Which is claiming that BA’s onboard food and drink was “free” – what utter nonsense.

I’m delighted to travel with the locos. They provide me with great choice of destinations at a price I can afford and I can choose how my overall fare will be made up. If you must have food then bring it with you. The dreadful airport experience, especially in the UK, is the pits but nothing wrong with the actual flight experience.

“When it comes to flying these days, does anyone really anticipate or enjoy the flight anymore? Are the glory days of air travel well and truly over?”

My 1st flight was a charter flight for a school ski trip to Austria in about 1971. It differed little in terms of comfort or luxury (both were minimal) from the conditions we experience today.

My most luxurious flight ever was pretty much at the height of Ronald Regan’s strategic defense initiative program, when I returned from a meeting in the USA via a British Caledonian (“B-cal”) flight from Atlanta to the UK. As a UK “public servant” I was entitled to foreign office administrative grade terms & conditions, hence business class travel. Thanks to B-cal policy, we were allowed to enjoy free snacks and drinks in 1st class lounge before departure. On the flight we then had a rough parity of numbers between business class passengers and flight attendants, because there were hardly any passengers on that occasion.

These days, I don’t fly unless I have to – i.e. if my employer is sending me somewhere. Under those circumstances, I am getting paid for my time and trouble, so I don’t usually have too much to complain about. About the worst that I have experienced is very poor timekeeping by “fly-maybe”, on the days when problems have been experienced with their Birmingham to Glasgow shuttle service.

Short haul flights are just a means to get from A to B.
Long haul flights can be a totally different experience.
My wife looks forward to and enjoys every aspect of our trips from the journey to the airport through the lounge to the flight itself and on to our holiday destination.

I first flew 65 years ago (1952). In 1953 I flew from London (terminal in huts near the Bath Road) to Montreal. That was a Stratocruiser – quite spacious as I remember, with a bar downstairs. Overnight stop at Shannon, refuelling at Gander. No hurry! After that I had numerous flights in prop/propjet aircraft before the `Comets and 707s arrived. In the 1980s I flew transatlantic many times – usually 5 hours or so late. That was fairly common. These days the big airports are no fun at all! My most enjoyable recent flights have been from Gloucestershire (Staverton) airport to Jersey, and Newquay to the Scillies. Apart from that I prefer Brittany Ferries – or Eurotunnel.

JAL was our airline of choice for many flights Australia/UK. Punctuality great (not mentioned p27 Which Mag). Also good value including hotel and meals at Narita in transit. V. Good airline.

James Staniland says:
21 August 2019

I travelled in all classes of service on many different airlines and all over the world starting
in the 1960’s until the present time and I can confirm that airline service was much better.
Now top priority for airlines is keeping shareholders happy, forget customer service unless
traveling at very high fares in the premium cabins. Airlines made a profit and offered much
better service in Economy Class at reasonable fares in the 1960’s. All the hype about lower
fares and new airliners is a distraction. Airliners today are no faster or more comfortable
than in the 1960’s. For a very low fare being strapped in a seat with no legroom, a free
bottle of water and peanuts on short flights is tolerable but it becomes a more tortuous
and unhealthy experience flying long-haul. More efficient engines and materials used
on modern airliners created extra profit for airlines as has the trend for DIY reservations,
DIY boarding cards and DIY seat selection. Charging for a checked bag is an outrage
we have been forced to accept but that too has saved on overheads and increased the
profits. Maybe its time for less hype about trying to keep costs down by charging extra
fees and more effort put into providing a little more comfort, better customer service and
some added value for weary airline passengers. Militant airport security personnel and
overcrowded air-terminals undermined any last vestige of comfort or convenience when
flying anywhere decades ago. Since then the airline objective should have been to try
to improve the quality of air travel but sadly it seems to have been the reverse. We are
facing a money-making sausage machine mentality, we can only live in hope of some
improvement! Until then if you have the time travel by train, much more civilized…