Were the 50s and 60s really The Golden Age for air travel?
The 50s and 60s are often referred to as ’The Golden Age‘ of air travel. Commercial aviation had existed before the second world war, but it really got into its stride in the 50s. It was new, exciting and for some years, an exclusive way to travel. Aircraft designs were developing fast (not all were successful – some were disastrous); the destinations were exotic, and the passengers often glamorous. The pilots, many of whom had flown in the war, were respected professionals living a life many envied.
My career as a commercial pilot began in 1958 with British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and spanned 44 years until 2002. (I had learnt to fly whilst at school and gained my RAF ‘wings’ during two years of National Service). Thus, whilst I was part of that ’golden era‘, my career lasted well into the ‘modern age’.
Exclusivity brought several benefits to air travel 60-odd years ago. Tickets were costly leading to fewer passengers and more space and legroom even for the ‘cheap seats’. The ratio of cabin crew to passengers was much higher and the ‘air hostess’ treated passengers as the airline’s guests. These sometimes-formidable ladies, were able to lavish attention on the 70 to 100 passengers. The service was complimentary and to very high standards. In first class meals were actually cooked on board and achieving a soft-boiled egg for breakfast was a great art in a cabin at an equivalent pressure height of 8,000 feet.
Post-war aviation fell at time of great innovation and design. Everything about air transport felt the effect of this rapid development, from the machines we were flying to the way the cabin looked. From the outfits the cabin crew wore, through to the silverware and china the passengers used all were top-of-the-range. The passengers actually ‘dressed up’ before they travelled – no tracksuits then!
However, to remember those early days as a vintage travel brochure come to life would be incorrect. Compared to now, air travel in the 50s and 60s was not only expensive, but was also potentially dangerous, sometimes smoky, and at times boring. The Golden Age certainly had its downsides.
For Golden Age passengers a significant hurdle was expense. I recall an item in a Qantas inflight magazine which suggested that, in the 60s, a worker on the average Australian wage would need to work for three months to pay for a flight from Sydney to London. The equivalent time today would be measured in one or two weeks.
It was an era before package holidays and the rise in low cost airlines. An air ticket was just too expensive for most people. Later the advent of the ‘wide bodies’, led by the Boeing 747 and followed by the Lockheed Tristar and Douglas DC10 produced many more seats at a substantially lower operating cost. All those extra seats needed to be filled and airlines started to offer discounted fares. More recently, South West Airlines in the USA developed the concept of the ‘budget airline’ where costs were reduced to a minimum and passengers were provided with little more than a seat with everything else requiring extra money.
Another feature of 1950s-60s flying was boredom. Journeys took a long time, often with many stops en-route. Once the view from the window had been admired there was not all that much to do. Time could pass slowly but snoozing and the inflight meal service provided welcome breaks. Magazines and newspapers were provided to passengers, and a good long book was useful. The fortunate found themselves sitting next to someone with interesting conversation. Inevitably there was also drinking and smoking.
Smoking and drinking
On a flight from London to New York the cliché joke was: “When you can’t see across the flight deck we must be close to top of descent”! Smoking was allowed on the flight deck as well as the cabin – cigarettes, pipes and even cigars were allowed once in flight. After an eight-hour flight, during which there was little else for passengers to do but snooze, read, chat, drink and smoke, the atmosphere became fairly rich.
Alcohol on board was free and drinking and chatting was good entertainment. Some passengers did have too much to drink and the elevated cabin altitude made alcohol more potent. Remarkably it was quite rare for there to be drunken behaviour – the age of drunken airborne stag and hen parties was long in the future.
Today passengers can rest assured that air travel in an established airline is the safest form of public transport. In fact, figures out last week hailed 2017 as the safest year in history for commercial airlines. It is no wonder. Modern safety levels far exceed those of the 1950s and 1960s, when crash landings, structural failures, injuries from turbulence and mid-air collisions were prevalent. At current safety levels, you would need to be continuously airborne for two and a half average lifetimes of 75 years, to be statistically liable to be involved in an accident!
