Ask anyone who flew before 1978 about the golden age of air travel, and they probably won’t hesitate to tell you about the glories of pre-deregulation flying.
“Passengers dressed up to fly, hot meals were served on china with stainless steel utensils, name cards were hand-printed and placed on the headrest of my seat, so I knew when boarding where I was seated,” remembered Roxana Lewis, a travel agent from Beverly Hills, Calif. “I experienced it.”
But some passengers and industry observers beg to differ. They say that now is the golden age.
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Contrarian point of view
“Flying is cheap, astonishingly safe, and there are planes going virtually everywhere, all the time,” said Patrick Smith, one of the leading voices countering the conventional wisdom that air travel was better before 1978.
Smith has been arguing his case for the better part of a decade, in a regular column on Salon.com, but he acknowledges that it’s been a struggle. “People have it cemented in their minds that flying is a tedious and expensive experience,” he said.
They also believe the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, which removed significant government controls from the U.S. airline industry, is essentially to blame for bringing the golden age to a screeching halt.
But is the golden age past or present?
The question came to the forefront recently, when an icon of pre-deregulation air travel, the first Boeing 747 to ferry commercial passengers, was unceremoniously sent to a South Korean junkyard.
The Trippe, which was named after Pan Am’s founder Juan Trippe, was scrapped after being used as an aviation-themed restaurant.
Nostalgia versus reality
“Nostalgia always tints our memories with a golden hue,” said Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst at Forrester Research.
Harteveldt, who can remember flying pre-deregulation, says he sees both sides of the debate.
“Certainly, in terms of amenities and attention to service, the pre-deregulation airline industry was far better from what we have today,” he said. “I remember flying Braniff International as a kid from New York to visit my grandparents in Dallas. The airline served steak sandwiches in coach as a snack. I remember when American, United, TWA, Braniff, and Continental had lounges in coach on their wide-body jets — and yes, I remember American's piano lounge on the 747.”
Flying was more civilized, even for passengers seated in coach, which had 34 inches of seat pitch back then (pitch is an industry term for the distance between seats). Today’s economy class seats offer 32 inches — and often far less.
Harteveldt stops short of calling today the golden age.
“But there are many more conveniences,” he added. “We’re able to get to more places on a single airline, and often with just once connection. We can reach many more international destinations nonstop from the U.S. than in the pre-deregulated era, thanks to making more cities international gateways. It’s certainly more affordable to fly today.”
But for some passengers, there’s no question: The good old days are long gone.
“You're kidding, right?” said Nathan Sprenger, who works for a trade association in Washington, when asked if he thought flying is better today than in years past. “Who in their right mind thinks this is the golden age of air travel? It's more expensive than it was five to 10 years ago, they charge for everything, and service and lack of food are appalling.”
Fares — and service — slip
True, fees and surcharges are up dramatically, and in some markets, so are airfares. Hilary Stockton, an editor for the website TravelSort, recently quantified the losses and gains in an infographic on her site. When adjusted for inflation, airfares are significantly lower — but it’s also undeniable that service and amenities have slipped since deregulation, the chart shows.
“It really depends on how you define golden age,” said Stockton. “Do you define it in terms of service and comfort, or in terms of affordability?”
Indeed, industry-watchers like Seth Kaplan, a managing partner for the trade publication Airline Weekly, say these are the best days for one simple reason: Almost anyone can travel by air.
“The cheapest plane tickets are about as cheap as ever, meaning hundreds of millions of people around the world get to fly each year who literally wouldn’t be able to if not for — especially — low-cost carriers and others who have to compete with them,” he said.
Which isn’t to say the amenities have vanished. They are available, for a price.
“People with more means can experience levels of luxury that no one could have imagined before 1978, [such as] showers and private sleeper suites aboard an Emirates A380,” he added.
Aviation experts don’t necessarily agree on this issue. Dan Pimentel, the editor of Airplanista Magazine, believes the golden age of air travel ended years ago, “when Pan Am Clippers flew over the Pacific to Hawaii and Japan, with passengers enjoying fine china, bed turndown service, and a flying experience more akin to cruise ship travel.”
He says commercial air travel today is a shadow of its former self.
“Today, flying is faster but far less personal. We are seat occupants, and airlines — while trying to not make their line seem unfriendly — care about saving fuel, cutting every corner and making profits through additional fees such as those generated when checking baggage,” he said.
One thing is certain: Flying in 2010 is far different than it was in 1978. Or 1948.
Some amenities were unimaginable a few decades ago. Take in-flight Internet connections, for example. Eric Sedransk, an entrepreneur who runs a website for golfers called TheEarlyBirdie.com, wouldn’t turn the clock back by more than three decades because he’d lose his onboard connection.
“Due to the advances in technology, I am able to work and travel all at the same time,” he said. “I no longer need to stress about a six-hour flight interrupting my workload and affecting my business. I purposely only book flights that offer Wi-Fi, as I constantly need to have access to my website and communicate with my customers.”
Other advances include live television in every seatback, even in economy class. And one other important one.
“No smoking,” said Patricia Brown, a frequent traveler based in Sacramento, Calif. “Did they really believe you could ever have a smoking and no-smoking section on an airplane?”
Passengers are different, too.
“People have gotten much bigger in the last 40 years,” said Barbara DesChamps, author of “It’s In The Bag: The Complete Guide to Lightweight Travel.” “That makes coach travel a claustrophobic experience.”
With or without deregulation, the airline industry would have evolved. And people would have changed. Passengers and industry-watchers might still have the Golden Age debate, but they’d just be asking a different set of questions.
In the end, say observers, it is probably pointless to wonder if the airline industry’s best days are behind it. It is particularly meaningless to yearn for a time when air carriers competed based on service, not price.
Times change, says Harlan Platt, a finance professor at Northeastern University. It's inevitable.
“We have become a very casual society,” he said. “Air travel today has entered the Levi era — in the same token that Steve Jobs wears Levi's and a turtleneck to work versus a suit, travel has gone from luxury liners where people wait on you to, $29 and $49 tickets on AirTran and Southwest.”