What a Wonderful Life

A Look Back at Air Travel in the 1950s



Flying in the 1950s to early 60s.

By: Liam Gorbutt, Journalist

When you think of air travel today, you may think of crowded flights and that smelly guy next to you who seems to be having a war with you over the armrest.  Air travel was not always like this.  It was once a wonderful experience that was remembered for the ease and great service that was offered.

At first glance, we think of airplanes as something that is seen every day and is the norm for getting your family to Disneyland.  Yet, it was not always likes this.  In the ‘50s, if you were a nervous flyer or someone who just loved to smoke, well just light up.  In that age of air transportation, there were no regulations for smoking in public places.  One could simply smoke anywhere such as restaurants, offices, and movie theaters, so the airplane was no special case.  Later on in the ‘50s, the major airlines created smoking areas (as if it mattered as you’re in an airtight, flying tin can).  Nowadays, you are not allowed to smoke on any major airline, let alone public places (you may still smoke on private planes; however, this is at the discretion of the owner).

As previously mentioned, flying on a plane was once an uncommon occurrence, so it was treated as a special vacation for families.  The father would wear a properly fitted suit with a tie and maybe a pocket square and French cufflink shirts were popular form of dress.   The mother would wear a dress and the children would be dressed in similar clothing based on their gender.

Imagine getting on your flight from San Francisco to Detroit to have a well-trained stewardess come up to you and ask for your choice of entre, steak or fish.  Today, you would be lucky to get a bag of cheapo peanuts and ginger ale.  This was no Outback Steakhouse steak either.  This was farm fresh (not really, but fresh for the time period).

Speaking of grade A treatment, Pan America, or Pan Am, was the pioneer of passenger flights.  It was once one of the most well-known airlines for its service and affordability.  Founded in 1927 under the slogan “The World’s Most Experienced Airline” in Key West, Florida, throughout the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s the airline grew into one of the biggest travel empires of its time.  Slowly, Pan Am began to lose business in the 1970s as they could not maintain their service and stay in business.  By December of 1991 the company closed its doors for good.

Today, there is the TSA to protect us from terrorists and the likelihood of attack.  In the ‘50s, there was no TSA.  Imagine getting to the airport, dropping your bags off, buying an insurance policy right out of a machine, and then going to a lounge to have a cocktail of your choice, or, better yet, getting right on your plane.  No x-ray scanner to make you feel like you’re under a microscope, no pat downs, and best of all you could arrive five minutes before the plane takes off and still make your plane. Your family could even go to the gate to see you off. WOW!

Imagine living in the ‘50s and going on a plane to Madrid, Spain.  You get in your ‘55 Ford sedan with your beautiful wife and kids and drive to JFK International Airport.  The flight leaves in an hour, so you cruise.  You make it to the airport and walk in and check your bag.  Your wife fixes little Timmy’s hair as you head to the bar and get an Old Fashioned and then you bring your family to the plane, shaking hands with your friend who came to see you off.  You get on the plane and eat your salmon with your wife and kids and think, “What a wonderful life.”