Fliers wax nostalgic about golden age of air travel
By Ben Mutzabaugh, USA TODAY
Some of the airlines' busiest days of the year — before and after Thanksgiving — are just around the corner.
About 24 million people will head to an airport this year to catch a flight, the nation's airline industry trade group, the Air Transport Association, estimates. And as in every year, many of them will gripe. Whether it's fees, crowded planes, no food or surly service, people will complain about the current state of air travel.
They'll talk wistfully about the good old days of flying, of a bygone era when a glamorous stewardess delivered white-glove service with a smile, they had meals with real silverware and a courtesy cocktail was offered free on such carriers as Pan Am, TWA, Braniff or Eastern.
The so-called golden age of air travel in the 1950s, '60s and '70s has passed, they'll say, just as those airlines have.
But has it? No, say some veteran fliers and industry analysts. With historically affordable fares to nearly everywhere, greater options for service if you're willing to pay, and new information and entertainment technology, there's never been a better time to fly, they say.
"We are definitely currently in a golden age of travel," says Nick Yassukovich, 43, a tax adviser who has spent most of his life living in Europe. "There are so many improvements in air travel these days compared to travel in the past that they far, far outweigh the degradations in the travel experience. This is particularly the case for premium travelers, but I would still say that it is very valid for coach passengers."
He's not the only veteran flier who says this.
"As someone who travels about 200,000 miles per year, I think that this is the golden age of air travel," says David Julias, 43, of Reston, Va.
Julias may be a bit biased. He works in an aviation-related field for a travel technology company that deals with airline reservations.
"Sure," he says, "the aristocracy that once surrounded air travel is gone, (but) the mainstream aspect of air travel," affordability to so many, makes this a better time.
"I am now able to know the streets and restaurants of Singapore, London and Dubai as well — if not better — than I know New York, Miami and Chicago," Julias says.
Where's the disconnect? How, in an era in which bashing airline service has become a national pastime, could there be travelers who say things have never been better?
Henry Harteveldt, a San Francisco-based travel analyst at Forrester Research, says most fliers don't realize how good — and fast — they have it today.
"It was glamorous," Harteveldt says of air travel of yesteryear. But, he says, "airplane travel was slower, and it was more expensive compared to today. When people traveled long distances, they — for the most part — took trains or buses domestically, if they didn't drive. Or they sailed across to Europe or to Asia."
Greg Lindsay, an aviation writer and co-author of the upcoming book Aerotropolis, which chronicles the intersection of aviation, globalization and cities, is more blunt.
"The good old days never were — they never existed," Lindsay says. "We imagine the space and what not, but seats weren't as good. The meals weren't that great. We had no seatback video. And we were paying thousands of dollars per ticket. These are the things we sort of forget — or never experienced, because we're too young."
Among the differences between now and the good old days:
People grouse about high fares. Fueling the complaints are an array of fees imposed in the last three years for services that used to be included in the price of a ticket.
But by historic standards, we're paying less to travel than any time in recent memory, according to Air Transport Association figures.
In 1978, the year the government deregulated the airline industry to make it more competitive, average fares paid by fliers came out to about 8.49 cents for every mile flown, association figures show. Adjusted for inflation, that comes out to 27.9 cents a mile in today's dollars. In 2009, customers paid an average 12.1 cents for each mile flown, less than half what they paid in 1978, with inflation taken into account. During that time, the association says, the number of people flying has almost tripled, from 275 million annual passengers to 704 million.
Quality of flight
Around half of all domestic flights are on unpopular regional jets, and if fliers want a good seat, they often have to pay extra for it, just as they do to check their luggage.
"Until the 1970s, you couldn't get seat assignments in advance," analyst Harteveldt says. "You had to go to the airport. They took little stickers off seat-diagrams of the airplane and gave it to you, and you got on the plane. That's how they determined your seat.
"At the same time," he says, "you were still carrying paper tickets, and you often had to change from one airline to another. In some cases, you could check your bag all the way through, and in some cases, you couldn't."
On a more basic level, flights are faster and safer.
When now-defunct Pan Am began its "Flying Clippers" service in the 1930s, for example, customers may have received service from white-jacketed waiters, but Lindsay points out that it required some 14 hours and multiple stops to go from New York to Lisbon.
Julias, the fare analyst from Virginia, says, "Those of an older generation can only marvel at the ability to fly to Asia for a one-day meeting or to London for a breakfast meeting, only to return that afternoon. Those things simply did not happen 25 years ago."
And they can get there more safely, Harteveldt says. "The reliability of planes wasn't always as good as it is now," he says. "It's much safer to fly today."
In the period from 1965-69, there were 39 accidents involving fatalities on scheduled commercial flights operated by U.S. airlines. In 2005-09, there were six, according to data from the Air Transport Association.
Whether between flight times or carriers, customers have never had it so good.
Travelers from New York to South Florida, for example, can pick from dozens of daily flights from more than a half-dozen airport combinations. They can go in coach, expanded coach, business-class or first-class seats.
They can also choose to carry basic belongings with them or pay extra to take more in the plane's cargo hold. Or they can choose an airline that doesn't charge extra to check their bag, such as Southwest or JetBlue.
Passengers can also have a variety of food and beverages in many cases to suit them if they're willing to pay, or simply snack on pretzels and a soft drink for free.
All these choices, along with lower fares, are directly or indirectly a result of the deregulation of the airlines in 1978 and the competition that it fostered. In the good old days, the government set both routes and fares for airlines.
"Deregulation," Harteveldt says, "opened up the skies not only to airlines to be more competitive, but to the passenger."
Fliers 20, 30 or 40 years ago didn't have live television, on-demand movies, a choice of music, Wi-Fi or lie-flat seats as they do today.
Yes, some of these amenities sometimes require paying extra, but they're a step up from the days when in-flight entertainment was a movie.
Frequent traveler C. Whitney Mandel, 47, of Washington, remembers when in-flight movies were on old-fashioned projectors with reels.
"All of a sudden, you go to (video), and you thought, 'Oh, wow! That's amazing,' " he says.
Some big sources of disgruntlement now come before fliers board the plane: lines because there aren't enough airline personnel on hand to help fliers check in, or in Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security lines, which didn't exist in the good old days.
Harteveldt says that during the past decade, passengers have been forced to accept an "inexcusable" decline in comfort and staffing at many U.S. carriers. "Airlines do need to do a better job of restoring dignity to economy class," he says.
"What I really miss is the civility," he says. "I think that this is a challenge for the airlines — and also the TSA. We cannot compromise on security. There's got to be a way to make the process more efficient and allow people to maintain their dignity."
But, Harteveldt also says, many people tend to look at what they think was a golden age of flying with rose-colored glasses that tint their view of what service on now-defunct airlines was really like.
"Nostalgia is always wonderful," he says. "I remember my dad belonged to the 'We Hate Eastern Airlines' club, W-H-E-A-L. Well, now someone is trying to restart Eastern Airlines' brand. And I still talk to people who will say, 'Oh, Eastern Airlines was wonderful!' That's certainly not what a lot of people thought back then."