Back in the 50s and 60s the aircraft technology was new and rules and regulations about safe operation and maintenance were also emerging. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) was founded in 1944 and its rules, procedures and regulations were starting to have effect. During the First World War aviation developed a virtuous safety circle. When an accident or even a serious incident happens, it is thoroughly investigated in detail and the causes established. Recommendations for improvements in design, operating procedures or crew techniques are published. These are then adopted for future aircraft designs, operating procedures and crew drills. Aviation has been continually learning lessons from the past and other safety critical industries are starting to copy it.
In the 50s and 60s some (not all) of the wartime pilots operated in their own, often eccentric, styles. The advent of Crew Resource Management (CRM) has ensured all pilots, no matter how senior, operate in a similar manner and to common standards. CRM also ensures that all members of an aircraft crew are equally aware of safety requirements.
Learning from the bitter lessons of past accidents, cabins have been redesigned with safety in mind. In the 50s and 60s luxury and style were the priority; there were hard, sharp edges, flammable seats and furnishings, even glass dividing screens. Modern cabins have improved seating standards, seatbelts, overhead lockers, lighting etc. making the cabin a much safer place in an accident.
Airline management styles
The race to reduce costs has had adverse effects on aviation. In some cases, modern airline managements regard staff as ‘production units’ with the emphasis on maximum work for minimum cost. This attitude bears down particularly hard on flight crews often operating under stressful circumstances and on fatiguing schedules.
Managements in the 50s and 60s were more benign. In BOAC the main working unit in operations was the fleet. Each aircraft type had a flight manager who was responsible for not only the flight deck crews but also the cabin crew on that type. He also liaised with the hangar floor. There was a department called ‘personnel’ but it had nowhere near the power and influence of human resources. BOAC even had a medical department dedicated to maintaining the good physical and mental health of its flight deck and cabin crews.
The result was that each aircraft type was operated by a fairly cohesive group, often well known to each other. The relatively small fleet size encouraged this, and the effect of this crew bonding was apparent in the way the passengers were treated. With Flight Time Limitations in their infancy, crews would often voluntarily substantially extend duty hours.
In the days of open flight deck doors, the captain and flight deck crew were very much part of the PR process and, at the captain’s discretion, flight deck visits were generally encouraged. There was even a ‘Junior Jet Club’ and its young members were eager to get their ‘log book’ signed by the captain.
The rewards of the job
For my first year of employment – spent mostly on the ground doing a mini university course on Navigation, BOAC paid me just £50 a month – as a ‘cadet pilot’. Once qualified the salary rose slowly but steadily with seniority and rank. However, when, after 18 years I achieved my first command on the Boeing 747 my salary did not exceed £7,000 pa by Government command.
Under the rules of the 19th century Railways Act airlines had to provide both free accommodation and sustenance to crew when away from base. Some accommodation was fairly basic, such as the BOAC rest house in Karachi which was a converted barracks for the 19th century British Army of India. But later, in Singapore we stayed in the Raffles, then rather run down, but still splendid. In most places meals were free but taken at the accommodation. Because of this the crew’s cohesion was actually improved by eating together. Initially only on the North Atlantic routes, were crews were given cash allowances – in the 50s this was (US)$10 per day.
One other oddity in BOAC was the policy at some destinations of having the flight deck and cabin crews staying in different hotels. Indeed, in other places the captain would stay in yet another (superior) hotel, although the more sociable captains would trek across town to join their crews.
Was it a Golden Age?
It was not a mass transport industry. There was more time, more attention, more space and more glamour than today. Some might say of the passengers that unless you were a chain smoking, alcohol swigging bookworm, then flying in a sealed aircraft breathing second hand smoke was not the most pleasant way to travel. But that would be unfair, passengers were treated very much as individuals and properly considered with all that this implies. They probably disembarked in a better frame of mind than today’s tightly packaged people.
In this so-called Golden Age the crews were also treated more as individuals and cared for, in all respects. The financial rewards in the cabin and the junior ranks of the flight deck were not immense, although the senior captains were comparatively well off. But all were part of a relatively new and exciting travel industry. Above all it was FUN.
Was it a Golden Age? On balance maybe not – perhaps just silver.