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The golden age of flight - when flying was a luxury

Photos in graphic from the National Air and Space MuseumThe golden age of aviation, spanning the 1930s through the 1960s, was a time when air travel was a rare and exciting privilege. Before the advent of modern jetliners and budget airlines, taking to the sky was an experience reserved for the wealthy and the adventurous. This era was characterized by elegant aircraft designs, superior customer service and the glamorous allure of air travel.Glendale, California around 1932, from the National Air and Space Museum The Birth of Commercial Flight The roots of the golden age can be traced back to the early 20th century, with the first commercial flights operated by companies like Trans World Airlines and Pan American Airways. These early flights were primarily used for mail delivery and occasional passenger service, but the potential for regular air travel was evident. Prior to that luxury travel was reserved to cruise liners and airships. Of course, these were only available to the elite in society and the very wealthy. These Zeppelin airships were the epitome of luxury and decadence and were designed to take passengers across the Atlantic smoothly and serenely through the clouds. The Hindenburg was the most famous due to the tragic accident in 1936. As technology advanced and safety improved, more people began to take to the skies. In the US, most people still traveled by train or bus to travel long distances as flying was very expensive. The 1930s saw the introduction of larger, more comfortable aircraft like the DC-2 and the Lockheed Electra, which made air travel more accessible and enjoyable for passengers. According to the National Air and Space Museum, in 1929 only 6,000 passengers used air transport whereas in 1934 passenger numbers had grown to more than 450,000. Furthermore, in 1938 that number had grown to 1.2 million, so the airline industry grew massively with demand. Luxury and Glamour in the Skies The golden age of aviation was synonymous with luxury and glamour. Airlines went to great lengths to make flying a sophisticated and enjoyable experience. They had competition from the cruise line industry so marketed themselves to that kind of audience. Still at the time although there was a huge demand, only the wealthy traveled by plane and it was seen as a very exclusive and glamorous experience. Passengers were often business people or those going for a special once-in-a-lifetime trip. Passengers could expect high-quality 5-course meals prepared by gourmet chefs and no expense was spared. The finest caviar was served in ice sculptures. Roast beef and lobster were carved tableside on a silver trolley. French cheese and the finest desserts were also served. Champagne and the finest French wines were abundant. The flight attendants were young and glamorous, wearing designer uniforms with hats and gloves and seen as the epitome of elegance. They had to be single, weigh between 100 and 118 lbs, and retire by the age of 30. They offered an attentive service to their guests, catering to their every whim. Smoking was permitted onboard then, so it was not unusual for flight attendants to hand out cigarettes or cigars and light them.RELATED STORIES:Pan Am - an icon of the golden days of aviationThe history of the flight attendant - an evolving role in aviation Air travel was also a very social event. Celebrities and the rich were there to be seen and everyone would dress up to the nines. Smart suits, hats, cocktail dresses and fancy jewelry were the order of the day. Everyone dressed up for the occasion as it was all part of the luxury experience. The cabins were designed to encourage mingling and conversation, with spacious seating arrangements. Most had cocktail bars and some even had piano lounges. There were also smoking lounges, for the men. Entertaining and indulging in the lavish food and drinks on offer was expected. Flying was seen as a chance to rub shoulders with the wealthy and influential, making it a status symbol and a must-do. Notable Aircraft of the Era Several aircraft models became iconic during the golden age of aviation. The DC-3, introduced in the late 1930s, was a workhorse of the skies, known for its reliability and adaptability to operate from short runways. It revolutionized air travel by making it more affordable and accessible. The DC-2, which preceded the DC-3, was also a significant aircraft. It featured a pressurized cabin and could carry up to 21 passengers, making it the first practical airliner for long-haul flights. The Lockheed Constellation and the Douglas DC-6 were other notable aircraft of the era. Known as the "Connie" and the "DC-6," respectively, these planes were the first to feature tailfins and were capable of transcontinental flights. The de Havilland Comet was the world's first commercial jetliner. It debuted in 1952 and had larger windows, a pressurized cabin and had a very comfortable and quiet cabin. Other popular aircraft of the time were the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8 introduced in the 1950s. The End of an Era During the 1950s, it was still seen as the ultimate luxury but still unaccessible to the majority. In the 1960s, there were changes in society and airlines marketed their young single flight attendants to attract business executives who were mostly men. By the 1970s, things were changing again, with social and economic changes. The airlines were attracting the masses and offering cheaper fares, so that almost anyone could travel. The golden age of aviation came to an end with the advent of jet travel in the 1950s and 1960s. The introduction of faster and more efficient jetliners made air travel more accessible to the masses, ending the era of luxury and glamour. The main objective of the airlines was to fill to capacity and gone were the comfortable, roomy seats and bars and lounges. So too, was were the 5-course meals and abundant drinks, in favor of cost-cutting and unsavory airline meals. While modern air travel may lack the exclusivity and elegance of the golden age, it has brought the wonders of flight to millions more people. The golden age serves as a reminder of a time when taking to the skies was a truly special experience.
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